Improvising Made Easy- Melody As Inspiration

Written by Dr. Matt Warnock

Topics: Lessons

By: Simon Joseph James

When approaching a chord progression for the first time with a mind to improvise, I always encourage my students to learn the tune first and foremost, followed by the chord progression and other material second, as an “Improvising Made Easy” approach to the song.

After all the melody is the tune, and by mastering it before anything else, you already acquire a sense of the rhythm, feel and harmony of the piece.

This doesn’t require you to be a particularly seasoned improviser either, as musicians of all levels are able to learn a melody, play it with a good deal of expression, and from there add embellishments and make steps towards improvising.

In this lesson, I will outline three useful and very simple techniques for embellishing a melody to build your soloing chops and vocabulary.

The phrase that we will use in this study is the opening to “Autumn Leaves,” where the target note at the end of the phrase is Eb.

Here is the opening phrase in it’s original form.






Enclosures are ornamentations that encircle the target note with the notes above and below it.

As you can see, our Eb has been encircled by two variations in the examples below.

To explore Enclosures further, check out “Jazz Guitar Soloing Techniques: Enclosures.


Click to hear audio for the first half of this example.

Click to hear audio for the second half of this example.






In the next examples, we first of all have a slide up to the Eb from the C and then a chromatic approach, both allowing you to connect one note, C, to the next, Eb, with chromatic notes filling in the gaps in between.

To find out more about adding chromaticism to your lines, check out “Instant Jazz: Adding Chromatics to Common Arpeggios.”


Click to hear audio for the first half of this example.

Click to hear audio for the second half of this example.




Using Chord Voicings


In the third instance, things will begin to become more advanced, as this time we are constructing a melody using the keynotes of the chords.

At the start of Autumn Leaves there is a iim to a V (Cm7-F7) cadence in the key of Bb. So, it is possible to use the Bb from the b7 in the Cm chord and the A from the perfect 3rd in the F7.

These guide tones provide a strong harmonic pull to the melody.


Click to hear audio for the first half of this example.

Click to hear audio for the second half of this example.



Creating variations in melodies is a really simple and effective way to start improvising and creating your own phrases that doesn’t involve too much analysis of key signatures and scale positions.

Practice these examples with other melodies that you have learned and work on them in all 12 keys on the guitar.

What are your thoughts on these exercises? Share them in the comments section below.


About the Author

Simon Joseph James is a London based Guitarist, Vocalist, Songwriter and Teacher. He studied at Manchester University, the London Centre for Contemporary Music and spent four years studying in Seville with Ramon Ruiz of the Alma Flamenco Group. Simon runs the site which contains over 250 Written and Video Lessons focusing on Blues, Jazz, Folk and Latin Guitar.

4 Comments Comments For This Post I'd Love to Hear Yours!

  1. Alex says:

    Excellent article, I think learning melody is a woefully overlooked and understated step in the improvisation process. I don’t blame students for this because the guitar is such a cool instrument and naturally they want to get to the flashy techniques right away; but in my opinion the true value of all those techniques is only on display when students have something to say. This is a great melody-based improvisational article, definitely going to pass it on!

  2. Ron says:

    There is a lot of good information in this brief article. The techniques are not only useful for players in the beginning stages of building their improv skills, but they are also good tips for building a solo. Starting with slight embellishments to the melody the musician can lead the listener farther away in logical steps rather than by taking one great leap which may be hard for the listener to follow. Nice. Thanks.

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