How to Play Jazz Guitar – A Practice Guide
If there’s one question I get the most from readers and students, it’s this:
“I want to play jazz guitar. But, how do I go about learning how to play jazz guitar?”
For many players, learning jazz guitar means learning chords, scales, and arpeggios in all 12 keys; practicing is all technique and no creativity.
But to be effective in the practice room, this isn’t the case.
One of the biggest mistakes that you can make, is that you spend hours on technical studies and little or no time on performance studies.
After all, for most of us, you wanted to learn how to play jazz guitar in order to jam tunes, with backing tracks or other people.
If jamming tunes is your goal, then practicing tunes is the best way to achieve that goal.
Therefore, any effective jazz guitar practice routine will contain a healthy dose of tune study in its breakdown.
In this article, you’ll learn a number of essential practice elements.
These include, how to study tunes, concepts, technical items, and transcriptions in order to make learning jazz guitar fun and highly effective.
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Contents (Click to Skip Down)
- Playing Jazz Guitar Means Playing Tunes
- How to Learn Jazz Comping
- How to Learn Jazz Melodies
- How to Learn Jazz Guitar Soloing
- The Importance of Transcription
- Learning by Doing
Playing Jazz Guitar Means Playing Tunes
For most, if not all, of us, the reason why you want to learn jazz guitar in the first place is to make music.
In jazz, making music means playing tunes, and more often than not jazz standards.
Whether you’re jamming with friends or with backing tracks, playing solo guitar, or getting out and doing gigs, each of us makes music in our own way.
So, your practice outline should be geared towards the goal of being able to play either solo, or with other musicians.
One of the biggest pitfalls that I see with players, is that they spend all of their time on learning techniques, such as scales, arpeggios, and chords, and not spending enough, or any, time learning tunes.
Because of this, they can play up and down many technical devices, often with impressive speed and confidence, but when it comes to functioning as a guitarist over a tune, things fall apart pretty quickly.
Learning how to play jazz guitar means learning how to play tunes, and therefore learning tunes should be a part of your daily practice routine.
Though there are many sub-elements that you can practice when it comes to learning tunes, the three main elements are:
When playing jazz tunes, you’ll need to play the chords behind other soloists, and the melody if you’re playing in a group setting.
As well, sometimes in a group setting, and for sure in a solo guitar situation, you’ll be responsible for playing the melody, in either a single-note or chord melody arrangement.
Lastly, many of us are interested in learning how to solo in a jazz context, and so learning how to improvise is the third element in your practice routine when it comes to learning tunes.
These elements are placed in order from the item you spend the most time on, comping, to least amount of time, improvisation, so you can organize your practicing to reflect the amount of time you spend on each during performances.
You’ll now break down each element further to learn how you can apply them to your practice routine.
This’ll allow you to focus your time in the woodshed, and learning how to play jazz guitar in an effective and confident manner at the same time.
How to Learn Jazz Comping
Comping is at the top of this list of elements to study as it’s the item that will occupy most of your time when you’re jamming tunes with other musicians.
While you’ve probably learned chord shapes in your studies, you might stopped at one type of chord shape, or don’t dig into rhythms or chord vocabulary in your woodshedding.
In order to develop your comping skills, you’ll need to explore these items over tunes to prepare yourself fully to jam with other people.
So, check out the exercises and concepts in this section in order to expand your harmonic skill set, as well as build your confidence when it comes to comping in a jazz situation.
Jazz Guitar Chord Voicings
Here’s a list of chord types that’ll expand your ability to comp over tunes, as well as learn about jazz harmony and the fretboard at the same time.
You don’t have to learn every chord type to be able to comp on a jazz tune, you just need to have confidence with the chord shapes that you do learn.
So, you can go deep into any one of these chord types, such as working on drop 2 chords and learning as much about those chords as you can on the guitar.
Or, you can dip your toes a bit into each of these chord groups, and then apply a bit of each into your chord work in a jam or gigging situation.
Either way is fine, so explore both ways in the practice room and see what works best for you.
Remember, the goal isn’t to learn a lot about chords, it’s about learning chords for the purpose of jamming on jazz tunes.
Keep that goal in mind and you’ll reach your harmonic goals in the woodshed in no time.
