How To Improvise Over Chords On The Sax (Or Any Instrument)

In this video, I break down the mystery of how to improvise over chords on the sax. I start off by introducing chords and chord symbols. Then I break them down so you understand what the chord is actually telling you to play. After showing you how to read chords and chord symbols, I give you a 4 step process to apply to any chord that you want to improvise over.

4 Steps To Improvise Over Chords

  • Step #1 – Play chord outlines – This is where we learn the notes in the chord and get used to grouping them together.
  • Step #2 – Improvise with chord tones – With this step, we turn the basic outline into something that sounds like a solo.
  • Step #3 – Play scale outlines – Now we plug in the correct scale that goes along with the chord.
  • Step #4 – Improvise using the scale – Then we turn the scale into an improvised phrase.

You can learn how to improvise over just about any type of chord using this 4 step process including improvising over a major 7th chord, improvising over a dominant 7th chord, or improvising over a minor 7th chord.


This video gives you a quick overview of how to improvise over chords, but inside the Sax School, we have several courses dedicated to learning how to improvise that range from beginner to advanced. Each course is set up with a step-by-step teaching process and all of the improv courses are taught on both alto & tenor sax. There are PDF downloads for all of the songs that we learn and all of the improv songs have backing tracks to play along with. Click the “ENROLL NOW” link in the main menu if you are ready to take a giant step forward in your improv journey today.


What’s up everybody? My name is Scott Paddock and today we’re going to unravel the mystery of how to improvise over top of chords.

When I first start teaching my students improvisation, we usually start off with just doing the blues scale and we’ll do that for three or four songs in two or three different keys. While we do this, they get comfortable playing solos and making things up. As well as build a lot of confidence in their soloing. After that confidence has developed, then we usually dig a little bit deeper and talk about how chords and scales go together with improvisation.

Before we go any further, I would like to ask that if you find these videos helpful, I would really appreciate it if you subscribe to my channel, give me a thumbs up, and share it with your friends.

If you’re not already comfortable with blues scale improvisation or how to read chord symbols, I would strongly recommend checking out two of my previous videos. They cover a lot of the groundwork and this one is going to build on top of that. The first video is: how to improvise and it starts off with the blue scale. It just takes you step-by-step into playing your first improvised solo. The second one is: understanding chords and chord symbols. And that one goes pretty in depth into how chords are created, how you change the scale to make each different chord. And I’m going to cover that a little bit in this video, but if you already have that groundwork from my previous videos, it’s really going to make this video way easier to figure out. So, I’ll put the links below in the description.

Before we go any further, I want to put a little disclaimer out there that this video is just an intro to improvising over chords. So, it’s not going to cover every chord, it’s not going to cover every aspect of playing over top of chords. It’s just going to get you started and get you comfortable playing over top of the basic chords that you’re going to find in some of the first standards that you’re going to play solos over top of.

Okay. So, let’s get started. For our first example we are going to use the chord G7 and we’re going to apply four different steps to this chord that make you feel comfortable improvising over top of it. Now when I talk about G7, I’m talking about the key of the alto saxophone. If you are a trumpet or a tenor player, that is going to be C7. And if you are a C instrument, a piano player or a guitar player that was going to be your B flat seven.

We’re going to start off with four measures of G7 and the chord symbol G7, the G is telling you that is based on the G scale. And the seven is telling you to flat your seventh degree. So in your G scale, you normally have an F sharp, and we are going to lower that to an F natural. So our chord tones, which are 1, 3, 5, and 7, and a G7 chord are going to be G B D and F.

When we’re doing the chord outlines, we’re going to play quarter notes. So there’ll be four quarter notes in each measure because we’re in four, four time. So we have four measures of G7. So we’re going to play our G7 chord, which is G B D F four times in a row.

Now, since we have the same chord, several times in a row, instead of just going up every time, we’re going to make it interesting by going up for the first chord and down for the second. So for the first G7, we’re going to play G B D F.

And for the second measure, we’re going to go down. We’re going to play G F D B. So put that together, going up and down for two measures.

Now we have four measures. So we’re going to go up and down two times. And at the very end, I’m just going to play a G even though it’s not part of those four measures, just so that it sounds finished. One, two, ready, go.

Now that you know how to play chord outlines over top of a chord, we are going to use those notes and begin our improvisation part of it. So what the first thing we’re going to do is we’re going to take our four notes in our G7 chord, which our a G, B, D and F. And we’re just going to switch up the rhythm a little bit. So I’m going to play some notes longer, some notes, shorter. It’s going to sound like this one, two, ready.

