Friday, September 2, 2011

Rhythmic Ideas for Improvisation

Sometimes players spend a lot of time learning harmony, scales, and related concepts for improvisation, but they don't always spend enough time developing their rhythmic command. Today I wanted to give you some different ideas for practicing and expanding the rhythmic element of your improvisations.

Syncopation and Articulation

Time feel is defined in part by the which notes are articulated and accented. Here are some simple ideas to expand your ability to articulate and accent in different ways:
  • Practice the most basic jazz articulation, tonguing the upbeats.
  • Grab an omnibook or transcribe one of Charlies Parker's solos, and play along with the recording. Make sure you are articulating and accenting along with him. You'll find he alternates between upbeats and downbeats depending on the phrase.
  • Experiment with some of your favorite melodic ideas, accenting their various peaks (like Charlie Parker often did). Experiment accenting other notes in the phrase instead. The more you familiarize yourself with the possibilities you'll find combinations you like and come back to.
  • Try tonguing every third note, which creates a 3 over 4 cross rhythm.
  • Experiment with different kinds of articulations in various combinations including legato, staccato, or tonguing every note in a given phrase.
These concepts can all be heard in the solos of rhythmic players like Parker, Rollins, and Potter.


The rhythm of a phrase is equally as important as its melodic contour. Following are some techniques for developing the rhythmic framing of your melodic ideas.
  • Try starting on different points in the measure including each beat (1, 2, 3, 4) and the & of each beat as well.
  • Practicing beginning your phrases with different rhythmic values including eighth notes, quarter notes, longer held notes, and various triplets.
  • Make sure you punctuate your melodic ideas. Give each phrase an ending, as opposed to playing running 8th notes ad nauseum. 
  • Also, experiment ending the phrase at different points in the measure and ending with different rhythmic values.
  • Try connecting a few melodic ideas you would normally play separately, or just try extending a phrase  farther than you normally would.
  • Try playing a series of shorter phrases, or break up a longer phrase into shorter phrases. Also, try breaking up longer phrases by inserting held notes.  
These techniques are meant to give you more possibilities. Take what you like and throw out what you don't.

Cross Rhythms and Polyrhythms

Cross rhythms can easily add intensity and energy to a solo while polyrhythms add another level of rhythmic interest.
  • Experiment with basic cross rhythms, grouping your 8th notes into melodic ideas that accent every third or fifth note.
  • Try the most basic polyrhythm, triplets. Try playing phrases of continuous triplets instead of 8th notes.
  • Now play cross rhythms with your polyrhythms. Group your triplets into melodic ideas that accent every second, fourth or fifth note (Ouch!). Also, try articulating every other triplet note similar to a basic jazz articulation.  
If you've made it this far you should be able to think of some other things to try out all by your lonesome.

To finish it out, here is a solo over a Bb blues where I use a fair amount of the above ideas.


  1. Hi Ben,

    Great post! Great clip!

    I love it when other players talk about rhythm. It's a totally undervalued aspect in most students, but to me it's one of the true calling cards for every player.

    Also, thanks for making the correlation between Parker, Rollins and Potter. The lineage is such a huge part of jazz playing (rhythm especially, in my opinion) and without learning the history, I don't think that players can take full rhythmic responsibility with their playing.



  2. Thanks, Rich. I'll probably do separate articles for each heading next. It should be fun.

  3. Replies
    1. Josh, you might try exploring the follow up post to see if that helps. Here is the link -