One way to practice any chords in this list is to pick a tune, then pick a type of chord, say drop 2, and then pick a string set, such as 4321.
From there, you can work out one way to comp over that tune using drop 2 chords on the top 4 strings, memorizing those shapes and practicing them with a backing track in your studies.
Common Jazz Rhythms for Comping
While learning chord shapes is important when learning how to comp, studying specific rhythms is also important when developing your ability to comp over jazz tunes.
By working on rhythms, you’ll ensure that you aren’t caught flat footed on a jam when someone calls a bossa nova groove, or when the band plays over the barline, or other creative rhythmic approaches.
Here’s a list of 5 essential jazz rhythms that you can practice to better prepare yourself for real life rhythm-guitar situations.
- Quarter Notes – Freddie Green Style
- Dotted Quarter Notes
- Charleston Rhythm
- Bossa Nova Rhythm
- Samba Groove
Once you have a rhythm picked out to focus on in your studies, pick a tune and apply that rhythm over that tune with a metronome or jam track.
From there, take that same rhythm to other tunes, other tempos, and other voicings, as you prepare yourself to effectively and comfortably apply that rhythm to a jam situation.
To take your rhythms further, check out my eBook “Modern Time: Rhythmic Fundamentals for the Improvising Musician.”
Jazz Chord Lines and Phrases
One of the biggest issues guitarists face when learning chords, is learning shapes on the fretboard, but when it comes time to applying these shapes to a tune in a jam, they fall flat.
These chord shapes sound too technical, and lack the vocabulary needed to interact with the soloist in a musical way.
To avoid this happening to you, spend time learning jazz chord lines and phrases, and building your harmonic vocabulary in the same way that you’d study single-note lines in your practicing.
There are many great compers and chord soloists out there that you can study, but three of the best are Ed Bickert, Joe Pass, and Lenny Breau.
To expand your chord vocabulary, pick a chord line or two, you can transcribe them or learn them from a book, and work those lines over any tune that you’re studying.
This could mean that every time the chords for the line you learned, ii-V-I for example, comes up, you apply the chord line you learned to those changes to hear how that line sits over different parts of the tune.
If you’re unsure of where to start when it comes to learning chord lines and phrases, check out my “141 Jazz Guitar Licks” article.
How to Learn Jazz Melodies
When it comes to learning melodies on the guitar, there are two main approaches that you can take:
- Single-note melody lines
- Chord melody arrangements
As well, melody lines are a great resource for improvising.
All of the notes in the melody fit over the progression, and can be used as quotes, or as the main source of melodic content when soloing over any jazz tune.
Whenever you’re learning a new tune, keep in mind that it’s the melody that makes the tune.
Jazz tunes will often have similar, or the exact same, chord progressions to other tunes, and so it’s the melody that makes each tune unique.
Some of the greatest advice I ever received, and that I’ll pass along to you, was from my teacher Roddy Ellias.
In one of our lessons, Roddy told me that someone should be able to walk in on my soloing over a tune mid solo, and without hearing the melody, know exactly what tune I’m playing.
You don’t have to quote the melody all the time.
But, having a deep knowledge of the melody, as well as be able to be creative with the melody section of a tune, will only enhance your ability to be musical as a jazz guitarist.
Where to Learn Melodies
One of the roadblocks many guitarists face, is they’re unsure of where to learn melodies on the fretboard.
Or, they learn one position of a melody and then find it difficult to adapt that position when it comes to jamming on tunes in a gig situation.
There are a number of ways that you can study any melody to ensure that you can reference it in any part of the fretboard, transpose it to other keys, play it in different octaves, and internalize melodies all at the same time.
Here’s a list of ways that you can practice melodies in your jazz guitar practice routine.
- Learn the melody in a lower octave.
- Learn the melody in an upper octave.
- Learn the melody in frets 1-4.
- Learn the melody in frets 5-8.
- Learn the melody in frets 9-12.
- Learn the melody on one string at a time.
- Place your finger on a random note and play the melody by ear.
- Learn the melody on the top 2 strings only, as preparation for a chord melody.
As you can see, learning a jazz tune on guitar means much more than just learning one position of that melody and moving on from there.
