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5 Techniques for More Interesting Lines

When you start as an improviser, playing anything and being able to stay in the scale is exciting in itself. But after a while, you might notice that your lines become a bit stale and predictable. Maybe you’re reverting to some of the same patterns, or maybe you’re falling into a rut and not sure how to bring your playing to the next level.

If that sounds like you, this is the blog for you! Today, we’re going to cover 5 techniques that you can use for more interesting lines.

Before we get started, make sure to check out our video on YouTube with Cecil Alexander as he runs through the concepts in this blog. Plus, if you want to work on these techniques and more, you’ll want to check out Cecil’s latest PDF resource with Jazz Lesson Videos: 56 Hit Licks.

And with that, it’s time to jam!


Melodic cells

Compound cells

Side slipping

Third substitutions

Fixed melodic cells

Melodic Cells

We’ve talked a bit about melodic cells before on the blog—specifically as a great way to come in and out of a tonality. It can help you move through a key in a really coherent way, by giving the listener something to latch on to.

Basically, a melodic cell is a melodic fragment of 3 to 8 notes that you can transpose and shift through the key. One common melodic cell that we’ve covered a few times is the 1, 2, 3, 5 cell. We talked a bit about how Coltrane used this cell to great effect in his classic tune “Giant Steps.”

Using melodic cells in jazz

Against a Cmaj7 chord, our 1, 2, 3, 5 cell would be C, D, E, and G. Then you can effectively get this 1, 2, 3, 5 shape anywhere in the scale, off of any degree. If we take it from the fifth, we get G, A, B, and D—or against the Cmaj7 chord, that’s 5, 6, 7, 9. You can also think of this as using this sequence with the modes of the major scale. But this technique allows us to highlight some of the different tensions and get a bit more color with the use of that melodic cell.

Now our first phrase is going to utilize both the cell starting on the root and the fifth against a Cmaj7 chord.

Now let's check out the phrase.

1 2 3 5 melodic cell exercise for jazz music

We’ll start with the cell starting from the 5, so that’s G, A, B, and D. Then the second half of the first measure, we’re going to go down to the b9, as part of a chromatic approach into the root. Once we get to the root, we go up the C major 1, 2, 3, 5, or C, D, E, G. From there we continue up the scale to the seventh, with a chromatic approach into the sixth—from B, G#, and A, as we leap to the D, which is the 9 of Cmaj7. Then we’ll come down a sort of E minor pentatonic shape—D, B, A, and G, then we have a chromatic approach into the 3, which is just a really common bebop cliche. Then we have an Em7 pivot arpeggio, so E, G, B, and D, then we have our phrase ending, which is another very common bebop cliche.

To hear how Cecil takes it at half and full speed, be sure to check out our video.

You can see how these cells help create forward motion in our lines. And eventually, when you get a large collection of melodic cells in your playing, you can end up with a lot of cool contours and shapes in your lines.

Compound cells

That brings us into our next topic. So you’ve got one melodic cell that you’re using, but what if you pasted a few of them together into something bigger? Well we can do that with the help of a concept called compound melodic cells.

With compound cells, you can get some different ideas, which can go outside the chord and give some interesting intervallic shapes to your lines.

We’re going to check out a phrase over a G7, which includes two different melodic cells. We’re going to take a 1, 2, 3, 5 and a 1, 2, 5, 6. In G Mixolydian as our reference, that’s G, A, B, D and G, A, D, E. Then as we move those cells through the scale, we’ll see that we’ll need to adjust the shapes a bit to fit the different intervals of the scale.

Compound melodic cell exercise for jazz musicians

We’ll start with a diatonic enclosure into the b7 of G7. Once we get to the b7, we’re going to go up a melodic cell from the b7 up G7, so this is like an F major 1, 2, 3, 5. Then we’ll resolve that 4 to 3, followed by a pivot arpeggio on Bm7b5, moving down to the root of our G7, and we’ll use the 1, 2, 5, 6 off the root. From there, we’ll go down to the fifth, resolve down to the third and continue down with a sort of dominant bebop scale from E, or 3, 2, 1, 7, b7. Then we have another diatonic approach into the six, where we go up another 1, 2, 5, 6 shape, which will be E, F, B, and C, which gives us the 6, b7, 3, and 4 (11). Then we have our phrase ending, just a fifth between A and D—a nice melodic and intervallic phrase ending.

So you can see that the more melodic cells we include, the more creative we can get with the cell concepts, and then we can start to rearrange them in different ways, just to get different shapes and colors for our lines.

Side slipping

Next up we’re coming to a concept known as side slipping. If you’re not familiar with it, side slipping is a technique that moves up a half step or down a half step from a written chord. This gives a good amount of chromatic interest in your lines.

So if you’re playing in G7 for example, we could play a line that goes between G7, Ab7, G7 and Gb7. In this line, we’re not going to make use of any melodic cells, we’re just going to voice lead between the different keys.

Jazz chromatic side slipping exercise for improvising

We’ll start on the 13th of G7 with E natural up to the b7. Then we’ll use the #11 as part of a chromatic approach into the 5. You’ll notice the D natural is a strong resolution point in the phrase—then we go down chromatically into C, which is the 4 of G7, but we’re going to treat it as if it’s the 3 of Ab7, which makes it a pivot point to move into the next key. From that C we’ll go up a Cm7b5 arpeggio, which against Ab7 would just highlight the tension 9. But if the rhythm section or the backing tracking is playing G7, that gives us the 11, b13, 7, and #9—so there’s a lot of tension that you get from being up a half step.

