Pop Improvisation Based On A Rhythm

A guide on how to approach a grade 1 or 2 improvisation exercise in a Jazz style when only a rhythm is given as a starting point, includes a Free MP3 Backing Track.

Before starting this lesson I advise you read our Introduction To Improvisation lesson first. You will also need a copy of This Free MP3 that is used as a backing track for this lesson. The content on this page will be similar to other four bar rhythm based improvisation lessons and you can find a list of those in the related lessons section at the bottom of the page.

In this improvisation exercise you will be presented with a four bar skeleton pattern similar to that given in our improvisation introduction. Through this page I will be discussing how to approach creating a part for it that could be applied to a similar exercise in an exam situation. Here is the notation for the exercise discussed in this lesson:

The sheet music for the exercise

So from this notation you can see the tempo is 120bpm, it is played in a pop style, it's a four bar pattern and it is based on a rhythm. You can also see that bars 2 and 3 are to be the same or similar to bar 1 and that in bar 4 there is a fill, which is more than enough information to construct a part. First of all let's make sure you can play the given rhythm. You will be playing on beat 1 1 and the '+', which is very similar to the rhythm used in This Basic Groove.

Once you have the rhythm you should think about what structure you are going to use for the piece. For improvisation at grades 1 and 2 I strongly recommend following an 'A B A C' structure. By doing this you have a 'set' pattern for any four bar improvisation that you then just need to fill in the parts for. In the case of this structure, 'A' refers to a bar of groove, 'B' is a variation on that groove and 'C' is a fill. There are several examples of how to apply parts to this in the lessons linked above. You don't have to follow this structure, I recommend it because it gives you more options for showing off your abilities whilst sticking to the given parameters.

Now you know what structure you are following you need a groove for the 'A' part. The groove will be played in bars 1 to 3 so is the bulk of the phrase. In this case we will use the same approach taken in our Introduction To Grooves lesson, where you were given a rhythm and then turned that rhythm into a groove. An important thing to take into account at this point is the genre the piece is to be played in. You should include traits of the genre within your groove to make it more appropriate to the backing track. Drum parts in pop songs tend to be very simple and tend to keep a rhythmic base whilst not interfering with the vocal part. It is quite common to see no right hand in a pop groove and you will find a lot of repetition.

You are obviously free to orchestrate and embelish the given rhythm however you wish but for a pop part I would stick as close to it as possible. Below I have given two examples grooves for the given rhythm. Note the lack of right hand and the simplistic nature of both grooves.

An example groove for this exercise

Have a play around the parts and come up with a pattern you like. Just beacuse I haven't used right hands here it doesn't mean you shouldn't, just keep it simple. In an exam situation you will have a couple of minutes to prepare so the most important thing is to make sure you have at least a groove you can play.

That's the 'A' sorted out, which is bars 1 and 3 if following the ABAC structure, so let's look at making the 'B' section. This is just going to be a subtle variation on the groove used as 'A' and there are a lot of things you could do for this. Here are some suggestions:

  • Add some simple right hand decoration
  • Add some rests.
  • Mix up the orchestration of the rhythm
  • Copy something from the backing track.

Below I have a shown one written example of each of those ideas using the left hand groove from the examples above.

Four options for the 'B' section

Finally we need a 'C' section, which will be the bar marked 'fill' on the sheet music. Again, listen to the backing track and listen for anything in the fourth bar you can take and apply to your improvisation as this is how you will get the best marks. Unfortunately in this piece the fourth bar maintains the same rhythm and just moves around a new chord so that isn't too helpful. Just remember to do something simple, so maybe some kind of eighth note tom fill. As I've said in many improvisation lessons now, always go with an option that you know you can play well. A simple idea played really well is always far better than a great idea played badly. Below are four possible options for a 'C' section.

Four options for the 'C' section

So there are a whole bunch of ideas for building a four bar part in the Pop style. You hopefully now have a good idea of how to take a rhythm, turn it into a pop groove, create a variation on that pop groove then create a fill to complete a four bar phrase. The more you practice these type of exercises the quicker you will get and eventually you will be able to play without any thought, which really is true improvisation. To end on here are two examples of possible combinations that would fit this improvisation exercise.

Full Phrase 1

A full four bar phrase for this improvisation

Full Phrase 2

A full four bar phrase for this improvisation
  1. Create your own part for the improvisation exercise presented at the start of this lesson.
  2. Play your part to the backing track and see if you think it fits well.
  3. Think about different ways you could approach this exercise.

Up Next

I recomend covering our Groove Based Pop Improvisation lesson next.