You don’t have to run all of these exercises for each tune you learn, though you might want to do that.
Instead, learn tune A with steps 1-3, then tune B with steps 4-6, and tune C with steps 7-8, allowing you to cover every step, but not get bored with one melody in the woodshed.
Improvising With Melodies
One thing that many guitarists forget to draw upon in their jazz guitar soloing ideas is the melody.
I like to call melodies the “scale of the tune,” as the notes of the melody will work over each chord, much like a scale would when played over chords diatonic to that scale.
Because it’s “diatonic” to the tune, you can use the melody as the basis for your soloing ideas when exploring tunes in your studies.
You can do this by playing the melody exactly as written the first time through, and then alter the melody to bring a sense of creativity and improvisation to the melody line in your playing.
Here are examples of how you can alter melody lines when soloing in a jazz setting.
- Alter the rhythm.
- Take notes out of the melody line.
- Add a few notes to the melody line.
- Add chords between the phrases.
- Add licks between the phrases.
- Add passing notes, enclosures, approach notes, and other chromatic notes.
- Sequence a section of the melody and work it around the chord changes.
- Solo with the exact rhythm of the melody line, but improvise the notes.
The melody can be a useful resource when it comes to learning how to improvise of jazz tunes, and is often an untapped resource in your playing.
By exploring melody lines from a soloing perspective, you’ll increase your ability to play that line, and bring a strong connection between your soloing and the heart of the tune at the same time.
As the guitar is a multiphonic instrument, harmonizing any melody line you learn is not only an option, but it’s essential for those looking to dig deeper into tunes in their studies.
There are three main ways that you can practice and learn chord melodies in your playing, besides studying or memorizing written out chord melody arrangements.
Theses approaches are:
- Play chords between melody lines.
- Harmonize every note in the melody.
- A mixture of approaches 1 and 2.
As you can see, these three approaches will get you where you want to go when it comes to arranging and playing chord melodies.
Experiment with each as you might find you are drawn to one or the other in your playing, or that some tunes work better with one of these approaches and not with others.
No matter how you approach them, learning chord melodies will bring a sense of maturity to your melody lines when applying them to tunes in your setlist.
How to Learn Jazz Guitar Soloing
Soloing is at the bottom of the list of the three important concepts to study when learning how to play jazz guitar.
Though it’s often the most enjoyable aspect of playing jazz, in a practical sense it’s the aspect that you spend the least amount of time on when jamming or in a gig situation.
This isn’t to say that soloing isn’t important, or that you shouldn’t spend time on learning how to improvise.
But, if you can’t comp over a tune, and you don’t know the melody, then you won’t be able to function in a jam, and all the soloing chops in the world won’t help.
When it comes to practicing improvisation, many of us dive straight into scales and modes on the guitar.
While these concepts are important, there are other elements that you need to study, including arpeggios and vocabulary, in order to avoid sounding like you’re simply running scales.
If you take one thing away from this section on how to learn jazz guitar soloing, it’s:
Scales are the beginning of your study of jazz soloing concepts, not the end.
If you keep that in mind, you’ll use your scale knowledge to build a strong understanding of the fretboard, then build upon that foundation as you study arpeggios and vocabulary from there.
Jazz Guitar Modes and Scales
When it comes to studying jazz improvisation, for many this begins and ends with a study of scales and modes.
Scales and modes are important, but they should be seen as the beginning of an understanding of jazz soloing, not the end result.
Scales are effective tools for outlining changes, and for translating the jazz language on the guitar, but watch that you don’t fall into the trap of simply running scales over chords in your solos.
In order to ensure you learn scales in a musical, practical, fashion, here are 9 exercises you can explore in your studies.
- Play scales ascending over a tune.
- Play scales descending over a tune.
- Play one scale up and the next down over a tune.
- Play one scale down and the next up over a tune.
- Add chromatic passing notes to scales over a tune.
- Add enclosures to scales over a tune.
- Add common bebop patterns to scales over a tune.
- Work scales with specific rhythms over a tune.
- Repeat these exercises with one and two-octave scale shapes.
As you can see, there’s much more to learning jazz scales beyond running those shapes on the fretboard.
