Jazz is often considered the ‘chess of music’: melodies are powerful, the harmony is rich, tempos are varied and the most modern jazzers play in difficult time signatures. Lots of well-versed musicians stay away from jazz from the fear of making mistakes (or simply failing).
Jazz is a huge tradition and it can quickly become overwhelming, indeed. People consider this style “complicated” because of all the weird chords and long improvised solos. Nevertheless, jazz guitar can tamed by any serious musician willing to work smarter, and not harder.
This is a little guide for guitarists that can “already play” to some extent but have little or no background in jazz music. In fact, without even addressing the most basic chords and scales used for jazz, this post will help you understand what it takes, on a mental level, to become a confident jazzer.
Without further ado, here are the very best jazz guitar tips, stemming from the three most common pitfalls I’ve personally witnessed over a decade of teaching jazz guitar online and off.
Serious Listening to Jazz Music
The first thing we have to discuss is listening to great jazz. You should do so daily if possible. This seems like a no-brainer, right? If you like reggae, listen to reggae. If you’re into country, you’ll naturally listen to country music. Nevertheless, in my years of teaching jazz to musicians of all levels I’ve noticed that jazz newbies can fail by attempting to learn jazz music without being familiar with it!
On one hand, I understand this tendency from the students. They will want to keep listening to metal, funk and attend folk concerts all the while expecting jazz to be just one of those subjects you take in school. People generally think of jazz as a “museum” style of music. Jazz guitar students make this mistake by, say, comparing to classical music: choose your instruments, grab the sheet music, take lessons and show up for the classical orchestra rehearsals. No need to wear a wig and dress like in the 1700’s.
But in jazz, it’s also important to walk the talk. Not in the way your dress and talk, of course. It’s crucial to get a decent amount of “culture” in the jazz field: know the great artists, the trends and the ways things have been done in the past. Because jazz is still very much alive to this day.
Thus, my advice is simple: don’t learn in a vacuum. Don’t learn jazz strictly from books or only from a music theory standpoint! This is not an algebra class, it’s a style of music.
I challenge you to recognize by ear what the great players sound like and what the most famous songs are (from recordings), and be able to identify the different aesthetics from the past 100 years or so. Be able to tell “This is dixieland, this is swing, this is bebop, this is free jazz” and so on. You don’t need to go on Jeopardy with you jazz history knowledge, but being able to differentiate between a jazz big band and a jazz trio goes a long way when attempting to practice those tunes yourself.
So, go for it and start your album collection with some great jazz recordings. Read about the great artists, and listen until jazz starts to sound familiar and that you can hum tunes and solos. To get you started here are some jazz guitarists worth checking out: Wes Montgomery, Charlie Christian, Grant Green, George Benson, John Scofield and Pat Metheny. It’s also advisable to listen to jazz musicians that are not guitarists. For instance, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly and the likes.
Paradigm Shift: Regular JAZZ Practice
Learning jazz, especially if you come from a rock, folk or blues guitar background is going to be a total paradigm shift. If you want to “pick up jazz”, like you picked up the guitar in the first place, you’ll have to dedicate serious time to it. Talent will only take you so far.
This is another rookie mistake I often see. Some students are already well versed in rock or blues guitar and start to learn jazz. They will keep playing and practicing their instrument, but invest about 80% of their time in things they already know, and only the remaining 20% into the new concepts associated with jazz guitar. This is a big mistake. No wonder their jazz chops are not getting better.
When I say learning jazz guitar is a total paradigm shift, I really mean it. As compared to other styles, lots of the components of jazz are improvised. Even the accompaniments. For example, playing a folk song you’ve heard on the radio is as simple as getting the correct chord grips under your fingers and learning the strumming pattern on the guitar.
Jazz is quite the opposite: yes the chords pass by at a certain rate, however there’s no pre-set strumming pattern. In a jazz context, the ultimate aim is to create a spontaneous accompaniment, using everything you know about chords and rhythms, and make it fit the current song and blend well with the other players. This does not necessarily come easy at first!
Notice that the improvised component of jazz goes beyond the soloing we’re used to hear in blues, funk and rock. Indeed, there are solos (single-note) in jazz that obey certain rules of harmony and structure most of the time. Accompaniments can also be improvised as discussed above. Furthermore, even the main melody (or theme) is typically played loosely, with room for interpretation, when performing jazz standards. This means that the accompanying players really have to be ready for everything, on the spot.
In short, to get good at jazz you have to dedicate a fair amount of time to jazz elements that are still unfamiliar to you. Especially in the beginning. I recommend you use a significant portion of your guitar playing time to shed [slang for practicing in the jazz a world] the new concepts. The fact that mostly everything is improvised and can be modified to fit the mood of the moment will be uncomfortable at first. It goes without saying, to get good at jazz guitar, you have to play … jazz. No surprise there.
Organize Your Time: Training Regimen
Lastly, here’s the third pitfall to avoid when first learning jazz music: unfocused and unproductive practice. I really enjoy thinking of practice sessions as gym workouts. It’s a great analogy. Stick to your program, do the sets and reps and you’ll reap the rewards. Or just hangout with the bros at the gym, doing little work and your muscles and strength will stagnate. It easy to understand, it makes sense.
And yet, most students I’ve helped over the years all make the same mistake: they don’t have a solid training program to achieve their musical goals. And they tend to go from exercise to exercise without any real structure in a their playing. We call this noodling.
To help student of all levels get their act together in terms of devising and executing a decent jazz guitar practice regimen, I’ve created an online video course called Private Instructor in a Box on JazzGuitarLessons.net The main idea behind Private Instructor in a Box can be summarized in one sentence:
Never pick up your instrument to practice jazz unless you know exactly what you will be practice, for how long, and why.
The process outlined in the course is very straight-forward. Without getting into too many details, the crucial steps are as follows:
- Dream a little and define your long term jazz guitar goals
- Create your 6-month goals
- Create a template training program by category (don’t fill exercises yet)
- Subdivide your time with percents (not minutes)
- Ensure the program is “balanced” in terms of achieving your goals
- Determine the exercises that will fill the regimen, in each category
- Execute your program quasi-daily for 2-3 weeks (don’t change anything!)
- Have a review session “with yourself” and re-assess the program and your progress.
- Rinse and repeat!
Now, this is my personal favorite way of doing things, and the method I’ve used for years with private students worldwide. It works if you work it. But it’s only a system. The takeaway is that however you decide to organize your time, it’s important that you have a “protocol” of some sort.
Come to the practice room with a method to the madness, as they say. It might be as simple as spreadsheet to track your progress, or a practice plan that keeps you honest with how much (or how little) you can expect to practice on a given day. Whatever works for you, use it! And stop noodling around and playing all these old things you can already play
Remember: method books, DVDs, free YouTube lessons, blogs (etc.) are everywhere and extremely easy to access on a daily basis. But the information overload is often what keeps the players for making actual jazz progress
Did you notice, this is a jazz guitar article, and I didn’t write a single note, or a single chord for you to play? Why is that, do you think? Well, people are generally really good at finding tons of jazz resources online … but very bad at organizing their time and generating the results they want.
Not so surprisingly, the greatest approach for jazz beginners is LESS stuff and more structure. Don’t go a buy dozens of books and DVDs. Just create yourself a “workout program” and then (only then) go find exercises that will take you closer to your musical goals. A little organizing goes a long way! And don’t forget to listen to great recordings and dedicate a decent portion of your guitar time to jazz.
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.