How to Teach Jazz Improvisation on Mallets

Mike Lawson • GoodVibes • January 10, 2020

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Jazz improvisation on mallets is perhaps the most under-emphasized skill in both high school and college academia.

Yet being proficient in this skill can really enhance your students overall percussion ability. It requires the student to be well-advanced in rhythm, harmony, melody, technical proficiency, and the overall knowledge of music theory and the keyboard. This skill can also transfer knowledge into other genres of music besides jazz. I am going to go over some helpful hints regarding how to teach your students marimba and vibraphone jazz improvisation.

1) Learn the Burton Grip: The Burton grip is a four-mallet vibraphone grip that allows the musician to play both chords and linear lines. Learning this grip is the technical foundation to teaching vibraphone improvisation. A wonderful pamphlet for this can be downloaded at

2) Learn Major and Minor Scales: Your students must know their 12 major and minor scales like they know how to breath. This is the essential building block that more advanced jazz harmony can be built upon. Let the basics be strong!

3) Learn Pentatonic Scales: This is the most important step to learning how to improvise in both jazz and rock. After learning the regular scales, your students can take the first, second, third, fifth, and sixth scale degrees in any major key and this is the pentatonic scale. For example, in the key of C major, the scale is C, D E, G, and A. In the minor keys, the pentatonic scale is the first, third, fourth, fifth, and seventh scale degree. So in A Minor, the notes are A, C, D, E, and G. The pentatonic scale is the foundation of every jazz chord. Extensions and modifications are all eventually assigned to this scale in jazz. It is also interesting that the pentatonic scale was played by all ancient civilizations. The foundations for jazz actually go very deep into human history. And as complex as some rock solos seem to sound, they are all simply based on the pentatonic scales with little to no jazz modifications. Learning these five notes in every key is like magic!

4) Learn the Blues Chord: Once your students know the pentatonic scale, adding one simple note will teach them the blues chord. Have them play the pentatonic scale in C minor and add a flat 5th to the scale (G Flat), and you have a blues chord! All blues chords are simply the pentatonic minor scale with an added flat 5th. Have them play all 12 minor keys with this addition.

5) Learn More Complex Chords: Adding jazz extensions to the pentatonic scales such as major and minor 7ths, augmented 5ths, and other types of chords can now be introduced to your students. Once your students master the basics listed above, they are ready for more complexity. A great book for this is called Voicing and Comping for Jazz Vibraphone by Thomas Davis. It can be found at Hal Leonard online.

6) Exercises in Rhythm: It’s not called “rhythm and blues” for nothing. Rhythm is equally as important in jazz improvisation as harmonic knowledge. A great book for teaching rhythm on a basic level is Drumstick Control by Jeff Moore. This book emphasizes the “hands separate” approach to teaching rhythm as it starts simple and builds in complexity. This book may be found on Amazon and Steve Weiss Music.

7) Melodic Approach to Keyboards: Once harmony and rhythm is mastered, it is important to bring your students back to the basics by teaching them the importance of simple melodies within any key. They may even find these melodies within the pentatonic scale. All of the great vibraphone and marimba players were masters of melody. There is a wonderful article by David Friedman called “Melodic Improvising.” It can be downloaded online at

8) Vibraphone Pedaling and Dampening: Pedaling and dampening is an art form within itself regarding jazz vibes. This step should only be taught after all of the above is mastered and your students are ready for more advanced concepts. David Freidman, once again, has an excellent book for this subject. It is called Vibraphone Technique: Dampening and Pedaling. It may be found on Amazon and Steve Weiss Music.

9) Practice Improvisation: The most important concept to remember is that the skill of keyboard improvisation only improves with practice. A great way to practice is by using a fake book with available jazz recordings to play along with. I recommend a book called The Swing Era- 1936-1947 (Jazz Bible Book Series).

The steps should be followed in the sequence provided. All great houses start with a great foundation and build up. Improvisation is such a wonderful skill for your students that will even help with their classical and band literature. It is a challenging skill, but it is one that will help your students grow and mature the most as a musician.

In 2016, The Huffington Post called Kevin Lucas “the most talented percussionist since Lionel Hampton, Ginger Baker, and Tito Puente.” He has been nominated for 38 music industry awards for his Echoes in the Sand album, and he won the 2016 American Songwriting Awards. Kevin performed with the Madison Scouts Drum and Bugle Corps from 1992-1994 and won the DCI Midwest Individuals in 1994 for keyboard percussion. He placed second in the United States for concert hall percussion at the Music Teachers National Association collegiate competition in 1997.

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