Don’t give up on scales, but don’t treat them as a magic formula for becoming a great jazz guitarist either.
When learning how to play jazz guitar, you need a strong understanding of scales and modes, but they need to be the foundation that you build up from, not as an ending point for your soloing studies.
Jazz Guitar Arpeggios
Though they’re easier to learn on guitar as compared to scales, arpeggios are more difficult to solo with as you’ll need to apply one shape per chord change in your solos.
As well, while arpeggios are the most direct way to address any chord change, they can sound a bit stale if you don’t move beyond playing arpeggio A over chord B in your lines.
Because of this, it’s not only important to learn arpeggios, but to apply them to tunes in a creative and musical fashion.
Here are some examples of how to learn arpeggios over tunes in your studies.
- Learn ascending arpeggios over a tune.
- Learn descending arpeggios over a tune.
- Play one arpeggio up, then one arpeggio down over a tune.
- Play one arpeggio down, then one arpeggio up over a tune.
- Add chromatic approach notes to each arpeggio tone over a tune.
- Add enclosures to each arpeggio note, one at a time, over a tune.
- Practice 3 to 9, 5 to 11, and 7 to 13 arpeggios over a tune.
- Do all of these exercises with one and two-octave arpeggio shapes.
As you can see, moving beyond simply learning arpeggio shapes is essential when learning how to play jazz guitar, as this’ll make your arpeggio lines more musical when soloing.
Studying Jazz Guitar Vocabulary
Studying jazz vocabulary can mean learning lines from your favorite players, but it goes deeper than that.
Breaking down lines into their smallest concepts, then applying those concepts to other harmonic situations is essential when learning jazz vocabulary.
By studying vocabulary in this way, you’ll not only learn the vocabulary, but you’ll bring a personal touch to that vocabulary at the same time.
When analyzing lines and solos for common jazz vocabulary, keep an eye out for these common concepts.
- Chromatic Approach Notes
- Chromatic Passing Notes
- Diatonic and Chromatic Enclosures
- Scale and Arpeggio Patterns
- 3 to 9 Arpeggios
- 5 to 11 Arpeggios
- Chord Substitutions
- Chromatic Approach Chords
- Chromatic Passing Chords
- Lines that reoccur in the same solo
Once you’ve picked one or two items that you want to add to your own vocabulary, apply those items to other keys, scales, octaves, arpeggios, and chords in your practice routine.
The Importance of Transcription
Besides working on tunes, the other most important aspect to learning how to play jazz guitar is studying the playing of legendary guitarists.
This has been a common approach to learning how to play jazz throughout the history of the genre.
From Wes Montgomery learning Charlie Christian solos, to Miles Davis writing down Parker lines live in New York clubs, great players have learned from the players that came before them.
Because of this, spending time transcribing solos is essential for any serious jazz guitarist, and something that can be done right from the beginning of your jazz explorations.
If you’re new to transcribing, start with just a short phrase, learn it by ear and work it around the fretboard to understand how to apply it to various musical situations in your playing.
If you’re a more advanced player, learning whole solos is the way to go, as well as running those solos through the exercises described below.
Whichever approach you decide is fine, as long as you spend time learning by ear in your practice routine you’ll be able to learn directly from the greatest players on the instrument.
How to Transcribe a Jazz guitar Solo
After you’ve picked a solo to transcribe, the next step is to sit down and begin transcribing that solo onto the guitar, or writing it out if you decide to put it on paper.
I prefer to write out all of my transcriptions, mostly so that I have a record of them in the future, but that step is up to you.
As long as you learn the solo, and take it through the exercises in the next section, you’ll get a lot out of your time spent with any transcription.
Besides learning the solo along with the recording, you can take steps to integrate your voice with the transcribing process, which creates a deeper connection between your ears and hands.
Here’s a step-by-step approach to transcribing any jazz solo.
You don’t have to use every step if you find some don’t work for you, but try them out and see how these approaches fit into your own transcribing workout.
- Sing the transcription along with the recording.
- Sing the solo, line by line is fine, while you comp the chords on guitar.
- Sing one line at a time, and find the notes on the fretboard from your voice.
- Play one line at a time along with the recording to check your work.
