Patterns: Part 1 – Why Practice Patterns?

Let’s start by eliminating what patterns are NOT:

Most patterns are NOT solo material. Plug in your David Baker diminished pattern lick over the first altered dominant chord you can find at your next gig, and your solo will be about as tasty as soggy, cold French fries. Yes, they are still French fries, and technically they qualify as food, but would you ever walk into B.K. and ask for “extra cold and soggy fries, please”? Don’t serve your audience cold fries.

Soggy Pattern Fry
Soggy Pattern Fry

Bottom line: don’t practice a pattern just so you can have some cool crap to plug into your solo. It’s typically lazy and unimaginative. You should PRACTICE plugging patterns into tunes to get their sound in your ear and notes under your fingers, but please don’t allow that to become your ultimate artistic statement. In my next post, however, I will explore some creative pattern construction techniques that I use to come up with fresh, pattern-based lines.  I often find them sneaking into my solos. I am not ashamed of this, as they can be extremely effective vehicles for implying complex harmony, adding the perfect amount of tension or release at the right time. But I think pattern application of this variety is the exception, rather than the rule.

Ok, so why practice patterns if most aren’t providing you with a lick to plug in? Here ’s why pattern study is essential for any improvising musician:

1)     Getting a scale under your fingers – by studying different scalar permutations in addition to simply running scales across your full range, you will gain incredible fluidity, enabling yourself to speak freely across a harmony during your solo. You can’t be thinking about whether Gmaj7 has an F or F# when you’re trying to create a musical statement.

2)     Exercising your brain – Give your mind a killer workout by moving any pattern across keys, chord qualities, groupings, etc. (more on this in my next post).

3)     Developing an idea while improvising – Envy how the masters are able to develop little ideas and build on them throughout their solos? They’ve spent a lot of time shedding patterns, which is one of many tools that empowers one to tell a story that actually goes somewhere.

4)     Connecting the changes – building off point 3, you patterns are a great way to capture harmonic movement through a single improvised line.

My next post, Patterns: Part 2 – Endless Possibilities, will explore different brain exercises that can be used to create an unlimited variety of compelling patterns. Meanwhile, here are some examples of totally satisfying, highly musical applications of storytelling that spawned, at least in part, from extensive pattern study (and some of my favorite solos):

Joshua Redman and Sam Yahel: Switchblade – Notice how effectively both Yahel and Redman move cells around to build out simple ideas.

Seamus Blake and Michael Brecker: Goodbye Pork Pie – Brecker’s a-capella intro effectively demonstrates harmonic movement with an arpeggiated pattern, then stay tuned as young Seamus comes in (around 6:25) after Brecker with a very tasty solo.

Nicholas Payton: One Finger Snap – Notice how Payton uses simple patterns/cells to weave beautifully through the changes (a prime example is at 1:57).

John Coltrane: I Love You – For an example that runs completely counter to everything I’ve preached above, here’s Trane plugging in every scalar pattern in the book over I Love You and sounding incredible. Trane was deeply committed to pattern study, and it really shows here. So, if you’re going to make extensive and intentional use of patterns throughout your solo, here’s how to do it right:

By Mike Lebrun

Mike is a jazz saxophonist & composer committed to a brighter future for music. ...Full Bio


  1. Thoughtful prsentation with no-nonsense advice. Useful for players who are serious about improving.. Slackers will get whipped with a cold, soggy French fry.

  2. Excellent insightful post. Been playing for a long time…will certainly incorporate into my practice routine. Forget about the soggy french fries it’s about the ketchup!! Keep up your good work!

  3. Awesome, Mike! Great post, fun to read, and right on the money. Looking forward to more material to beef up my own sessions in the ‘shed. Thanks.

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