From there, we’re going to resolve back into G7, using that A natural, so just a half step below our previous note Bb to A, then resolving the A natural with bebop scale rules from the 9, b9, to the root. There’s a resolution point, and we’ll move down to the 6 and treat it like a b7 of Gb7—so another pivot point within the phrase. Then Gb will be the root of that Gb7 down to Eb, which will be the 6, Db will be the 5, B will be our fourth, and then we resolve that fourth to the third using a diatonic approach of B natural into Bb.

We’ll resolve back into our G7 with a long chromatic approach. So from Bb to B and then just a nice major pentatonic ending, sort of highlighting that natural 9 against the G7.

If you want to see how Cecil does it, make sure to check out our accompanying YouTube video.

The use of side slipping can really introduce some interesting colors into your playing. And you can try this stuff out on standard progressions—try it over ii-V-I or iii-vi-ii-V-I progressions, it can bring some tension to your playing.

Third substitutions

This is a great tool for getting more interesting lines and going outside of the changes, kind of similar to what we did with side slipping.

The basic concept is that you can play chords outside of the written chord, up in minor thirds or up in major thirds from the written chord.

So if you have Cmaj7, going up in minor thirds, we have Ebmaj7, Gbmaj7, and Amaj7.

Minor third connections for jazz third chord substitutions

Going up major thirds, we have Emaj7 and Abmaj7.

Jazz third chord substitutions from major third connections

This is a tool that players like John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner would use quite a bit to go outside of the chord changes. In the same way as side slipping, we don’t have to think of any different sort of vocabulary to voice lead between the different changes if they’re part of the tune.

Now using the major third substitutions, we’ll have Cmaj7, Emaj7, and Abmaj7. When you’re improvising, you can mix up the order of those in any way you’d want to go. Starting on Emaj7 into Cmaj7, back to E, Ab or any order you can think of.

Jazz music third chord substitution exercise

In this example, we’re going to start off with a Cmaj7 arpeggio. So 1, 3, 5, 7, and we go back down to the C in the same register. From there we’ll play Cm7, so C, Eb, G, and Bb, which relates to an Abmaj7—down a major third from our written chord. And that arpeggio against Abmaj7, we just highlight tension 9 and move up a half step. And we use this B natural, which would be the 7 of our Cmaj7 as the 5 of E major. So now we go 5, 4, 3, 1 in E major and again Cmaj7, so that’s going to give you a lot of tension, because you’re highlighting that G#. So then we move back into our key of C.

This kind of scalar sequence idea, starting on the 5, down to the 3, with a chromatic approach into the 9, and down to the 7. Again, we’ll use the 7 as a pivot into E major, so that B natural becomes like the 5 of E major. We go down a 5, 3, 2, 1 cell, so just the inverse of the 1, 2, 3, 5. We move to the 5 of C major, where we have a 1, 2, 5, 6 cell off the 5, and just E to A as our phrase ending.

If that was a lot to read, make sure to check out Cecil’s explanation on our video!

These third substitutions are a great way to play outside of the changes in a less predictable way. Sometimes without side slipping, things can get too predictable, since you’re sliding up or down a half step. With this, you have to think about how you’re going to voice lead between the different keys in a more thoughtful way.

Fixed melodic cells

Our last concept extends off our melodic cells concept—similarly we’re going to have a 3 to 8 note shape. But with fixed cells, you can’t necessarily move them through the entire scale. Sometimes you might have three or four points where you can move through the scale, but typically you’ll want to play it in its regular transposition.

For this phrase, we’re going to use a fixed cell thinking of this as being related to Dm7 or G7. Still this sort of phrase can’t really be assigned to any specific scale, which is why it’s fixed.

Typically that’s going to be the case with fixed melodic cells—you might not be able to easily assign it to a scale, or they might contain chromatic pitches that are outside of the scale.

We’ll play this fixed melodic cell over a ii-V-I in C, and we’re going to start on our ii, right with the natural 7—so C# as part of the chromatic approach into the root.

Fixed melodic cell lick for jazz musicians

Then we’re going to move down to B, which would be the 6 of Dm7, but it feels more like a harmonic anticipation of the V chord. So that would be the 3, and in relation to the V we’ll start the fixed melodic cell from there.

You’ll notice this has a very angular sound, especially against the G7—the Dm7 sound is going to give you a lot of tension.

We’ll resolve down from the A into the root of G7, again using the bebop scale rules where we move down chromatically until we get to Eb, and that Eb against Cmaj7 acts as a #9 to create a lot of tension, but it’s just part of a delayed resolution to the 9, sort of resolved in a Cmaj7 on beat 2, using that 9 as a part of a diatonic enclosure, then we leap up to the 7. We have a chromatic approach into the 6. Then it’s just a very simple ending using a bebop major scale passing tone, with that A, Eb, to G.

These fixed cells can add a lot of color to your lines, because it can basically be anything you can think of.

Now if you want to dive even deeper on these concepts, you’re going to want to check Cecil’s latest resource with JLV, 56 Hip Licks, and make sure to check out our YouTube videos to see how Cecil plays through these exercises.

Until next time!

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