So you can start to hear an idea beginning to develop. It’s not the coolest idea ever, but we’re definitely taken our G7 chord and turn it into something… And turning it into something else. So the next step with this is we’re going to do the exact same thing, except this time we’re going to repeat some notes. So we’re going to play two GS in a row or three F’s in a row or two D’s or two B’s in a row. We’re just going to give it more movement by repeating some notes. One, two, ready, go.

You can definitely hear more emotion and more movement in there. And that is the beginning of the improv. Improvisation is this taking whatever notes or scale fit the chord and making up a cool rhythm that goes along with them. With our court outline solos that we’re working on right now, the next step is going to be play the four notes in the chord again, which are G, B, D, and F. And this time you can jump around on them. So you don’t have to play them in order, you can jump around on any G, B, D or F on your saxophone, and you don’t have to play them in order. It’ll sound like this one, two. Ready? Go.

Sounds way more like a solo, right? Take another. Listen. One, two, ready, go.

Now we’re improvising. Again it’s just chord outline solos, but that is definitely at the beginning. I want you to figure this part out. The next part is even easier.

Okay. So our first step was playing a chord outline. Our second step was play a chord outline solo. Now we’re going to plug the scale into the chord so that we have more notes to choose from. So for our G7 chord, that again is telling us that we have a G scale. We’re going to have a flat seven. So the scale that fits that is the G Mixolydian scale. So if you watched my tutorial on modes, or you already know your modes, you’ll know that that is based on the fifth degree of the major scale, but all you really need to know is that a Mixolydian scale is just a major scale with a flat seven.

So in the key of G you would play a G scale with the F natural instead of F sharp.

That’s your G7 scale or your G Mixolydian scale. Just like what we did, but the chord outlines, our first step was just playing over top of the chords. So we’re going to do that with the scales also. We’re going to play four measures of an ascending G Mixolydian scale. Ascending, meaning just going up and Mixolydian meaning a major scale with a flat 7. One, two, ready? Go.

That time. You’ll notice we were using eight notes. So I was going one and two and three and four and… Just going up the G Mixolydian scale. Now we have the same chord back to back. So this time we’re going to go up for one measure and down for the second measure. So measure one up, measure two down, measure three up, measure four down. It’ll sound like this. One, two. Ready, go.

So that is the scale that goes along with your G7 chord. Now let’s take this scale and instead of just playing up and down, we’re going to mix up the order a little bit. So we’re going to go up a few notes then down a little bit, then up some more notes, then down a little bit. Like we’re kind of winding our way through the scale.

We’re not going to jump around that much in the beginning, but we’re just going to kind of wind our way through the scale. It’ll sound like this one, two, ready, go.

So that was still pretty much a G7 scale, except it wasn’t just straight up and down. I was kind of curving around a little bit, going up and down throughout the scale. Okay. Now that you can play up and down the scale. We’re getting a little more creative and this time we’re going to jump around in this scale a little bit. So instead of just going scale-wise motion every now and then we’re going to jump a note. So…

Something like that. Where you’re still sounding like you’re kind of playing a scale, but you’re jumping from note to note, instead of only doing scale-wise motion. Take a listen to it. One, two. Ready, go.

And that’s it. That’s how you use a scale to improvise. So now let’s put the chord approach where we jump around playing chord outline solos with the scale approach, where we play a scale, but just kind of mix up the order a little bit and put those two together to make everything sound a little bit more interesting. It’ll sound something like this.

So if you notice I’m playing my scale and then every now and then I’ll jump to a chord tone. So I’ll be playing my scale and then I’ll jump to a G or a B or a D or an F. Those are usually your strongest notes. So those are the notes that you want to jump to take a listen again.

And that’s it. Those are your improvised lines over two chords. So now that we can improvise over the chord G7, you just apply exactly what we did to any other chord that you’re going to play. So let’s do it over a C7. So for a C7, we’re based in the key of C and the seven is telling you that our seventh, which is normally a B natural is lowered to B flat.

So our first step is just playing a chord outline. So in the key of C, we have one which is C three, which is E five, which has G and you’re flat seven, which is B flat. We’re just going to play up and down and a chord outline.

Then the next thing is we are going to take that chord outline and do a chord outline solo with it.

Now we have our C7 scale, which is a C major scale with a flat seven set, means we’re going to play a C scale with a B flat.

And our first step with that is we’re going to just mix up the scale a little bit.

Now we’re going to put the C7 chord outline solo along with the C Mixolydian scale.

