9 Masterclass Jazz Guitar Lessons to Help You Improve Your Improvisation

9 Masterclass Jazz Guitar Lessons to Help You Improve Your Improvisation

Henry Johnson has had the opportunity to work with several of the masters of jazz over the course of his career, recording and performing with Jack McDuff, Freddie Hubbard, Ramsey Lewis, Jimmy Smith, Sonny Stitt, Stanley Turrentine, and Joe Williams just to name a few. Henry achieved acclaim of his own with his debut album, You’re the One, earning him a five-star rating from DownBeat magazine and a Grammy nomination.

For Henry’s first TrueFire course, Jazz Expressions, he’s presented a way of playing that utilizes different “areas of activity”. These are places on the fretboard that can be easily connected in which improvisation can flourish. In these 9 free jazz guitar lessons taken from the course, Henry will present the basics of how to improvise when playing jazz, and then he’ll take you through two performance studies that utilize this way of playing.

Inversions & Areas of Activity

Download the tab and notation for this jazz lesson on TrueFire.

This guitar lesson is an application of playing in the “areas of activity” for the major 7th, minor 7th, and dominant 7th inversions for G. These areas are great places to improvise, especially a great place to play the pentatonic scale. Give it a try.

You might be wondering, “Why do I need to play in any given shape? Why am I playing in a high shape or a low shape? What determines that?” For me, I’ve been playing with piano players and keyboard players all my life, and when playing in the band, you have to interact with them. So, if I’m playing with a keyboard player who’s playing high, I want to be playing low. You want to play the shape that makes the most sense so that you’re not in the same register that they are. And if you do this for a long time, it will start to happen automatically.

Phrases Not Scales

Download the tab and notation for this jazz lesson on TrueFire.

One of things when I came up playing guitar, was that if I learned all my scales that I’d be able to play music. In a very short time period, I learned that not to be true. Music is a language, and the scales are just alphabets. You really need phrases to actually put sentences together.

So, how do you get to phrases from scales? Well, music has three elements that make it up: melody, harmony, and rhythm. When you combine these three elements together, that’s when you’re actually starting to make music. And this music will affect people, which is what we want: music should make people feel something. In the video, we’ll through how to build phrases that incorporate each of these elements.

Rhythm Drives the Solo

Download the tab and notation for this jazz lesson on TrueFire.

When I’m playing, I’m always listening to everyone around me, and I take my substitutions from the bass player. The bassist isn’t going to just play four notes on one chord – they could, but it wouldn’t move around as well – he’s going to walk up and down. What I do is take some of the note’s they’re using and use it to reharmonize everything. I don’t have to play every chord that he’s playing, but I have the option to use his notes as my color notes. This will help me drive the rhythm and create new melodic content.

Bossa Groove – Overview

In this performance, we’ll be playing an original bossa nova piece that’s written in Ab. There’s a lot of chords to keep track of, so definitely make use of your chart on this one. We’ll start out using octaves, then the next chorus I’ll play single notes with more simple, thematic material. On the last chorus, we’ll be wandering free!

Bossa Groove – Performance

Download the tab, notation, and jam track for this jazz lesson on TrueFire.

Now I’ll perform a bossa nova groove in Ab. There’s a lot of chords to keep track of, so definitely make use of your chart on this one. We’ll start out using octaves, then the next chorus I’ll play single notes with more simple, thematic material. On the last chorus, we’ll be wandering free!

Bossa Groove – Breakdown

Let’s break down this bossa nova performance. I started out using octaves, and when I’m using them, I’m trying to create something thematic and focusing on the rhythm. One thing you might notice with bossa nova is that you have time to play a lot of different kind of rhythms. Something I like to do is delay the rhythm, creating a push-and-pull type of feeling. It’s something that’s hard to write down, you just have to feel it out.

In the second chorus, I’m playing single notes, and notice that I keep the rhythm very simple because I want to hear the melody. Think like you’re playing a horn, and you have to stop to blow air in it, which means you have to stop picking and let the notes hold.

Finally, in the last chorus, I let my mind go free – but, all the elements we’ve been talking about are being used more than ever: rhythm displacement, thematic repetition, the blues, lots of colors, flurries of notes, etc. My imagination is taking over, and in my mind, everything is totally free. That’s the feeling I want to portray with the chorus.

Swing Blues – Intro

This is a blues in F, where we’ll be looking at some things like rhythmic displacement and different chord colors where we’ll be using 3rds and some double stops. Check it out!

Swing Blues – Performance

Download the tab, notation, and jam track for this jazz lesson on TrueFire.

In this jazz guitar lesson, I’ll be performing “Swing Blues”. This is a blues in F, where we’ll be looking at some things like rhythmic displacement and different chord colors where we’ll be using 3rds and some double stops. Check it out!

Swing Blues – Breakdown

Let’s break down some of the things I just did. This was a blues taking advantage of all the areas of activity using an F7 inversion, going up through them all and back down. We’ll be taking advantage of the pentatonic here to really draw out the bluesy feeling.

In the second chorus, I started to play with the rhythm a little bit more, and we’re keeping it bluesy but adding in some chromatic ideas. Another thing that I did is used a pull off at the last minute to make it come off different than usual. This adds a nice rhythmic variety to the solo. You can also change things up by playing in half time, even though everyone else is playing 4/4.


Make sure to watch the rest of this jazz masterclass on TrueFire, where you’ll find even more information about improvising using the “areas of activity”. As always, each video guitar lesson comes with tab, notation, and jam tracks so you can practice on your own. Check it out now!