Learning jazz guitar can seem like a daunting mission at first. If you are coming from other styles, the whole thing can seem mysterious and rather alien, because unless you’re very deliberate about it, these “jazzy” sounds never came out of your own instruments. It’s no secret that this genre has many facets and nuances, but the more you learn, practice and share, the easier it gets. Here are 10 tips to get you started.
The Jazz Culture
Jazz encompasses so many different aspects, that it’s hard to qualify it as a style. With such a long history of development and a wide reach, it’s more appropriate to define it as a actual language, a culture. The first part of this article will discuss how to immerse yourself in this way of life so that you are able to swim on your own. By embracing these practices daily, you will accomplish what every jazz musician does, regardless of instrument.
1 – Listen
The gateway to jazz is the music itself. It might sound obvious, but the fastest way to develop your ear and feel for this genre is to devour material daily with focused listening. Avoid putting on a record and letting it play in the background while you accomplish a chore of some sort. Actually listen to what has been recorded. Although we play guitar, we can learn from all instruments and it is important to do so to stay fresh and avoid getting stuck in our own instrument’s idiosyncrasies.
Start by identifying the sections in the tune, notice when the head kicks in after an intro, follow the harmony while each soloist performs, and notice any arrangement techniques used throughout the song. Then, you can listen to the players individually to get a feel for each instrument’s purpose.
Notice when the bass player goes from playing in two to four, analyse how the drummer reacts to this while still interacting with the solo unfolding. How do the instruments playing harmony compliment the soloist and what musical methods do the improvisers use to solo?
These are very basic steps, but jazz music gets as deep as you want. Eventually you will be to sing along to the solos and be able to detect subtle interplay between the musicians, paraphrasing and advanced melodic and harmonic concepts.
2- Learn Standards
Jazz music revolves around “standards” – which are basically some of the all-time biggest jazz tunes that most musicians can play. (usually, in many different scales… Yes, jazz IS hard) The more you learn standards, the more you understand the language of jazz. With a wide repertoire, you will begin to see the building blocks of the style such as II-Vs, minor II-Vs, sub of V, VI-II-V-I, backdoor II-Vs, modal interchange and all the other concepts composers use.
You can start with songs based on common forms likes Blues, Minor Blues, Bird Blues and Rhythm Changes, but there’s also a ton of simple tunes to learn like Summertime, Autumn Leaves, Take the A Train, Blue Bossa, etc.
There are also slightly more advanced tunes like All the Things You Are, Body and Soul, Stella By Starlight, Joy Spring and Donna Lee that are very popular at jam sessions. Not only is learning standards important for your own development and understanding, it also enables you to play with other jazz musicians.
Having a good repertoire of standards assures you to be able to play with anyone in the world.
Look at this video below. All I can say is “wow” on the skills and the “feelz”…
3 – Transcribe, Transcribe, Transcribe
Transcribing means listening to a tune and just by using your ears – writing down the notes on a music sheet, (or a software like Sibelius) and it’s a term you’ll encounter a lot in the jazz world.
As you listen to your favorite jazz musicians and focus on memorizing standards, it is quite educational to transcribe artists that are performing the very material you are learning. The benefits are twofold; you learn and absorb exquisite and eloquent jazz vocabulary, while analyzing the approach the soloist takes on the music you are digesting.
Although daunting at first, this exercise becomes easier and easier the more you do it. Start with the simpler guitar solos out there, played on harmony you have seen and explored. This could be a medium swing blues or a relaxed solo over a simple chord structure such as Autumn Leaves. Make sure you learn improvisations by the masters such as Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery, Pat Martino, Kenny Burrell, etc.
Put this all on paper or in your favourite notation software for further study, sharing and reference. Eventually, try your hand at more difficult song structures and other instruments. While it might seem counter-intuitive, learning a piano, sax or trumpet solo really widens your vision on how to navigate changes and reveals multiple new musical possibilities.
About the Author
(once in a while, I allow a high quality guest post in Guitar Songs Masters, and for this excellent and very helpful post I send out many thanks to Marc-Andre Seguin. This helped me a lot too, since I wanted to start play some jazz for a long time)
Marc-Andre Seguin is the webmaster, “brains behind” and teacher on JazzGuitarLessons.net, the #1 online resource for learning how to play jazz guitar. He draws from his experience both as a professional jazz guitarist and professional jazz teacher to help thousands of people from all around the world learn the craft of jazz guitar.
