How to stop mentally "spacing out" when improvising and really follow the changes?

flacoflaco Shelley Park #151, AJL Quiet and Portable
in Gypsy Jazz 101 Posts: 98

I know this is beyond the scope of a simple forum post. I'd appreciate any links to previous discussions or resources for issues with this. I started my music journey with typical blues rock electric guitar, and then for the last decade or so I have been focused on bluegrass guitar. In both of those genres I could get away with noodling around in the pentatonic scale of whatever key the song was in. That also technically works for some of the more simple jazz tunes, but it doesn't sound correct.

I do understand music theory and even jazz theory, and I can analyze a solo and tell you what's happening. But as soon as the song starts playing I revert back to spacing out and noodling around on pentatonics for the one chord. At best I can regurgitate a few licks or follow along with a few arpeggios as the chords change.

I am familiar with some of the accepted advice which would be to practice arpeggios all over the neck following the chords. Is that really the best way to proceed, or is there some different exercise? Or is the best practice to do things like transcribe and learn solos - that way you internalize the way the great players have navigated the changes and you internalize it without realizing you are doing it?



  • Posts: 75

    I think there’s not much more to it than practice playing changes. As most people would recommend, know the harmony by heart, start by running through the changes only playing arpeggios, start adding color tones and eventually things like enclosures and voice leading. Of course transcribing and listening to start figuring out phrasing.

    etudes can be really helpful to start building a road map. Gonzalos “How I learned” has some good etudes that are accompanied with bar by bar analysis of the phrases.

    I spend a lot of time practicing with only the metronome so I’m pushed more to outline the harmony with my phrases.

    as far as spacing out goes, it really just takes a lot of intentional focused practice, keep things painfully slow at first. Good luck!

  • mac63000mac63000 Tacoma, WANew Geronimo Mateos Jazz B
    edited March 2020 Posts: 248

    I agree with King Cardboard. I think really focusing on knowing the changes and the melody goes a long way. I made a similar transition from rock/blues for 10 years before switching to jazz, and what's helped me the most focus on a song is to have the melody and changes in my head so I know where I'm going. I'm not the most proficient jazz improviser but I'm focusing on learning the tunes that I like really well before branching out into my own things. It's a helpful way for me to visualize what's happening on the guitar, and learning to play solos of other players is a great way to get ideas.

    I'm working through some of this with a friend I jam with. We play a few different styles of jazz and as soon as he's improvising he disappears and just kind of does whatever, without paying much attention to what's going on in the song. I end up playing most of the rhythm and melody and he noodles. It's a bit frustrating but I think it just comes down to his not knowing the songs were playing.

    Anyway, practice practice practice! There's always something to learn.


  • psychebillypsychebilly Kentucky, USA
    Posts: 40

    Hi Flaco

    The best thing about soloing in GJ is that there are alot of 1/2-step moves and enclosures that you can do within the pentatonic scale that sound 'authentic'...learn how to incorporate chromaticism within your bluesy-playing, and you'll find that you can sound a little authentic...

    Robin Nolan has a video that explains a little about it:

    Also, this thread might be helpful for you:

    Creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.
  • MichaelHorowitzMichaelHorowitz SeattleAdministrator
    edited March 2020 Posts: 6,155

    @flaco Gypsy Jazz, like all earlier forms of jazz, is pattern based. So you need to develop a vocabulary of ideas that work over common chord progressions. You can transcribe the ones Django or other top players used, which is probably the best place to start, and then start to develop your own ideas. If you had just a couple of nice ideas for ii-V-I and I-vi-ii-V, you’d sound totally legit on most standards.

    A couple of other things that will help your improv ability on any given tune:

    • Learn the melody in at least two different octaves
    • Learn the melody IN octaves
    • Work out a guide tone line (i.e. a line that uses the 3rd or 7th of each chord.)
    • Work out a chord melody arrangement

    I find if take all those steps, then I’ve really internalized the melody and harmony which makes improv a lot easier.

    Good luck!


  • Posts: 4,811

    This is mostly copy and paste of what I wrote in the first 1000 hours thread...

    Years ago I asked a question here somewhere wondering what would be more effective way to internalize the changes when soloing (not rhythm playing), between having a chart in front of you and practice navigating the song that way, working out the ideas and such. Or going strictly by memory and anticipating the next chord. I think I found my answer years later and that's to use both. Plus slow down the tune (if I'm using a backing track of some sort) as slow as it takes for me anticipate the changes but having the presence of mind to develop the melodic idea. And if I get stuck, slow down even more and if I still stuck, lost, having a brain fart then look at the chart and go through the song like that a few times paying attention to the sections that had me stumped. I don't know how many can relate to the above but I'm seeing it working. Another benefit is that my phrasing has a much better sense of space and groove when I improvise very slowly. I make it a point to leave a lot of space and not fall into trap of cramming a lot of notes because of very slow tempo. Then I surprise myself when I record it and open it with amazing slow downer and take it to a regular tempo. Way better phrasing. I wish I did this all those years ago...

