SUMMARY: The absolute best book on learning jazz improvisation I have ever seen (and I have seen a LOT)! A complete course on learning to improvise that takes you on a long journey with small steps, but if you do the work you will get there. If you truly want to learn to improvise jazz guitar, get this book!
Unlike most books that claim to teach you to improvise guitar jazz, Steven Kirby undersells his great new method with the title Jazz Guitar Improvisation Strategies. Like most such books, he does make big promises about what you will be able to play after working with his book, but unlike virtually every one that I’ve seen, he fulfills them! This book provides a comprehensive method for learning to improvise.
Another crucial element that Kirby states right up front is that you, the reader, are responsible for your own learning, and he will guide you along the way. Your “duties” include deep listening to jazz (not just putting it on in the background at a party) and analyzing your favourite parts. This should hardly be called work if you are aiming to be able to do what your jazz guitar heroes are doing. For his part, Mr. Kirby will lead you from simple skills to more and more complex ones, never going beyond where you should be at any point. In fact, he periodically stops and tells you not to go beyond that page until you can demonstrate the skills he has been demonstrating, and you have supposedly been practising. He even shows you how to practise for maximum benefit, usually in sessions of 15 minutes. This is goal-directed learning, with small goals that you can attain in these short but intense workouts.
You may not believe that he will guide you to this level accomplishment, especially since most of us have tried several methods that have abjectly failed us even after months or years of practice. I strongly suggest that you read the entire book before starting to work with it, to get an idea of how comprehensive your work will be. I tried to retain my skepticism while reading the whole thing, but once I got to the last few chapters I was convinced that this is an exceptional method. I say this with some authority. When working for Just Jazz Guitar I came across at least one jazz improvisation book a month, often one a week. Most were warmed-over versions of their teachers’ methods that had already been published, and were not very successful as methods. This book stands head-and-shoulders above any of those books, and I am going to use it myself to improve my own improvising. I’m marking it in my calendar to give you an update in one year, but I don’t expect to be “finished” by then. There is always more to learn, and Steven Kirby gives you strategies to keep improving for years.
Kirby points out that many of the jazz greats loved and studied the music of J. S. Bach, and this is still an excellent way to learn to improvise. Bach was a master of single-line music that clearly expresses the underlying harmony, and there is a lot you can learn from listening and studying his music, and even playing it. HOWEVER, there is a catch, and an important one. As a guitarist, you might look for transcriptions of Bach on guitar, and this defeats the entire purpose. Transcribers virtually always add in harmony so you lose the single lines and your opportunity to find the underlying harmony for yourself. They also usually change the key, but this is much less important than the fact that many of their chords are guesses, and are often wrong. Sadly, one of the worst was Andres Segovia, who”beefed up” Bach’s magnificent violin Chaconne with 6-note chords; this in music for a 4-string instrument! This is just one example of hundreds, if not thousand of changes that Bach’s music has endured in transcription, and not just for the guitar. Some of the nuances of single lines are lost on piano as well as other instruments. So I urge you to listen to his music for solo violin and solo cello (aka solo violoncello).
Sets of his suites, partitas and sonatas for cello and violin are available in affordable books from Dover. For listening, I recommend the Cello Suites played by Yo-Yo Ma, particularly his later set which is more expressive, although either set is magnificent. For violin there are many choices: Itzhak Perlman plays a beautiful version, as does Viktoria Mullova, whose new recording includes both sonatas and partitas (her first recording is just the partitas). Mullova’s new version also benefits from her years of study of Baroque performance practice if you are interested in a more “authentic” style.
You may also want to use the IMSLP/Petrucci online library, with an enormous collection of out-of-copyright music that you can download in score, some in MIDI, and others in performance. All this is free, but if you use it extensively I would suggest a donation, and if possible subscribing for quicker access and to keep the library online for the future. (For $28.00 per year you have instant access to the music of thousands of composers, and the list grows daily.)
The listening and analysis are to serve the goal of being able to play smoothly over the chord changes, so that a listener can hear the underlying chord progression from a smooth line. This type of motion is what Kirby calls “flow”, which is different from the widely known psychological concept of Flow, pioneered by Mihaly (“Mike”) Csikszentmihalyi . This is a state you reach when you are concentrating on something just slightly beyond your current knowledge, or creating something such as music, so that time seems to disappear and you “come out of it” minutes or hours later, having made significant progress. (I had the honour of speaking with Mike at a conference in Italy, and the list of famous musicians alone who participated in his research is staggering!) I can only give you the short version, and I recommend Csikszentmihalyi‘s book “Flow” for a fuller explanation, as well as “The Evolving Self” which would fit nicely with the program that Kirby sets out to enable you to improvise beyond anything you believe that you can do now. Just one of Kirby’s techniques is a 15-minute practice session in which you set a goal that you can achieve in that time (and he gives several examples at different levels) so that at the end of the session you can do what you could not at the start. This is a perfect way to generate Flow, and also to give each session your best. Who could not find 15 minutes to practice, especially when you know you will achieve something? You will even learn how to set these goals by breaking down larger goals, so that after several sessions you will have achieved this larger goal, which itself may be part of an even larger one. And of course you can practice longer, as well as other things such as learning songs.
I am not just tooting my own horn by saying this is a book that NEEDS a review, because you can’t realize its incredible depth from a casual read in a music store, or an online blurb that is short and similar to supposedly similar books. This book contains a full course in improvisation with bonuses such as learning more subtle harmony, the inherent counterpoint in single-line writing, coherent voice-leading, and generating coherent and effective solo lines from simple 4-note cells. These cells are given to you at first, and once you learn them over the entire neck, you then create your own cells. One of the biggest bonuses comes from this, as you learn the entire neck by moving these simple cells over the entire neck, both vertically (up the neck) and horizontally (across in a single position). This constant reinforcement opens up the entire neck of the guitar as well as all keys.
Does this sound like a lot? It is! This is a book that you should study for years, and will keep you motivated as you learn more and more and enjoy your focused practice sessions. The feeling of accomplishment grows exponentially as you master something new in every practice session! You will quickly learn to improvise over simple progressions and gradually work out from there. There is no reason for this progress to ever end as you will discover the endless depth of music. Meanwhile you will feel more and more at ease in jam sessions, and even writing your own tunes.
I cannot think of a single excellent idea I’ve seen in any book on improvisation that doesn’t show up here, nor a single book that contains even half of them. This is simply the best book on improvisation that I have seen and one of very, very few that can work through without the need for a teacher. It is not a simple one though. It takes you on a long journey and you have to commit yourself to it and stick to the whole program: deep listening, analyzing, and playing. Sure, you may slip occasionally but you are working at your own pace and can pick up where you can comfortably play and get going again.
Do you need a teacher? Learning styles vary and you may want a teacher to keep you focused. This book would work well with a teacher guiding you, using it as a “textbook”. I cannot imagine a competent teacher who would not recognize the value in teaching with the book. If I found one, I would run to find a better teacher!
I can’t imagine a better book to learn improvisation from.