top of page

5 methods to create your own lines

There are plenty of things to practice as a jazz musician—between licks, transcription, ear training and more. But one of the most common things we practice is improvisation. But when it comes to improvising, do you ever feel like your lines are stale? Or when it’s your turn to take a solo, you’re not sure what’s going to come out?

Today we’re going to talk about a few different ways you can hone your skills and create your own lines, and we’ll talk through a few exercises from our Line Construction Exercises PDF package. These are some great exercises to help you feel like you’re truly improvising on your own. If you like these exercises, make sure to check out the full PDF for more.

So let’s jump in!


Phrase variation exercise

Rhythm fill-in exercise

Etude fill-in exercise

Modal sequencing

Voice leading fill-in exercise

Phrase variation exercise

One of the best things you can do when you find a phrase you like is to practice your own variations on it—but sometimes that’s easier said than done.

Let’s check out this first example from the PDF package.

Jazz phrase variation exercise for practice

Our PDF has examples with a bunch of different phrases on common chord progressions. So first we’ll start by going through a phrase that’s on a ii-V-I, since that’s the most common chord progression in jazz.

Now for us to play variations on this, we’re going to break it down so we know what’s going on. Then we can figure out how we can do our own variations from there.

Starting right off, we see a big four-note enclosure that encloses the seventh of this Cm7 chord. From there, we’ll play up the arpeggio of the Cm7, playing all diatonic notes in the next measure, except for adding a sharp 11 on that F7. Then we’ll play diatonic over the Bbmaj7, with a nice triplet thrown in for rhythmic variation.

Let’s check out one of the variations we made in the book. You can check out this example here, but we have a bunch of variations written out, which will help you create your own.

Jazz practice phrase variation exercise explained

Comparing these two phrases, you can see in the second phrase that for this variation, we still have an enclosure, but it’s a different type than we had in the first phrase. From there, we’re playing the same arpeggio notes, but the last note is up an octave on the F7. We land on the same note, but from there, we do something different—we play an enclosure and some diatonic connections to bring us into the same note on the Bbmaj7 when we land on beat 1. So we land on that third and play pretty much the same thing, we just change one note, jumping down an octave instead of down to the fifth for a bit of variation.

These differences are pretty subtle, but we can make them more abstract, too. Here’s a variation with less in common.

Jazz variation on a phrase exercise

A great way to take a phrase like this and create your own variations is to take bits and pieces that you keep the same, while you improvise over other parts.

One way we can go about this is with fill-in exercises. With these you can give yourself a visual of parts of the phrase and then highlight the parts you have to fill in on your own with blank spaces.

Let’s check out an example of a fill-in exercise that’s in this download. To hear what Chad plays over the fill-in sections, check out our accompanying video.

jazz phrase variation fill in exercise

When you’re playing these fill-in exercises, there really is no right or wrong. But if you want to take the most melodic approach, you can try to fill in the gaps with notes that fit into the scale that harmonically matches that chord. Like if you’re playing over Cm7, try playing notes from the C Dorian scale. But when you do this, it’s important to remember the role that rhythm plays. So as you play through this, make sure to play along with a metronome or backing track.

Using Dorian mode scale over a minor chord

Rhythm Fill-in Exercises

Speaking of rhythm, practicing your rhythm is an often-overlooked strategy to help you level up your lines.

This next exercise is a bit harder than it looks, but the idea is very simple. For section two in the PDF, we get into rhythm fill-in exercises. And the best place for us to start is to just pick a rhythm that you can play confidently and play that single chord. Then you can pick notes that fit inside that chord diatonically. Like if we’re playing in Bb major, start by playing notes in the Bb major scale.

Rhythm fill in exercise for jazz musician practice

The trick with this exercise is that it is difficult to make it feel melodic. So the one solution you’ll see in the first example is that you can start and end your phrases with chord tones. This will help give it some melodic grounding.

