How to improve your jazz improvisation with grace notes

supreme_lickster
Nov-15-2020

Using grace notes and other musical ornaments is a simple and yet powerful way to create improvised music. In this article, I aim to demonstrate how a few strategically placed embellishments can really spice up your solos.



Have you ever come across a melody or musical theme and thought to yourself:

“If only there was a way to spice things up a little!”

Today, I will be introducing the concept of grace notes.

Grace notes are both ludicrously easy to understand and extremely powerful.

This is a quick and easy hack to take your solos to the next level!

Musical decorations

The meaning of the verb “grace” is to make something more attractive, pleasing, or interesting.

This is exactly the purpose of grace notes.

Grace notes are musical decorations that can make a plain melody more attractive, pleasing and interesting.

You can think of grace notes as the musical equivalent of decorations or ornamentations. They can’t exist on their own but you can build them on top of an existing piece of music.

As an example, let’s look at this plain fence gate here:

image[gate_plain, a plain and simple fence gate]

The musical equivalent of this would be a plain and simple melody. Let’s take the following lick as an example:

lick[316,0]

There’s nothing wrong with this simple gate and this simple melody. Both are quite pleasing to the eye and to the ear, respectively.

However, if you drive by the same plain old gate every day it might lose some of its charm after a while. In the same way, if you play a melody over and over again in the exact same way, it can get old faster than you might think.

This is where decorations can be helpful to grab the viewer’s or the listener’s attention for longer.

Here is a fence gate very similar to the one above, but it features some decorative elements:

image[gate_elaborate, an elaborate fence gate with ornamental swirls]

The pretty ornaments make the gate more interesting and “fancy”. In the same way we can make the above lick more “fancy” by adding some grace notes:

lick[317,0]

I find the effect remarkable!

A few short, seemingly unimportant notes can make an otherwise unremarkable melody shine and stand out.

In my example above you notice that there is nothing very complicated about grace notes.

Grace notes are in fact the simplest form of musical decorations. They consist of one or two notes that lead the listener into your target note.

That’s it.

Simply add an extra note or two below (when coming from below) or above (when coming from above) the target note.

You can place your grace notes wherever you like, but don’t use them on every note in your melody.

The greatest effect is achieved if you place them sparingly and strategically to highlight a select few notes in the melody.

A simple and effective way to improvise music

Now that you know what grace notes are, I challenge you to pick the jazz standard you are currently working on and give it a go.

There are many ways to create improvised music over jazz standards. Among these, using grace notes is by far the easiest in my opinion. All you have to do is take the melody of a jazz standard and throw in a few grace notes to produce an interesting variation.

As an example, let’s look at the first 4 bars of the blues ballad “Georgia on My Mind”.

This is the melody as written in the real book. Nothing more and nothing less:

lick[318,0]

It sounds a bit boring, if you ask me. Especially slow and bluesy standards like this one can benefit a lot from grace notes to build extra tension and keep the melody interesting.

Now look what happens to the melody if I add some embellishments:

lick[319,0]

Notice any difference? The melody is still clearly recognizable, but it is now “enriched” with several grace notes.

This is a good way to keep things interesting when playing through any standard in the real book. The melody “as is” can get old fast if you play through the form several times.

You can make a huge difference simply by adding a few grace notes here and there.

Creating variations of a melody is one thing, but grace notes also come in handy when you divert from the song’s melody, i.e. during the solo section.

In that case you do two things: you improvise a melody AND you embellish your own melody with grace notes.

This may sound more difficult than it actually is. Try coming up with a new melody over a few bars in a standard, and once you have one, you can insert grace notes.

This can make the overall solo very attractive!

Here is an example, once again over the first 4 bars of “Georgia on my mind”:

lick[320,0]

The grace note challenge

It is your turn now!

We have seen that grace notes can be very useful to make melodies – both standard and improvised ones – more interesting.

Try to actively and consciously focus on grace notes in your next practice session.

Here’s an exercise you can start with:

Pick any lick from our lick collection and try to insert a few grace notes.

Once you get comfortable doing this, you will have the power in your hand to turn even the most boring melodies into fascinating and enthralling pieces of music.


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Georgia on my mind

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Georgia on my mind with grace notes

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