Jazz Improvisation via 4-Bar Riff Tunes

When leading jazz improvisation workshops, I like to teach simple riff blues tunes by ear. These tunes help students build a rhythmic and melodic foundation rooted in the traditions of Count Basie and Kansas City swing. Improvising with these riffs is more engaging and effective than frontloading the process with tons of theory.

The following blues tunes are composed of three repetitions of a riff. If you are an educator, teach the tunes by ear.

PDF of Riff Blues Tunes

Riff Improvisation Activites

Blues Riff Mashup

In a group, play two or more riff blues tunes at the same time. In a big band, I layer the riffs one at a time. The trombones play “Night Train” for a chorus, then saxophones add “Centerpiece,” and finally the trumpets add “That’s What I’m Talkin’ ‘Bout.”

Change One Thing

Play a melody and change one musical element:

  • Leave out a note
  • Mix up the pitches
  • Change a pitch
  • Add a fill
  • Change the rhythm
  • Change the register
  • Add a pitch or tone inflection

Thematic Variation

Freely embellish and change the melody.

Create Your Own Riffs

Improvise or compose riffs with a pitch limitation (start with three pitches from the major blues scale).

Major Blues Scale: 1, 2, b3, 3, 5, 6, 8
Minor Blues Scale: 1, b3, 4, #4, 5, b7, 8

Group Therapy

2-4 soloists improvise together

Question Answer

Question Phrase: Phrase that ends with an upward interval
Answer Phrase: Phrase that ends with a downward interval or on scale degree 1

Trade phrases back and forth to have a conversation. (See 5 Types of Call and Response Phrases.)


Use riffs as backgrounds under solos.

Grab a Rhythm

Use a rhythm from one of the tunes and improvise new pitches.

Change the Key

Transpose the riffs, melodies, and blues scales into another key by thinking in numbers.

Play the Changes

To effectively transition from riffs to playing the chord changes, check out chapter five of my book The Living Jazz Tradition: A Creative Guide to Improvisation and Harmony.

Watch This

Count Basie live in Stockholm, 1962.