In the first phrase, we see this rhythm that we’re going to repeat. Then we’ll move on to the second phrase, where you’ll see the same rhythm with different notes.

Rhytym fill in exercise with variation

Once you’re comfortable with playing over one chord, it can be helpful to go through a cycle of fourths, so that you can practice playing in all 12 keys. Here’s a few lines from an exercise in the PDF that goes through all 12 keys through the circle of fourths, just going through major chords, but we do go through dominant chords and minor chords as well, which is a really great thing to practice.

jazz chord rhythm fill in exercise

Something you can do is apply this concept to a full standard—which can be a great way to make sure you’re able to nail the changes while thinking rhythmically. And even if these exercises don’t sound hip, it’s important to practice them to make you a better player. As simple as this exercise seems, it’s one that Chad uses regularly as part of his practice, since it’s great for working on your line building and improvisation.

Here’s an example of a continuous rhythm applied to the standard “All the Things You Are,” from our PDF package. If you want to see more like this, check out our Line Construction Exercises PDF.

Rhythm exercise over all the things you are jazz standard

Etude fill-in exercise

Another helpful exercise is taking turns reading and improvising from a standard, solo transcription or an etude written over a standard set of changes. You’ll start by playing the first bar as it’s written. Then you’ll improvise over the next bar, going back to playing what’s written on the third bar, and so on. This will help you learn how to fit your phrases into what’s already written, which forces you to be intentional about the lines you create.

Of course you can do this on your own, but here’s an example from the PDF where we’ll have half the etudes with written content and the other half left blank for you to fill in on your own. This tune is “Autumn Trees,” so these changes will probably look familiar.

Etude fill in exercise over autumn leaves trees jazz standard
Etude fill in exercise over autumn trees standard

Modal sequencing

Our fourth exercise is really beneficial when it comes to making your own lines. Anytime you find a phrase that sits inside a single tonality and uses a single scale, it will be good for this exercise.

What we’re going to do is take the phrase through the modes by sequencing it up one note at a time in the scale. So if a line goes C - G - A - B - C, we’ll bump that up to D - A - B - C - D and E - B - C - D - E, and so on. If you do this through the whole scale, you’ll start to internalize the language a lot more and it will help you see how a line feels in different registers of a tonality.

jazz modal sequencing exercise

Here’s an example from our PDF package where we sequence a nice phrase up through the modal system.

Jazz modal sequence on Ionian and Dorian modes
Jazz modal sequence on phrygian and lydian modes
Jazz modal sequence on mixolydian and aeolian modes

Voice leading fill-in exercises

For our fifth and final exercise, we’ll look at voice leading fill-in exercises.

The most important part of a line is typically where it goes from beat four to beat one of the next measure, because wherever we have chords changing, we want to be playing melodically and landing on chord tones (or at least being aware of what those chord tones are so we can play the most melodically).

Something we can do is write out a plan for moving from beat four into beat one over a common chord progression. In our PDF, we go through 10 different chord progressions that are useful. But today, we’ll look at an example over a ii-V-I, which is kind of a backbone for jazz.

On this exercise we’ll check out an example where the voice leading grid is worked out for you. When you play through this, you’ll notice that it automatically becomes melodic, since it’s planned out in relation to the harmony. Ultimately, you want to be able to improvise this on your own, but getting a hang of these exercises can help you spot those opportunities when you’re soloing and execute on them.

When you’re filling in the gaps on a voice leading exercise, you can play continuous eighth notes, because you want to be able to practice connecting your own eighth notes into these solid voice leading grids.

For this example, Chad goes through with continuous eighth notes between, but eventually you can get to the point where you add in triplets and sixteenth notes as well.

Jazz voice leading fill in exercise

Thanks for joining us today, hope this helps you as you grow your improv skills. Make sure to check out our PDF package Line Construction Exercises and watch our accompanying video. Now go make your own lines!

411 views0 comments