Improvising: What To Play When You Can’t Think Of Anything To Play


That’s the short answer to the question posed in the title of this post.

Seriously. If you’re improvising a solo, and can’t think of what to play next, play nothing.

You’ll notice I said, when you “can’t think of what to play next…”

Can’t think. So what to do instead?

You wait.

If you wait, the music will come to you.

Now, to be clear, you won’t need to wait long. You won’t have to. But by waiting, instead of calculating and planning, you’ll shift your consciousness from the mechanical and mundane, to the creative and mystical. This shift in thinking makes all the difference. You move from a place of effort and anticipation, to one of receptiveness and responsiveness. You call upon your intuition.

Of course, if you’re a novice improviser, you certainly need to work through lots of the mechanical, self-conscious, “this note on this chord” stuff. That’s part of the learning curve. But you’ll do best if you aspire toward being guided by your intuition, impulse, sense of movement, rhythm, imagination…

It’s not uncommon to find  jazz musicians who learn a plethora of licks and patterns for the express purpose of  “having something to fall back on” in case they’re not being “kissed by the muse” and “can’t think of what to play next.”

I, too, practice and study scale and arpeggio patterns, interval patterns, as well as transcribe and study other improviser’s solos (all with the aim of becoming a better improviser).

But I don’t do any of it to give me something to fall back upon if I can’t think of what to play, if I get “stuck”. Rather, I work on these things to feed my ear and imagination. To give me an experience of feeling, hearing and moving sound in a particular way.

But when I’m improvising, I never think of the things I’ve practiced. To do so would sound obvious and predictable (at best) and would sound stammering and disconnected (at worst). I’ve learned this over the years through direct experience.

It’s important to understand, and to cultivate, the very thing that really drives your muse when you play: Movement.

Time, feel, rhythm. These are the elements that fuel, that provide impetus to, your tonal imagination when you improvise (if you let them). It’s like you’re dancing inside, pulsating, and just letting the pitches (from all the studying, practicing, and listening you’ve done) fall into your dance. It’s an intuitive process, and a beautiful expreience.

Now, to some degree, this involves a leap of faith, and a bit of practice. But if you give it a go, you might be surprised to discover four important things:

1. You don’t have to fill every second within a solo with your sound.

2. When you learn to wait, you also learn to listen better.

3. When you listen better, you respond more naturally and creatively within the context of the group making the music.

4. When you hear yourself more clearly within this group context, you’re also able to hear (and appreciate) what you’re actually playing (instead of what you’re thinking).

All good things, for sure.

You can start practicing this today with any kind of play along backing track, or even a metronome. See what it’s like when you wait for your muse (give yourself time to understand what this even means!)  See what it’s like to let time pass in an improvisational form (tune, chord changes, etc.) without your sound. Notice how differently you can respond (how spaciously!), moment to moment, as you improvise.

The great improvising saxophonist Lee Konitz said that he once let an entire chorus of the tune on which he was improvising go by because he couldn’t think of what to play. He next said, very sincerely, “It was the best chorus I’ve ever played.” (He went on to say how that “empty chorus” fit into the larger context of improvising his entire solo.)

And to quote another great improviser, saxophonist Sonny Rollins (from a recent interview about practicing solo, unaccompanied saxophone improvising) the aim in his practice is, “moving toward the subconscious.”

Indeed. It is this subconsciousness that is the true home of our creativity, because it exists without the filter of the calculating and judging mind. So rather than thinking of what to play, next, wait. Listen to and follow your inner impulse, your inner voice. And enjoy being surprised by what comes to you.


  1. Nick Collis says

    Thank you Bill for sharing this with me ! I have been a drummer before switching late in life to jazz piano and learning the instrument in an intellectual adult fashion rather than than the “exploring sound ” way a child would . One of the biggest challenges I now face out gigging is turning off my analytical approach in favour of letting “the music come to me “…..almost as if I don’t trust myself enough!Your post helps point me in the right direction…..thanks Nick

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