Strategies in jazz guitar improvisation

Project leader:
Stein Helge Solstad

Project period:
2009 – 2015


Improvisation, Jazz guitar, Performance practice

Fellowship project
Ph.D in Performance Practice

What strategies are used in professional jazz guitar improvisation?

This project finds that three main strategies are used by professional jazz guitarists;

  • a basic coding strategy named chunking
  • an extended coding strategy based on context seen as schemas
  • an altered coding strategy based on skilled interaction in context, defined as templates

Chunking entails grouping small information units into chunks; these can then be combined into larger, hierarchically constructed systems and function as a mental “store” from which the performer retrieves material during improvisation. Chunk networks are triggered in the form of a schema, which is an abstract general mental representation of contextual knowledge. Templates are large flexible schemas frequently used by experts.


The practice-led research strategy has allowed questions, problems and challenges to be initiated and worked on in fieldwork. The aim has been to investigate how jazz guitarists recall, integrate, organize and develop their knowledge in improvisation. The inquiry includes participant observation, playing with and interviewing five professional jazz guitarists in New York City. By examining the fieldwork a modal matrix for analyzing structure, time and form in jazz guitar improvisation has been developed. The fieldwork studies have been supplemented by theoretical and contextual studies. The intention has been to bridge the gap between the roles as researcher and performer, and in this process illuminate knowledge that might have an impact on different parameters in improvised music in general.


This research project finds that professional jazz guitarists’ strategies are crucially dependent on context, style and type of interplay. Improvising is based on listening to what is happening in interplay and having flexible actions available to match the given input. Interplay defines the ways implicit (sub-conscious) and explicit (conscious) knowledge is used; the more familiar the context, the more use of implicit knowledge and intuition. The findings collapse the dichotomy constructed by the theories of topdown versus bottom-up expert skill, emphasizing that both approaches are needed dependent on time and place.

Ph.D. dissertation

The dissertation is available in NMH-Brage:
Strategies in jazz guitar improvisation

Last updated: 24. May 2017