It’s that simple. You just take your scale and your chord and you make up cool rhythms. Now, what do we do when the chord changes? So, so far, we’ve had four measures of G7 and four measures of C7. What happens if we have two measures of G7 and then two measures of C7? What we do is just follow the exact same rules. When we see the G7, we’re going to play our G7 chord, which would be G B D F, and our G Mixolydian scale, which would be a G major scale with an F natural. And then when we hit the C7, we’re going to play a C, E, G, B flat, and our C major scale with a flat seven, which is a C scale with a B flat. So the chord outline would sound like this.

Did you hear that chord change? When I went from the G7 into the C7, you could definitely hear the chords change. Take a listen again.

Now we’ve got a chord outline solo using those two chords, so for two measures we’ve got a chord outline solo in the key of G7 and then two measures we’ve got a chord outline solo in the key of C7.

It’s that simple. You just follow the chords, whatever the chord is telling you. Those are the notes that you use. Now, we’re going to do it with our G Mixolydian scale and our C Mixolydian scale. One, two, ready, go.

Again, two, ready, go.

Now, there is a second way of thinking about improv like this. You can take your G7 chord or your G7 Mixolydian scale, which we know is all natural. And your C Mixolydian scale, which we notice has B flat. And for your first two measures, when you’re in G7, you can think all naturals, and then you just keep going, and then you switch to one flat to B flat.. So that way you’re thinking about your improvisation and a key signature kind of way. It would sound like this. One, two, ready, go.

So if you noticed, I wasn’t chord outlining quite as hard. I was kind of playing the same idea. And then when I got to that C7, I switched to a B-flat instead of a B natural. Now, when you’re soloing over chords like that, you definitely have different chord tones in your G7, and then your C7. In your G7: G B D and F are your main notes, your chord tones, and in C7: C E G and B flat, or your main notes or your chord tones. So those are the ones you want to jump to. Those are the ones that you want to accent, but when you’re playing a line, as long as you just change the key signature to fit the chord, you’re going to be in good shape and your solos and your lines are going to sound really good and really connected.

That’s definitely a little bit more advanced because you have to be able to know what’s in the chord right away, and be able to check them out and see it as you’re going along. But the better you get at reading chord symbols and improvising over chord symbols, the easier that becomes.

All right. So now that you know how to improvise over a dominant seventh chord, we’ve done G7 and C7. You can apply that to any other dominant seventh chord. So D7, E7, A flat 7, anything that’s seven. You just change that scale with a flat seven, and you use the chord outline ideas and the scale solo out deal… And the scale solo line ideas.

So what happens when we go to minor, like would have happened if we had A minor seven, what do we do? We just changed to that chord. We know that A tells you that you’re in the key of A and a minor sign tells you that you have a flat third, and the seven tells you that you have a flat seven. So our main notes would be, or our chord tones would be A C E and G. So this is what a chord outline would sound like in a minor seven.

So now, your notes are A C E and G. Now we’re going to do a court outline solo using those same notes.

Again, we’re just soloing and using the notes that are in the chord, which is A, C, E and G. Now we’re going to plug that into a scale when you think about a flat third and a flat seventh that belongs to the Dorian mode, which is built on the second degree of the major scale. And all that means is that it’s a major scale with a flat third and a flat seventh. We had Mixolydian it was just a flat seventh. Now in Dorian or Dorian minor is a flat third and a flat seventh. So in this example, with A minor seven, we’re talking about A scale with a C natural and a G natural.

So the only key signature or the only sharp and the key signature would be F sharp. So it sound like this.

Now there are some more minor scales that we could choose from, but to keep it simple, as we’re getting started, we’re going to use the Dorian minor as that’s the most common when we’re playing jazz solos. So now we’re going to take our A Dorian minor scale, which only has F sharp in it. Because it has a flat third and a flat seventh, and we are going to do a scale line solo.

That’s it, that’s improvising, that’s improvising over chords. Now we’re going to take the chord outline solo and the scale line solo and put them together.

You can apply this technique to just about any chord. And that is how you improvise over chords. Now, obviously we didn’t cover diminished chords or augmented chords. For those in the beginning, I would suggest just playing chord outlines, solos over top of this chords. They usually are only going to last one measure. So playing a chord outline solo is going to sound totally fine.

But when you have your major chords, your Mixolydian chords and your minor chords all figured out and know how to solo over them. That covers a whole lot of ground and opens up a whole lot of songs for you to improvise over. Thanks for taking the time to check out this video. I hope that you found it helpful, and if you did, I would really appreciate it if you subscribed to my channel, gave it a thumbs up and shared it with your friends. If you have any suggestions for future videos or future tutorials, definitely leave me a message below, or if you have any questions, leave me a message below as well. Thanks a lot.

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