Now, let’s get practical:
Let’s move on to more practical procedures that involve the guitar directly. The more you practice these, the more information you commit to muscle memory and the easier it all becomes. Your improvisations will then become more intelligible, smooth and authentic.
4 – Chords
The thing that gives you that “jazzy” sound more than everything else is the unique (and yes, a lot harder to finger) chords. So get your fingers ready to some new forms that might be challenging but will give you a very satisfying experience.
As a harmonic and melodic instrument, it is paramount to have sufficient chord knowledge on guitar to play jazz. Start by learning root forms of 7th, Major 7th, Minor 7th and Minor 7th flat 5 chords. Memorize the shapes starting from the 6th, 5th and 4th string. Once committed to memory, practice your standards with these shapes and minimize the leaps around the neck to have smoother transitions and voice leading.
Start adding extensions and notice the ones that offer easy melody shifts. For example, with the basic Minor 7th chord with the root on the 6th string, you can easily reach the 9th and 3rd on the first string. The more you notice these possibilities, the faster you will be able to expand you jazz guitar mastery and the easier it will be to develop chord melodies.
The 7th chord offers various extension possibilities, each with their own sounds and identities, so it’s important to analyze the differences and implications between flat 9th, altered, sharp 11th and diminished sounds. Eventually, begin to explore inversions and drop voicings. These will help you tremendously to expand your chordal knowledge and offer interesting chord melody possibilities.
(A side note by Cooper: as you notice, there’s a lot of theory involved in jazz guitar, and it’ll be essential to first gain some theory knowledge before diving in. I personally think the #1 resource that breaks down theory specifically for the guitar is an ebook called Guitar Theory Revolution, which was the most useful resource I used myself. It covers most topics from beginner to advanced theory. You can get it on a discount right here)
Gilad Hekselman is currently one of the top jazz guitarists in the world, if you enjoy his music (or of any other jazz guitarists) then this article is definitely for you.
5 – Scales and arpeggios
If you have played guitar for any amount of time, you probably understand the fact that scales are an important part of musical knowledge. This is especially true in jazz. There are many scales to work on, not just the major and the minor (or their pentatonics) so make sure you know the scales that fit over the chords you’ve learned.
For example, if you’ve learned your Major 7th chord with the root on the 6th string, you should learn the 6th string root major scale. When you apply this philosophy to 7th, Minor 7th and Minor 7th flat 5 chords, you get mixolydian (ideally, add the major 7th scale tone to play the Bebop scale), dorian and locrian modes. Repeat this process for 5th and 4th string root chords. When you get a decent grip on this concept, throw in 4 note arpeggios to the mix to have a full understanding and great control of the building blocks of jazz.
6 – Single Note Lines
Single lines or simply licks are an excellent manner to solidify your jazz knowledge. You can find these phrases scattered across numerous recordings, in books and online.
There are many ways to make them your own; adjust the rhythm to your liking, adjust notes to fit the particular harmony you are exploring or simply play them as you learn them amidst your own improvisations. Playing licks is a really streamlined way to sound authentic, but be wary of overusing stock licks, your playing may start sounding repetitive and mundane!
7 – Actual playing
As guitarists, we are lucky to have many ways of practicing jazz material. This is thanks to the face that the guitar is a “harmonic” instrument (just like the piano) that can play chords, as opposed to many other common instruments in jazz that can only play single notes – like trumpet, saxophone, etc.
SO, we have many options, like playing single lines, comping or a combination of the two to a metronome is a great way of simulating a real musical situation. For emphasis on a swing feel, you can set the metronome to click on the second and fourth beat. If you have a looping device, playing to your own accompaniment and bass lines is an excellent to work on your improvisations.
You can also work on the solo you transcribed this way, at various speeds. For mobile and tablet users, iReal Pro is an excellent app that enables you to practice an enormous amount of standards with a full backing band. You pick the speed, key and style of the accompaniments. I highly recommend it!