    So I think that's it for me at this point. This assumes I'm very familiar with rhythm playing and the melody of the song even if I can't play the melody all that well. Everything said here is a good advice. But how you go about it is really up to you. What I wrote has strictly to do with what I'm still wrestling with, even though not as much as I used to, and by the sound of it you too.

    Every note wants to go somewhere-Kurt Rosenwinkel
  • mac63000mac63000 Tacoma, WANew Geronimo Mateos Jazz B
    Posts: 248

    In terms of getting more comfortable getting out of the pentatonics and/or modal thinking, I think this video captures a nice way of breaking down the different chords in a song to help you move between the different shapes:

    It's pretty simple example to start with the basic shapes and navigate through the different changes of a song, and you can build in complexity as you become more comfortable with it. I second Buco's tips about slowing it down to really work on your phrases and using your chart/knowledge of the song to guide you. I also like exercises like this because you can hear when what your playing doesn't work over the chords of a song, and it pushes you to listen more to what's going on.

  • flacoflaco Shelley Park #151, AJL Quiet and Portable
    Posts: 98

    Thank you everyone for the responses!

    Michael - I love the idea to practice chord melody arrangements!

    Buco - your post in that other thread is partly what got me thinking about this.

    Mac6300 - thanks for the link to the Stephane Wrembel video! That is absolutely something I need to be practicing and internalizing.

  • Posts: 4,811

    These are the few threads where I wrote about slow practice:

    Now with those threads being so long ago and me admitting that for me it can still be an issue keeping my place in tune you might think "this guy is either dislexic or what he's talking about is useless" and either or both may be correct. But that's not to say I didn't progress. Another thing I like to point out is how many times at Django in June became clear that the instructors have spent countless hours relentlessly practicing. Sebastien Giniaux said it clearly that there's nothing special about him that makes him able to play the way he does, he spent his youth years practicing 8-10-12 hours a day, every day. Lots of other guys said similar thing or you could find this out from talking to them. Sebastien said the difference between you guys and me is that I made a commitment. Thing is I made that commitment at the age approaching a middle-aged guy and there is only so much time to devote to practice once you get life out of the way: work, parenting, chores, errands etc... And I also haven't been following my own gospel last few years regarding slow practice. Just recently made a commitment to get back to it and kinda laid out those details for myself regarding looking at the chord chart then looking away etc... I also spent a lot of time working on the tone which for me is probably a number one priority and recently I'm hearing things I like there too.

    Every note wants to go somewhere-Kurt Rosenwinkel
  • ChiefbigeasyChiefbigeasy New Orleans, LA✭✭✭ Dupont MDC 50; The Loar LH6, AJL Silent Guitar
    Posts: 341

    I’m not sure if I understand the concept “mentally spacing out“ when it comes to soloing. I can understand it as regards losing my way while playing rhythm, so I try to stay very disciplined while I’m doing it. But, when it comes to soloing, being on the spot to actually say something in the spotlight tends to focus my attention and energy quite sharply.

    That said, I have tended to simplify my approach to soloing over the years by concentrating on being melodic. Sure, I want to be aware of phrases and patterns that work within the particular chord changes, but my emphasis is melody and motif, not just outlining chords with arpeggios and scales.

    Whenever I feel at a loss as to what to play, I fall back on Stephane Wremble’s advice as indicated in an earlier post. His demonstration of simple phrases, rhythmically in the groove, and played simply for each chord, is a great help and a good starting point to launch back into a new solo idea.

  • Posts: 4,811

    @Chiefbigeasy for me it simply means as the chords are flying by and I'm playing something, an arpeggio or some kind of melodic idea and the next chord or the next section of changes is coming up I may or may not know which chord or group of chords is it. I don't remember when it was last time I lost my place playing rhythm, it's automatic and I can relax and pay attention to the sound and dynamics of the group.

    Every note wants to go somewhere-Kurt Rosenwinkel
Sign In or Register to comment.
Home  |  Forum  |  Blog  |  Contact  |  206-528-9873
The Premier Gypsy Jazz Marketplace
Banner Adverts
Sell Your Guitar
© 2024, all rights reserved worldwide.
Software: Kryptronic eCommerce, Copyright 1999-2024 Kryptronic, Inc. Exec Time: 0.016896 Seconds Memory Usage: 1.008797 Megabytes