An aspiring jazz trumpet player's blog about jazz improvisation and ear training.

January 26, 2004 Jazz Improvisation 7 Comments

Exercise - note limiting

Update 4/15/06: For better examples of note limiting, please check out my LEARNING TO IMPROVISE: RHYTHM article.

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - note limiting clip.

I'm playing a solo to an Aebersold recording of Jordu. As you listen, you may notice that I'm NOT playing a wide variety of notes. In fact, I'm just playing four notes (in varying octaves) throughout the solo: D, F, A, Ab.

I have a few improvisation exercises that I do from time to time. This one, I call "Note Limiting." It works particularly well with blues-based chord progressions. The concept is simple: pick a few notes and play ONLY those notes during your improvised solo.

This exercise has the following benefits:


Since we're only dealing with a few notes throughout the solo, you don't have to worry about which notes to play over which chords. This is especially helpful to beginning improvisers who may stumble through chord progressions. Once you pick your notes (I'm using 1, 3, 5, and 5b in this clip - iwasdoingallright - audio clip), the focus shifts from theory, to creating music.


Even though I talk a lot about ear training on this site, the fact remains: it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing. Interesting and well-phrased rhythms are crucial to a good sounding solo. I find that beginning players (and experienced players too!) often get so caught up with notes that they don't even think about rhythms. That's the beauty of this exercise: you can't get hung up on notes. Try to play one or two notes, and make them sound cool. Rhythm is your key. I suggest short punchy rhythms.


I'm not a great improviser. Sometimes I feel like I'm in a rut. Either I can't think of anything cool to play, or I think I'm playing the same licks over and over again. When these issues arise, I turn to an exercise like this. It creates a natural change in my playing. It basically forces me to think differently about my solos. Typically, after a few "Note Limiting" exercises, I approach regular improvisation with renewed excitement and creativity.

Comment by Chris

Dear Rick,

"Sometimes I feel like I'm in a rut. Either I can't think of anything cool to play, or I think I'm playing the same licks over and over again."

I know how you feel! Sometimes i think i have solo'ed the exact same way almost twice and it gets really annoying. There are a few ways to get out of your rut, and first ill explain what leads to me getting in a rut cause it might relate to you aswell...

The times when i get into a rut i think comes from listening the wrong way. For you see, there are two ways to listen when you improvise. Way number one is to play and listen for any notes you play that may clash and then avoid them - i know a lot of people who used to do this. The other way is to listen to the piano and bass for the 'right' or 'sweet' notes. I find when i do the latter i wont end up in a rut because you can hear four options with each chord.

I know that sounds silly but it is true and generally something that most people who end up in a rut do -they listen the wrong way.

Next time you find yourself in a rut play the backing track and really listen to the chords and try and pick one note out on your horn from each chord and then go back and still listening the same way play a solo. See whether u find some new stuff u didn't know was there!

The other way, if you still find yourself in a rut is to picture something in your head and try to describe it or to simply sing two bars and try and play something similar to what you sung (that will fit the chords obviously) but like i said (actually i haven't said it yet...) listening for the notes is the key to a nice solo. and also try soloing with your eyes closed, cutting off one sense will only improve the others! :-D

Hope this helps.


*Before i'm finished even god'll be swingin'*

Comment by Arnold Williams

I want to thank you for your site, it has helped me so much.

Comment by Vince Angeloni

Dear Rick,

any advise for us bass players when soloing? Biggest issue is that the rest of the band goes on vacation during a bass solo(sigh!) and the "few" notes approach you recommed, whilst useful as a technique, tends to get lost in all the space..I understand this is only one of many techniques available but are there others (specific to bass playing) you would recommend?

Great web site, lots of useful, pragamatic information

Cheers, mate

Comment by Rick

Hi Vince,

Note limiting as it's described here is basically a vehicle to help stimulate creativity while reducing the complexity of jazz improvisation. While an advanced jazz musician certainly could play a fantastic solo using just a few notes, a note-limited solo is primarily something you'd do in a practice room rather than on a bandstand. As mentioned at the top of this article, if you would like better examples of note limiting, I suggest that you read the following: http://www.iwasdoingallright.com/improv/97/

As for bass solos: The best bass solo is none at all. Ha! Sorry, I couldn't resist... Seriously, though, I think your approach to a bass solo isn't much different from any other instrument's approach to a solo. You still want to play a cohesive solo that has a logical progression of ideas from beginning to end. The only real difference is that you don't have the benefit of a full rhythm section to hide behind if/when your solo meanders. But really, it should be every jazz musician's goal that his or her solo is strong enough to stand alone.

BTW, If you'd prefer that the rest of the rhythm section keep playing during your solo, you could certainly ask them to do so before you play. A good drummer and pianist/guitarist should be able to play quiet enough to give you support yet not drown you out during your bass solo.

For additional suggestions, I'd recommend that you read my Learning To Improvise series: http://www.iwasdoingallright.com/jazz_improvisation/160/


Comment by Vince Angeloni

Great, thanks!

Comment by Vince

Hi Rick,

do you have any views on learning patterns? On the one hand,

they can be used as a fall back position (only the greats have unlimited ideas!) but on the other they can be a trap, a cliche' if you like..Also, in my opinion, by playing patterns too often one reiles on what one "sees" rather than what one hears (hope it makes sense!)

Comment by Rick

Hi Vince,

There's a brief discussion about patterns/licks in my "Learning to Improvise - Transcription" article (http://www.iwasdoingallright.com/jazz_improvisation/111/) -- under the heading "Learning Licks".

I definitely agree with you that licks can be both good and bad. They're great for providing stock material that you can effortlessly use in your solo, but they're easy to overuse. I've been meaning to write more on the subject of licks for some time now. Once it's up, I'll be sure to let you know.


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