Basic Guide to Start Improvising on the Trumpet

Cite this article as:

Matthew Simon. (March 22, 2017). Basic Guide to Start Improvising on the Trumpet. International Journal of Music. Accessed July 25, 2024.

Hello everyone! My name is Matthew Simon, and I am a professional trumpet player and educator in Barcelona, Spain. I’ve worked with many international stars, in many different styles of music.

I was born in Long Beach, California, which is in the county of Los Angeles (United States). I have played many styles of music, including classical music, rock, latin, funk, pop, and many other, but my heart is in jazz. I believe that jazz leaves us the most liberty in terms of expression and emotion. But it requires a lot of practice.

In this article, I will try to help you start a wonderful journey into the world of jazz interpretation and improvisation. Now, you must remember that this voyage is never ending, so it will take us to wonderful places, using our imagination.

I will talk about a few different basics of how to start to enjoy playing jazz music on the trumpet. Some of these ideas will be the following:

  1. Basic trumpet technique.
  2. How to play a melody so people will listen.
  3. The basics for jazz improvisation.

With that, you should be able to enjoy playing jazz melodies, and hopefully your family and friends will enjoy listening to you, or even participate playing with you!

There are a few basic concepts that we must understand. The first is basic trumpet technique. That includes sound production and basic knowledge of scales and chords. (It is not as hard as it sounds!)

Then there is rhythm. We have to learn how to NOT GET LOST while playing without reading the music! So we will talk about breathing, phrasing, and how to group the music by measures and phrases.

After that, we should learn how to memorize a melody, so that we can enjoy it without the necessity of reading it. Usually that will help to put more emotion in our music.

Then we have form. We should be able to sing a melody, and understand the form of the song. That’s also pretty easy.

And then we get to the fun part, which is the improvisation. We’ll talk about easy ways to start improvising over a melody and over the chords that go with that melody.

So, let’s get started!

Basic trumpet technique

First of all, we spoke of basic trumpet technique.

As we know, trumpet can be a pretty difficult instrument. Sometimes we try to get a note, and a different one comes out! I think one of the important things to remember is that if we have the sound in our mind, it’s a lot easier to play it. So we have to be familiar with different intervals.  That’s one of the reasons we practice scales. We should always remember to make sure to use lot’s of air, and that the air can flow through the instrument with as little obstruction as possible. I really advise you to find a good trumpet teacher to help you with this.

Then we have to memorize the 12 major scales. (One of my first trumpet teachers would allow me 6 minutes to play the 12 major scales with no mistakes!) And remember: the better the sound quality, the more people will want to listen to you!

We have four basic chords and scales that we want to learn, in all 12 keys. They are the following:

  • Major scale, or Ionian mode. So we play the scale up and down, one octave, with the corresponding arpeggio. If it is C major, we play the scale up and down, and then the arpeggio, which would be C-E-G-B-C going up, and C-B-G-E-C going down.
  • The next would be the Dorian mode, which includes a flatted 3rd and 7th. So we would have the minor dorian mode of the scale, plus it’s arpeggio (C-Eb-G-Bb-C). Musical U has a great guide to the Dorian mode, check it out!
  • Then we’ve got the Mixolydian mode, which includes a flatted 7th only. So again, we play the scale, with the flatted 7th, and its arpeggio (C-E-G-Bb-C).
  • The last is the Locrian mode. It includes a flatted 2nd, 3rd, 5 th, 6 th and 7th degree of the scale. And of course, the arpeggio (C-Eb-Gb-Bb-C).

With these four modes, we can pretty much get through any jazz tune without problems!

I have some great video lessons on how to study scales, modes and arpeggios. There are a thousand different ways to do it, and each can help you work out the technique while at the same time you interpret some jazz. I leave you a small demonstration of one of those videos:


Now that we’ve warmed up a bit with these scales, it’s time to start learning a melody. For me, the easiest way is to listen to a song, and sing along with it. Then I try to imagine what the notes are, and I finger them with my right hand fingers on the thumb. If I have problems, I can always find the chart somewhere on the Internet or in a book.

We should try to play, usually, in groups of 2 or 4 bars — normally that is how our jazz standards are created. So when I play the melody, I try to breathe in groups of 2 or 4 bars. That helps to organize our sound, our melody, and our brain so as not to get lost! That is REALLY important. As we sing the melody, we should try to listen to the chords as well. That also helps us to not get lost.

In addition to memorizing the melody, do not forget how important it is to know how to interpret it, giving it its corresponding character.


Once we can do all of that, we’re off to start improvising. I don’t think that is the right word, however. What we do is to try to outline the chords of the song with the trumpet.

So how do we do that? We have to use the important notes of every chord. And just which are the most important notes of each chord? Well, it’s the arpeggios that we have been studying under the technique section. So, basically, it’s the tonic note, the 3rd, and the 5th of each chord, and maybe the 7th (although it’s not so important).

  • If it were a Cmaj7 chord (C major scale, Ionian mode), we would want to play C, E, G and B.
  • If it were a C-7 chord (C Dorian mode minor scale), we would want to play a C, Eb, G and Bb.
  • If it were a C7 chord (C Mixolydian scale), we would play C, E, G and Bb.
  • And if it were a C-7b5 chord (C Locrian scale), we would play C, Eb, Gb and Bb.

Pretty easy, right?

We can go up, or down, or up then down, or any combination of the two. I also try to remember to keep everything really simple so as not to get lost. Groups of 2 or 4 bars, remember?

Depending on how you use these important notes of each chord, we can speak of horizontal improvisation or vertical improvisation. Work this well, because it is simple and will give you immediate results.

And the most important of all, for me, is to listen to as many versions of the song that I am trying to learn as possible. That way we have the melody, form and chord structures in our mind. And I also use the lead sheet, if necessary, so I always know where I am.


In this exploration of jazz interpretation and improvisation on the trumpet, we delved into fundamental aspects crucial for a musician’s growth. Starting with basic trumpet techniques, we emphasized the significance of sound production, scale mastery, and chord understanding.

Moving through the realms of melody, the article highlighted the importance of listening, singing, and organizing breathing patterns to enhance musical expression. The emphasis on playing in groups of 2 or 4 bars aimed at creating structure and preventing disorientation.

The journey into improvisation demystified the process, focusing on arpeggios and the crucial notes of each chord. The distinction between horizontal and vertical improvisation provided practical insights for immediate results.

Throughout this guide, the recurrent theme was the importance of listening, both to oneself and various interpretations of the chosen songs. Combined with the use of lead sheets, these practices create a holistic understanding of melody, form, and chord structures.

In essence, this article serves as a comprehensive roadmap for trumpet players venturing into the captivating world of jazz. By emphasizing fundamentals, practical exercises, and a listening-centric approach, it aims to empower musicians on their unique and fulfilling musical journeys.

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