Berklee Today

Is Chord-Tone Soloing Necessary for Advanced Improvisers?

I recommend that advanced improvisers take the following chord-tone soloing test to determine for themselves whether or not they are ready to use the chord-scale approach on a particular tune's progression.

    1. Write out the chord progression of a familiar song on manuscript paper. Put the chord symbols above the staff and write out the chord tones in root position on the staff to observe while soloing.

    2. Record yourself playing an unaccompanied four- to six-chorus improvised solo at a medium tempo on the chord progression using only chord tones. Try to use all or most of the chord tones of each chord you play on. Include rhythmic variety, syncopation, varied phrase lengths, pacing, dynamics, etc.

    3. Transcribe your improvised solo and analyze the function of each melody note as it relates to each chord, being careful to note harmonic anticipations whenever they occur. Write the melody/harmony relationship on the transcription under each melody note.

If your improvised melody is more than 90 percent accurate (e.g., your melody contains nearly all of the chord tones of each chord you played on), it is safe to assume that you are ready to practice improvising on the progression using chord scales. Or, if you prefer, change the tempo and/or the key and repeat the test.

If your improvised melody is less than 90 percent accurate (as is often the case, even with advanced players), it is reasonable to assume that you will benefit from practicing chord-tone soloing on the song's harmony.


These steps outline an effective way to practice chord-tone soloing on a chord progression.

    1. Practice playing arpeggio patterns in eighth notes and triplets for several minutes on each chord in a progression to become familiar with the chord tones on your instrument.

    2. Improvise on each chord of the progression individually (one chord at a time, modal style), for several minutes while incorporating the arpeggio patterns and using only chord tones. You can also use a one- or two-measure rhythmic motif, such as:

    That will help you to focus less attention on rhythm and more on melodic accuracy, melodic curve, etc.

    3. Improvise on two- or three-chord groupings from the tune's progression while observing the original harmonic rhythm, using only chord tones, with and without a rhythmic motif. Chord-tone soloing is a great way to improve your level of proficiency with any song's harmony. By practicing chord-tone soloing before you work on chord-scale soloing, you'll be building your musical house from the floor up rather than from the roof down. Happy hammering!