- When you have one chorus, work it with the recording to ensure you are playing it correctly.
- Finish the transcription in the same manner from here.
If you find that listening to the solo and playing it works for you, by all means go for it.
But, if you’re looking for a new way to transcribe, or have trouble transcribing, then use these steps as they can make learning any transcription much easier for you.
Studying a Jazz Guitar Transcription
While it’s important to learn how to play any transcription, this is just the beginning when it comes to working on the material found in a transcription in your studies.
By breaking down the transcription into lines, studying one chorus at a time, analyzing rhythms, and working these items into your own solos, you’ll ensure that you get the most out of any transcription.
Speaking of time, there’s no rush to learn any transcription.
If you’re digging this deep into a solo, it might take you 2 to 3 months to learn the transcription, then another 3 to 4 months to study it properly.
At that rate, 1 to 2 transcriptions per year is a good pace to keep in order to get the most out of any transcription you study.
Here are a number of exercises that you can do in order to take any transcription further in the practice room.
- Play it with a metronome at various tempos.
- Play it with a backing track from memory.
- Play it with the original recording from memory.
- Sing the transcription with the recording and a backing track.
- Play each line in all 12 keys and apply them to your soloing practicing.
- Play a line from the solo and then improvise the rest of the tune from there.
- Play one chorus from the solo, and then improvise one chorus, alternating over the tune.
- Play the same rhythm as the transcription, but you improvise the notes.
- Practice one chorus, then the whole transcription, in 12 keys.
As you can see, learning the transcription with the recording is just one option when it comes to studying great players.
By digging deeper into any transcription, you’ll not only learn the notes of the transcription, but you’ll incorporate the vocabulary, articulation, and phrasing from the solo into your own playing.
Most Important Lesson – Learning by Doing
One of the best lessons I’ve learned, and the most important item to take away from this article, came about five years into my jazz guitar studies.
Up until that point, I believed that if I learned every chord, scale, and arpeggio known to man, then one day I’d wake up and sound like Wes Montgomery.
What ended up happening, was that I was great at playing technical items, but when I soloed it sounded like a collection of scale and arpeggio exercises.
As well, when I comped it sounded like I was just running inversions over the chords.
Nothing was musical.
Then one day it dawned on me, if I want to learn how to play jazz guitar, then I need to practice the elements that make that possible – melodies, soloing, comping.
This was the biggest turning point in my studies, and this approach has helped my students take their playing to the next level, without wasting five years running scales, arpeggios, and chords only like I did.
If you want to sound good playing tunes, then you have to spend time playing tunes in the practice room.
Throughout this article, you’ve learned how you can apply technical and musical concepts to tunes in your studies.
But, besides running exercises over tunes, you need to spend time each day playing tunes in your practice routine.
This means putting on a backing track and playing the melody to a tune from memory, then soloing over that tune in the same way you would on a jam or gig situation.
As well, this means putting on a famous recording of any tune you’re studying and comping behind the melody and solos on that track, in the same way you would if you were in a jam situation.
By spending time each day working tunes from both a technical and performance perspective, you’ll ensure that you have the tools needed to sound confident the next time you’re jamming with friends.
The next time you practice, spend a third of the time on technical items over tunes, a third of the time jamming tunes, and a third of the time transcribing lines from a famous solo.
This three-pronged approach will get you to the next level in your playing quickly.
It’ll also make learning how to play jazz guitar fun, as you’ll walk away being able to play tunes on the guitar, something that’s directly applicable to your long-term goals.
How to Play Jazz Guitar Checklist
To sum up this article, here are the key items that you can use as a checklist in the practice room to make learning how to play jazz guitar both fun and effective.
- Learning jazz means studying melodies, comping, and soloing.
- Always work on tunes in your studies.
- Study tunes from a technical and performance perspective.
- Developing strong vocabulary is just as important as learning technical items.
- Transcribing is an essential aspect of any jazz guitar practice routine.
Being mindful of these 5 items will help you dig deep into any tune you’re studying, and prepare yourself for any jazz jam or gig situation.
Learning how to play jazz guitar can seem like a daunting, and sometimes boring, task.
But, with the right approach in the woodshed, you can make that task easier and more enjoyable at the same time.
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