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Can’t Improvise Phrases That Sound Good? 5 Ways To Fix That

There’s a pretty common shared experience for musicians—you learn a few chords, a few scales, a few licks, and you start improvising your own phrases. At first, it’s exciting, but after a while, you start noticing your improv doesn’t quite sound like what the pros are doing. You might be plunking out a few notes, some of them sound good, but maybe not like a coherent phrase or idea.


This is a lull that all musicians hit, and some stay here longer than others. Today we’re going to tackle five ways you can improve your improv and break out of a rut or boost your playing.


Before we get going, make sure to check out 50 Easy Major Licks PDF Package, which gives you some great examples to get you familiar with the language of phrasing. For more, you can also follow along with our video here!


While it’s cool to play complex, difficult phrases, nine times out of ten, the phrases that are short, sweet, and accessible are the ones that reach your audience.



Contents


Start short


Our first way to make a good sounding phrase is to start short.


When you think of phrases from Charlie Parker, you think of long, winding, complex phrases. And he was able to do that, and he often did do that. But many of his greatest solos were just one chorus solos—where he played a lot of phrases that only lasted a couple of bars.


And part of this likely comes from how we perceive music as language. Having a musical sentence that makes sense and has a point makes it easy to remember and repeat. It’s how things can also become earworms. Chances are that you’re not walking away from a super complex song singing the chorus after one listen, but you may be after hearing a pop song with a simple hook.


So let’s check out a phrase—this one is a bar long, 10 notes in total, with every note as a chord tone (except the 9th, which you can still consider a chord tone). It’s based on a short ii - V - I, which is a progression that comes up all the time in all sorts of tunes, especially jazz standards.

Illustration of 2 5 1 jazz phrase in B flat
Short 2 5 1 jazz progression

We’ll start on the third of a Cm7, then jump down to the fifth, up to the seventh, followed by the ninth. Since many guitarists and pianists will use the ninth and sixth, you can generally consider them chord tones, too.


Our next move voice leads us down into the fifth of F7. Voice leading is really simply just moving in a melodic way, using the smallest intervals for transitions between chords. By doing this, it feels natural and doesn’t feel jumpy when moving from chord to chord.


From the fifth of F7, we’ll continue with chord tones—fifth, third, root, and seventh, which voice leads stepwise down into the third of the Bbmaj7 and we hop up to the root.


This phrase is short, but memorable. What we’re seeing here, too, is that it ends very deliberately—we just have a couple snappy notes here to end the phrase.


End Deliberately


That brings us to our second component, which is ending deliberately.


So when the audience cheers or gives the “jazz woos,” it’s generally not in the middle of a phrase … it’s at the end.