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How To Improvise With Smooth Voice Leading

Do you know all of your scales, but can't seem to link them together in a solo? Well, the secret to melodic improvisation begins with voice leading. When we look at transcriptions of solos, we can tell whether someone is a world class player by looking at how beat four connects into beat one of the next measure, AKA the voice leading. So how can we achieve smooth voice leading? Let's find out!

What is voice leading?

We can define it as using one voice to outline the chord changes as we move from one chord to another. Specifically, a smooth transition from chord to chord with one single note.

Just remember, we can play any note we want throughout the whole measure, as long as we hit that transition from chord to chord with smooth voice leading.

How do I practice voice leading?

Since we want to play melodically from beat four to beat one, we can achieve this through specific voice leading exercises. Let’s check this out over a blues from our Voice Leading Workbook! DOWNLOAD RESOURCE>>>

With these exercises, we want to write out or improvise a continuous eighth note line by filling in the blank spaces of each measure. We should begin with just the chord scale notes from bar to bar so we can clearly outline the harmony. As we fill in the blanks we want to connect those notes to our smooth voice leading, which is already written on beat four to beat one.

I keep getting lost in the form, what should I do?

Developing players often get lost in the form because they're not confident in outlining the harmonic rhythm. We can define harmonic rhythm simply as playing the harmony of each chord when the chord symbol changes. We use this method to pull us in and keep track of the form. This technique locks in our harmonic rhythm, and allows us to keep track of where we are in the bar, beat by beat.

How do I voice lead on my own?

We can voice lead differently to the notes we land on in these exercises. To do this, we think of stepping up into the target note, stepping down into the target note, or a stepping around the target note (enclosure).


There are three things to keep in mind when playing through these voice leading exercises.

FIRST: We want to focus on playing diatonically from bar to bar. It sounds great, and there will still be some chromatic motion created from chord to chord.

For example, in bar two of this blues, there's chromatic motion, playing that concert F# to G. This is the only place in this example where this is a non-diatonic note. The rest of this phrase consists of all diatonic notes within the chord scales. On beat four of each measure, we achieve smooth voice leading by stepping around our target note on beat one of the following measure. In measure two, beat 4 we have the B flat (root) and A flat (flat seventh) resolving to A natural (third) of the F7 chord. This is a perfect example of smooth voice leading, because we are wrapping around the target note and resolving by a minor second which is the smallest interval we can resolve by. These elements combined together create smooth voice leading.

SECOND: We want to be playing in the same range or close to the written out voice leading notes that we're connecting. There shouldn't be a huge intervallic jump getting into beat four as this will take away from our melodic contour and would not be a good example of smooth voice leading.

THIRD: Playing a chord tone will always sound good leading to the written voice leading on beat four. This is because chord tones outline the harmony and this makes our voice leading stand out.

Now that we've learned the secret to melodic improvisation, you can start applying these concepts to your favorite jazz standards! To go deeper into these specific exercises, check out our Voice Leading Workbook resource, which covers the effective voice leading over 20 Jazz Standard Song Forms. DOWNLOAD RESOURCE>>>

Check out the video below to hear Chad break down these concepts even further!

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