How to begin learning to improvise on the trombone

“How do I begin learning improvisation on the trombone” is a question I am frequently asked. There’s no shortage of information out there on improvisation, but let me give you my opinion, and realize that it may stray a bit from popular conventional wisdom.

My best answer to how you can improve your improvisation is to check out my book, Trombone Improvisation Savvy. 175 pages, 114 written exercises, 43 solo transcriptions and 144 audio files containing 4 1/2 hours music will go a long way to helping you master improvisation on the trombone. Download the generous free preview and check it out.

I think back to when I was first learning to improvise. The activity that helped me the most was transcribing jazz trombone solos off records. I wanted to know what great players like JJ, Urbie and Watrous were playing. They weren’t just playing arpeggiated chords – they were playing melodies. What notes were they playing and how did those notes fit into the chords?

So the advice I’m offering you is to transcribe solos. It’s something I did at the very beginning and something I still do today. In fact, last night I transcribed chunks of a Randy Brecker solo on a challenging tune I’m performing this weekend. I recently produced a video on transcribing jazz solos that takes you through the basic transcribing process, but let me break it down for you a bit more.

  • First find a solo that is within your technical ability. Simple, for this exercise, is good. One solo I recommend for beginners is Miles’ first chorus on the original recording of Walkin. It’s a simple F blues in which Miles plays a great solo, not with the quantity of notes but instead with great note choices. Transcribe the first chorus and play it down an octave in trombone range.
  • I recommend using a digital audio player on your phone or computer as apposed to a CD. Even better if you can use something that displays the waveform so that you can more easily visualize where you are in the solo. I use Logic Pro but there are many suitable players out there.
  • Try to use the trombone or piano or whatever reference instrument you have as little as possible. Keep in mind that one of the important benefits of transcribing is to strengthen your ear. Guess at the note then play it with the recording. If it’s wrong use your instrument to find the right one. One of the benefits I got by transcribing parts of the above mentioned Randy Brecker solo was tuning my ear to playing in B minor – the root of the changes – for both pitch and note choice. I noticed that after transcribing a bit, my playing in the key of B improved.
  • Once you’ve finished, play along with the recording. After you’ve mastered the notes and the feel of the solo, find a rhythm track without the solo and play the transcribed solo as if you were improvising it. Even better, record yourself playing it this way and listen back to see how true you sound to the original.
  • One last tip is to look at the notes the soloist played and analyze where in the chord they came from. Listen for notes that sound like they are out of the original chord. What note is he playing? Is it the sharp four? The major seven on a minor chord? This analysis will strengthen your harmonic knowledge – an important skill in improvising well.

I said at the beginning that my advice was a bit contrarian. Popular wisdom is that you should first master your scales. Major, minor, mixolydian, Dorian and so forth. And while knowing your scales is absolutely critical, I don’t think learning scales is necessarily step one because you don’t want your solos to simply be the running of scales. Rather, you want your solos to be melodies. And great solos worthy of your transcribing are melodies.

Let me give you a tool to get you started. I recorded myself playing a simple solo over F blues here:

Transcribe this solo, practice it with the recording, then once you’ve got it down, play it over this rhythm section-only recording:

You can use an Aebersold F blues if you have it (it will certainly be better than my homemade rhythm section!). But this should get you started. Feel free to send me a recording of you playing it, and I’ll give you my thoughts.

Stay tuned for more posts on improvisation coming up.

And to download these files use:

For the trombone solo

For the rhythm section only

1 thought on “How to begin learning to improvise on the trombone”

  1. Transcription is wonderful exercise and it is very instructive; I might wish I had done more of that earlier. Instead, however, I just listened intensively and repeatedly, and discovered I had the solos pretty much memorized; I absorbed them, learned them, sang them and whistled them, and soon could play them, most of them. That didn’t take me any more time than transcription does, I think, but try both, see what you get.

    There is a lot to learn! A whole lot (and there is not a large market, you must realize this is not a growth industry). And there is much written. I must point you toward some of the Freebies at my own website Articles and practice logs I think you will enjoy and gain from. While I am not still in love with every word there, you will get many ideas.

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