Beginner Improvisation Lesson

There is a common misconception out there that you need to be highly proficient on your instrument, and know all your scales and lots of music theory and harmony before you can even attempt to improvise. My beginner improvisation lesson isn’t just for beginners. It’s for anyone who is new to improvising or just searching for a solid starting point.

Watch  the Beginner Improvisation Video Below:

YouTube video

It’s Never Too Early (or Late) to Start Improvising

Many musicians practice and play for a long time being chained to sheet music and never just play their instrument freely allowing their own creativity out.

I myself took piano lessons and saxophone lessons for years before anyone introduced the concept of improvising to me and by that time I was so dependent on written notes that the thought of making up my own music was terrifying.

It took me a while to feel comfortable and for a long time, I felt as though other sax players around me had a big head start and that I would never catch up.

So if you’re like me and started out limited to reading sheet music or you’re a total beginner who doesn’t want to be chained to reading notes off a page, this beginner improvisation lesson is for you.

Anyone Can Improvise

In today’s beginner improvisation lesson I’m going to show you how to start improvising even if you’ve never done it before or are a total beginner on your instrument. We’re going to learn a very simple way to practice improvising that anyone can do.

This method is simple but is also exactly the way most accomplished musicians work on improvising. I demonstrate on the tenor saxophone, but this can be done on any instrument.

Step 1

Choose some sort of limitation. We don’t want to have too many options when practicing improvisation as that can lead to chaos. Limiting ourselves allows us to focus on the things we want to improve.

For now we are going to limit ourselves to 3 notes. G Bb C. On tenor saxophone these are A C D. On alto saxophone these are E G A

Step 2

Choose a mode of accompaniment. This could be a backing track, a recording you like, just the metronome or nothing at all.

For now we are going to improvise along with a drum loop. You can download an audio recording of this loop here: Practice Drum Loop Download.

Step 3

Improvise in the sandbox we’ve designed for ourselves to play in.

Start out by playing long notes and leaving long spaces Don’t try to do too much. Create your own music within the limitations we have set. Remember, you don’t have to try to impress anyone yet.

In the video at the top of this post, you can hear me demonstrate this.

Focus on playing in sync with the accompaniment. Since we don’t have to think much about what notes to play we can put all of our attention into our rhythm.

Experiment with this and change up your limitations if you want.

Just a few possible variations:

  • Change the choice of notes you use
  • Increase the number of notes you improvise with
  • Change the mode of accompaniment
  • Change the tempo

Your options are pretty limitless. You can even just let go of all restrictions and allow yourself to improvise freely. But keep in mind that it’s the restrictions we place on ourselves that allow us to play more coherently and focus on the areas we want to improve.

Strong Fundamentals Will Help

This method of practicing improvisation is basically the same for musicians at all levels. Obviously, greater technical ability on your saxophone (or other instrument) will allow you to express yourself even better.

That’s why we practice scales and long tones and all the technical stuff.

Check out my Core Essentials Program which teaches sax players how to practice the most important fundamentals daily.

Don’t Wait, Start Now

There is no reason that we shouldn’t be improvising from the first day we pick up the saxophone or any other instrument though.

I hope you can recognize the potential benefits practicing improvisation in this way presents.  Especially if you begin at an early stage in your development.

So no matter what level you are on your instrument take this starting point that I’ve given you and start practicing improvisation every day along with everything else that you’ve been working on.

Improvising is fun and liberating and there’s no reason to be afraid of it.

If you’re afraid of not sounding good or playing the “wrong” thing, just give yourself a set of limitations that keeps you in your comfort zone as I’ve demonstrated in the video.

Going Further

If you want to learn more about improvising and playing music by ear without the need for sheet music check out the Play Sax by Ear Crash Course. This course is entirely free to enroll in, no strings attached whatsoever.

There’s also more saxophone training in my Pentatonic Foundation Course which takes you from learning and memorizing the Pentatonic Scale to playing popular melodies by ear, and then on to improvising your own solos.

If you got some value out of this post please let me know in the comments below.

Interested in more lessons on improv? Check out this “Blues Improvisation Lesson for Saxophone.”

Also be sure to follow BetterSax on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and YouTube to stay up to date with us for news, giveaways, and other saxophone tips and tricks.

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Kenn Smith says:

Be nice to be able to start to learn how to improvise on alto sax.

Emile says:

Hello Jay,
I would like to learn to play the Also Saxophone by ear using your method. I am brand new to the world of music. I play no instruments at all. Which of your courses do you suggest that I purchase to start with? I want to hear from you before I purchase it.

Jay Metcalf says:

I suggest you begin with the free Play Sax By Ear Crash Course to see how it works for you. If you like that course, then start with the Pentatonic Foundation.

Ben says:

Thanks Jay, Your lesson have so good and very informative and has taken my saxs playing to another. We hope more lessons and licks in your upcoming videos

Jay Metcalf says:

Thanks, more on the way…

John Regan says:

Hi jay, the compliments i have regarding your teaching methods, your wonderful speaking accent, your skill at getting into the mind set of learner players like myself, are far too many to describe. just to say that I am so grateful for your video instructions, i look forward to each day revising and going over your videos. (In between my own practice) i live in Australia, so i doubt i will get a chance to ever meet you., but would love to one day shake your hand in gratitude. You rock!! buddy. cheers John Regan

Jay Metcalf says:

John, very kind of you to say. Thanks.

Diony Siyluy says:

Jay, I started playing the sax again after a long hiatus. I’ve downloaded the free pentatonic lesson and want to sign up for your lessons. I can play along with most of what I hear (by ear) except when I get to the improvisational part, I can’t follow because my jazz vocab is kind of limited. I learned how to play harmonica at a young age using the solfeggio system and didn’t know any other key except C. Once I picked up the saxophone, I learned that there are more than just the major scale. I have more or less learned how to play the major and minor and pentatonic in all 12 keys, but I want to move to the next level. Which course do you recommend I buy?
Regards. I like your way of teaching and the way present your videos.
I will wait for your response.

Jay Metcalf says:

Doiny, you should start with the pentatonic Foundation course. You will learn a lot I’m sure.

Diony Siyluy says:

I will do that

Boston says:

Dear Sir,
I left you a message on youtube but I also wanted to stop by you site to let you know that I’ve gotten so much out of your videos. I am a Melodica Player and always had been able to play by ear and find the key but with your method of practice and tips I’ve been able to find a voice. Your tip about learning songs from the melody sung by the vocalist and not from the sheet music was very important. Plus mastering the pentatonic scale in all keys along with learning “Sunny” in every key (I had a musically break through on that exercise). Keep up the great work. You made realize not to overthink everything.

Jay Metcalf says:

Musical breakthrough is music to my ears. I’m glad.

Ian says:

Thanks Jay, I watched your video yesterday then put it into practice today. It improved my confidence and gave me a better understanding of improvisation.

Jay Metcalf says:

This is great to hear. Glad it helped you.

Andrew says:

Jay, how can I use some of the pentatonic licks in Gospel music

Jay Metcalf says:

In the same way you would with any other style. Everything I teach can be applied to Gospel music.



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