February/March 2013

by Dylan Kay

Jazz Guitar Shed: Come on, Surprise me

by Dylan Kay

Jazz Guitar Shed: Come on, Surprise me

One of the wonderful things about improvising is that you don’t know what or when you are going to play next, and neither does your audience – this element of ‘surprise’ is crucial. In this article, we’ll take a break from thinking about ‘what’ notes to play and instead take a look at rhythm, or ‘when’ to play them.


It has been beautifully said that Miles Davis “framed the silence”, the gaps in his playing being surrounded by notes, rather than the other way round. Listening to him is a fantastic reminder of the importance of ‘space’. As we play more complex music, we can find it harder to stop playing notes, often because we are afraid of losing our place. But it doesn’t have to be like this.

Amongst other things, leaving space helps to give each phrase more impact (the audience has time to absorb what you just played), keeps your listeners guessing (when will you play your next phrase?) and gives you time to consider what to play next. In short, your playing will gain maturity and depth.

The secret is to deliberately practise resting more than you play. For example, play for somewhere between 2-4 bars and rest for 4-6 bars. Use the rests to consider what to play next, remembering that you are still trying to tell a story with your solo, despite the large gaps.

With practice, you will discover that you can leave space without losing your place, you’ll feel more in control of your phrasing and the dialogue with your audience will be more effective.


Your listeners may not know the difference between a 9th and an #11th, but everyone relates to rhythm in some way. Repeating the same rhythms as you solo makes your playing predictable, and takes away the element of surprise.

The goal here is to get used to varying the rhythms you use when soloing – to do this, you need to start by knowing exactly what rhythms you are playing.

Imagine a grid or framework consisting only of each type of rhythmic subdivision. Your notes must line up with this grid. For instance, start by playing only quaver rhythms. This does not mean you have to play continuous quavers, but just that any notes you play must either be on the beat or on ‘and’. Play along with a backing track and make sure that everything you play lines up with the quaver ‘grid’.

Apply this same principle to triplets and semiquavers. Then start mixing all these rhythms together. Consciously think about the rhythms you are going play before you play your phrase – don’t just move your fingers and see what comes out!

And remember, it doesn’t have to be long, unbroken lines in the particular rhythm – take rests. In addition to strengthening your awareness of rhythm, this will also help improve your timing, and give you the tools to ‘change gear’ rhythmically.

Start and Stop

Always starting or ending phrases on the same beat or part of the beat is another way of making your playing sound predictable.

To deal with this, practise beginning your phrases on specific subdivisions of the bar – eg. always starting on the ‘and’ of beat 1. Then work on ending on specific subdivisions (this is harder) – eg. ending on the 2nd triplet of beat 3. As before, begin with quavers, and then try with triplets and semiquavers.

You may find this easier to practise if you play an unbroken series of notes (eg constant quavers) for each phrase, as in the examples. (Please note that the examples just use one note, but of course you can use any notes you like).

For all of these exercises:

1)  Use a metronome and/or backing track. To start with, play over one chord so that you are not worrying too much about what notes to play. (You could even just start with playing one note.) Then gradually increase the complexity of the music you play over – maybe try a blues, then a standard with more chord changes.

2)  Record yourself and listen back – you need to be able to tell if you performed the exercise correctly. Listening back allows you to be objective.

3)  Remember that these are practising concepts. Concentrate on the details of each exercise in the practise room and, in time, the benefits will filter naturally into your playing, but you don’t want to be consciously thinking about these details when you perform.

We’ll revisit rhythm in later articles, but I hope you’ll remember, for now, that there’s a lot more to improvising than simply playing the ‘right’ notes. As with previous issues, there are more resources on my website to accompany this article.

Dylan Kay is a professional guitarist and guitar teacher based in Auckland. He can be contacted through his website