Four Layers of Learning Improvisation



Four Layers of Learning Improvisation

Four Layers of Learning Improvisation – Demonstrated over a Blues Etude

Do you know what the 4 cornerstones of jazz improvisation that any guitar player (or musician in general…) has to master in order to improvise freely are?

Today I would like to share those cornerstones with you. You’ll discover the 4 layers of improvisation you must know whether you’re just starting out or are an experienced jazz/Gypsy jazz guitarist.

Understanding these layers is one thing, but gaining proficiency in all four layers is a totally different challenge…
In this lesson I’ll explain exactly how and what you need to practice in order to master these 4 fundamental layers, by studying one comprehensive blues etude that I composed especially for this purpose.

What Are The Four Layers of Improvisation?

  • Layer #1 – The Form
    Any song has a form. A chord progression that you must follow, knowing exactly where you are at any moment.


  • Layer #2 – The Shapes
    These are the shapes you follow the form with. You can start with as few as three triad shapes, learn them on ONE area of your fingerboard and start improvising! Think of it as a minimized instrument…


  • Layer #3 – Melodic ideas
    These shapes are only the framework around which you compose all your melodic ideas for your solo. The sky’s the limit to how far you can go with it…


  • Layer #4 – The Anatomy of Melody
    Many players talk about improvisation as telling a story. And ALL the stories I know are composed of sentences. Each of them has a clear start and end. And many of the sentences relate to one another, like motifs. Implementing these ideas will help you create a STRUCTURE for your solos…

Layer #1: The Form

In order to explain the concept of The 4 Layers of Improvisation I decided to use a very common form/chord progression almost any guitar player knows and plays – the 12 bar blues.

I have based the etude I wrote for you on a 12 bar blues progression in G major.

This form goes like this –

The general approach we take in jazz improvisation is to play a sound/scale/arpeggio that fits each chord independently and not play one scale that “fits-them-all” like the way we use a minor pentatonic scale in traditional blues improvisation.

That’s why we really have to memorize the chord progression of whatever tune we’re playing and understand its form. That shouldn’t intimidate you though, especially when we’re talking about the 12 bars blues progression.

One of the reasons the 12 bars blues form is so easy to memorize and follow is because it is short, contains a variation of only three chords, and makes a lot of harmonic sense.

This form is constructed of 3 musical sentences, which can be divided into 3 lines in the form, each containing 4 measures:

Sentence #1: G7 | C7 | G7 | G7 |
Sentence #2: C7 | C7 | G7 | G7 |
Sentence #3: D7 | C7 | G7 | D7 |

Now, the best way to memorize this form would be to actually play it, using chords or simple triad shapes like the ones I’ll show you right now.

Layer #2: The Shapes

Relating all your licks to these simple shapes allows you to be playful and move from one chord to another by creating melodic improvisation.  

For example – you can create a beautiful improvisation over the blues by mastering only three triad shapes. Your first exercise would be to learn to follow the form with them, just play the blues form chord changes using these triad shapes. Next – we’ll be using these shapes as the framework for your improvisation.

12 Bars Blues in G With Three Simple Triad Shapes

The secret is to make it simple – use these shapes as the framework for your solo but feel free to play around the triad notes (like by adding half-tone approaches or enclosures). 

Layer #3: Melodic Ideas

Once we’ve memorized our form and the basic shapes we can use to improvise over that form, it’s time to elaborate on these shapes and think how we can use them to create melodic lines and connect them together in a musical way.

Here are some melodic ideas you will encounter in the blues etude I’ve composed for you:

Melodic Idea #1 – Half-Tone Approach (HTA)

There can be many variations on half-tone approach exercises. You can start on the beat or on the offbeat. You can play it once or twice for each note and so on.

Here are a few variations:

Half-tone approach on the beat:

Half-tone approach on the off-beat:

Melodic Idea #1: Enclosure (EN)

An enclosure is when you “enclose” a note by adding notes below and above.
We usually use a half-tone below the triad note and either half-tone or one tone above the triad note.

Here are a few variations:

Simple enclosure:

Trill enclosures leading to one another:

Now after we’ve learned some melodic ideas, let us see how we can use the concept of the anatomy of melody in order to tie these melodic ideas together in a coherent way in order to create a story in our improvised solo.

Layer #4: The Anatomy of Melody

Ideally, your improvisation should include ALL of the following:

  • Your solo should be composed of musical sentences. 
  • Each sentence must have a clear start and end. 
  • You must separate your sentences with a pause, so your listener can digest all the sentences.
  • We LOVE repetition. Any sentence that you repeat twice becomes a motif.
    (Motifs can include a rhythmic idea, a melodic idea or both).

That’s not all, of course. There are many more elements to learn from jazz and Gypsy jazz guitar masters like Django Reinhardt. But we can’t learn it all now.


But if you listen closely to your favorite solos – you’ll find that these are basic elements that any great solo has. 

As an exercise, try to take the Half  Tone Approach idea and apply it to a few musical sentences in order to create a motif.
At first it may sound a little technical but as you practice it more and more you will see how you are able to create better musical motifs.

12 Bar Blues Improvisation Etude

The following etude is a simple improvisation over the 12-bar blues progression, that demonstrates ONLY the basic ideas I showed you here.

Try to implement these concepts over any song that you play and remember – music can be VERY SIMPLE, but it must always sound good!

That’s all for today! hope you enjoyed this lesson.

Please feel free to ask your questions or share your thoughts in the comments section below!