Finally, working on full blown chord melodies is probably the most challenging, but rewarding undertaking a jazz guitarist can embark on. Working on this kind of playing really forces you to cover all bases and can expose any holes you might have in your training.
NOW, Putting It Together
After covering all your bases with the points mentioned above, it’s time to make music and analyze with a critical ear the strengths and weaknesses of what you hear.
8 – Record Yourself and Analyze
Most people have access to some form of recording, be it in the form of a home studio, a handheld recorder or simply a smart phone voice memo function – which is the most common one. To work on your single note playing or comping, fire up a backing track from YouTube (just search “jazz backing track” and a whole new world will open up for you) and record yourself improvising.
Using this method, you can also create your own accompaniments and record yourself playing over them. Eventually, try your hand at chord melody and see how that goes. For all types of playing, focus on the feel/phrasing, note choice, variation in rhythm, general musicality and identify repetition that dulls the performance. Although sometimes disheartening, this analysis gives you a good idea on how you sound and should be performed periodically.
9 – Play with Others
The very best way of developing and truly working on your jazz performance is playing with other musicians. Any guitarist can benefit from practicing or performing with other instrumentalists. Playing with a bassist or another guitarist is a great way to work on all facets of jazz guitar.
You might find that after a few practice sessions with like-minded string players, a decent enough setlist forms to perform in front of an audience. This sort of experience really gets in you the zone mentally and great progress is made this way. Playing in an ensemble with drums and horns offers the possibility to work on arrangement concepts and is really a rewarding experience.
Absorbing and bouncing off other musicians’ ideas is inspiring and strongly develops your ear. Musicians always share knowledge one way or the other and this could potentially open the door to more advanced notions or simply realizations you haven’t made in the past. So in summary, try to play with others as much as possible.
10- Keep Learning By Amassing Knowledge
Lastly, there are many books available to enhance your knowledge. Beginners might enjoy Barry Galbraith’s Guitar Comping. They include various comping studies which introduces newcomers to various popular and effective voicings. These also have good voice leading and don’t jump all around the neck. Connecting Chords in Linear Harmony is a great study in single note playing and provides great analysis on the theory behind harmony and how to imply it in your single note lines.
There are many examples taken from real recordings which are invaluable for your own development and study. Mark Levine’s The Jazz Theory Book is a complete study of jazz harmony and will solidify your understanding of the building blocks of jazz. Finally, the Joe Pass books (Joe Pass Guitar Style and Joe Pass Chord Solos) are some of my favorite books for the instrument. So you can delve into these books to greatly improve your playing.
5 Jazz Guitars For Beginners
Now you know tips on how to start playing the jazz guitar. But do you already have a jazz guitar? If not, here are our 5 jazz guitars that are perfect for beginners:
Ibanez Artcore Series: Ibanez Artcore AS53 or AS73
For jazz beginners, I often recommend them to buy the Ibanez Artcore series. These jazz guitars have a hollow or semi-hollow body that is able to produce a warm and resonant tone. On top of that, they come at an affordable price than some other jazz guitars.
The ES-175 Premium is Epiphone’s version of the iconic classic jazz guitar ES-175. Compared to the iconic model, the Epiphone ES-175 premium is more affordable and perfect for beginners. The guitar also has a semi-hollow body and is known for its comfortable playability.
The brand Yamaha is known for producing quality guitars, and the Yamaha SA2200 is no exception. This guitar is a semi-hollow body that produces a versatile sound suitable for jazz. Overall, the Yamaha SA2200 is a well-built guitar and offers great playability.
Although not really considered a traditional jazz guitar, the Squier Classic Vibe ’60s Jazzmaster can still perform well in jazz with its smooth and warm tones. This guitar is also known for its good quality for an affordable price.
The Godin 5th Avenue Kingpin is a single-cutaway archtop with a P-90 pickup that delivers a warm and rich jazz tone. And on top of that, the guitar has this vintage design, making you look cool while you play jazz.
As you can see, there are many bases to cover. My last words of advice would be to simply enjoy every step of the journey. When I recall my beginnings in jazz, I remember I could only feel excitement towards the constant new discoveries I was making daily. It is important to focus on the big picture rather than every little difficulty you encounter. Keep a good disciplined routine and enjoy the ride!