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Why Is Improvisation Important in Blues and Jazz Music?

People may ask “why is improvisation important in blues music and jazz music?” It’s an interesting question that I often wondered when I first started playing the guitar.

Improvisation (composing music “on the spot”) is important in blues and jazz music because these types of music typically already have a pre-defined chord progression that lends itself to creative melodic expression. In other words, it’s easy to play solos over these chord progressions!

Of course, blues and jazz tunes also often include vocals. However, the underlying chord progression usually stays the same throughout the entire song, it simply repeats itself over and over again.

This makes this type of music ripe for solos and improvisation. Why? Because it is predictable. You know what chords are going to be played. The soloist can use this to gradually build tension in his/her solo, then release it at the end. This is sometimes called “solo shaping” and it’s what makes jazz and blues such a fun form of music to play!

Jazz and Blues Song Structure

In blues, there is the 12-bar blues progression. In jazz the chord progressions usually last 32 or bars (measures). One entire trip through this progression is often called a “chorus.” A song may last several choruses.

What Is the “Head” In a Tune?

The head portion of a blues or jazz tune is the beginning chorus that has a pre-defined melody or set of lyrics or combination of the two that defines the song. This same chorus, combined with the head melody, is then repeated at the end of the song to conclude the musical piece. The solos are usually played in between the two heads.

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. You must realize that while some things are standardized in jazz and blues, it is still used as a canvas for creativity. It can still be modified.

For instance many blues tunes will have vocal choruses intermingled in with instrumental choruses. Let’s take a look at a couple examples of some blues or jazz tunes.

Typical Blues Song Structure

The blues format all revolves around the 12-bar blues chord progression. Those 12 measures make up one chorus. Each bullet point below represents a trip through the 12-bar blues progression. Although I call the vocal portions “verses,” they still represent a chorus in the general sense.

  • Chorus #1 – Head Melody/Main Vocal Verse 1
  • Chorus #2 – Head Melody/Main Vocal Verse 2
  • Chorus #3 – 1st Solo (Guitar player #1)
  • Chorus #4 – 1st Solo (Guitar player #1)
  • Chorus #5 – 2nd Solo (Guitar Player #2)
  • Chorus #6 – 2nd Solo (Guitar Player #2)
  • Chorus #7 – Head Melody/Main Vocal Verse 1/2/3, etc.
  • Chorus #8 – Head Melody/Main Vocal Verse 1/2/3, etc.

Remember, this is just an example of a song. In a live music setting, the format may stray from this in many ways. There are even times when the number of choruses a soloist takes is unknown. Many times the musicians will say, “I’ll take 2-3 choruses, then you can take 2-3.”

These are usually professional musicians and are good enough at reading the body languages of their fellow musicians and can just tell when they’re wrapping up their solos. That’s what comes from playing live music for so long. It’s fun to watch great musicians perform!

Typical Jazz Song Structure

Remember, each jazz tune consists of choruses of 32 measures, or 16 measures. Each bullet point below represents a chorus.

  • Intro (this varies with every song)
  • Chorus #1 – Head Melody (Instrumental/Vocals/Both)
  • Chorus #2 – 1st Solo (Horn player)
  • Chorus #3 – 1st Solo (Horn player)
  • Chorus #4 – 2nd Solo (Guitar player)
  • Chorus #5 – 3rd Solo (Bass player)
  • Chorus #6 – Head Melody (Instrumental/Vocals/Both) to close the song

Summing up

Hopefully this has helped you see how improvisation is not only important in jazz and blues music, but it basically is nothing but a blank canvas without it. If you’re serious about learning the blues and blues improvisation check out this course from Truefire.

Also check out my articles on learning all about blues guitar chords, and the best scales to use for blues improvisation.

So long for now! Keep listening to, and playing the blues!

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