How to Play Jazz Guitar – A Practice Guide
If there is 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 of us, we believe learning Jazz guitar means learning a ton of chords, scales, and arpeggios on the guitar in all 12 keys, that practicing is all technique and no creativity.
But to be effective in the practice room, this is not the case.
One of the mistakes that many of us make, at all levels of our development, is that we spend hours on technical studies and little or no time on performance studies.
After all, for most of us, we wanted to learn how to play Jazz guitar in order to jam tunes, either with backing tracks or with other people.
So, if jamming tunes is your goal, then practicing tunes in your studies is the way to achieve that goal, and any effective Jazz guitar practice routine will contain a healthy dose of tune study in its breakdown.
In this article you will learn a number of essential practice elements:
These include, how to study Jazz tunes, concepts, technical items, and transcriptions in order to make learning how to play Jazz guitar fun and highly effective in your studies.
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Playing Jazz Guitar Means Playing Tunes
For most of us, if not all of us, the reason why we want to learn Jazz guitar in the first place is to make music, and in jazz this means playing tunes.
Whether you are jamming with friends or at home with backing tracks, playing solo Jazz guitar, or getting out and doing gigs on the bandstand, each of us makes music in our own way, and so our practice should be geared towards this goal of being able to play either solo or with other musicians.
One of the biggest pitfalls that I see with students and readers who come to me with questions about their practice routine, is that they are spending 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 in a tune situation, 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 our daily practice routine.
Though there are many sub-elements that we can practice when it comes to learning tunes, and functioning as a jazz guitarist in a jam or solo guitar situation, the three main elements are:
- Comping (How to play Jazz guitar chords)
- Improvisation (How to Play Jazz Guitar Solos)
When playing Jazz tunes, you will need to play the chords behind other soloists and the melody, if you are playing in a group setting.
As well, sometimes in a group setting, and for sure in a solo guitar situation, you will be responsible for playing the melody of the tune you are jamming on, in either a single-note or chord melody arrangement.
Lastly, many but not all, of us are interested in learning how to solo in a jazz context, in both group and solo guitar performances, and so learning how to improvise is the third element in our practice routine when it comes to learning tunes.
I have placed these elements in order from the item you spend the most time on in a group setting, comping, to least amount of time, improvisation, so that you can organize your practice routine to reflect the amount of time we spend on each element during performance.
We can now break down each section further to see how you can apply these three elements to your practice routine, allowing you to focus your time in the woodshed to directly prepare you for playing tunes, and learning how to play jazz guitar in an effective and confident manner at the same time.
How to Learn Jazz Comping
I’ve put comping at the top of this list of elements to study in order to ensure you can function as a Jazz guitarist in a performance situation as it is the item that will occupy most of your time when you are jamming tunes with other musicians.
While many of us learn chord shapes in our studies, we often stop at one type of chord shape, or don’t dig into rhythms or chord vocabulary in our woodshedding.
In order to develop your skills as a jazz comper, you will need to explore all of these areas over tunes in order 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 understanding of Jazz guitar, as well as build your confidence when it comes to comping in a Jazz jam situation.
Jazz Guitar Chord Voicings
Here is a list of chord types that you can explore over time in order to 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 type of chord 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 try going 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 when applied to a jam or gigging situation.
Either way is fine, so explore a bit in the practice room and see what works best for you.
Remember, the goal is not to learn a lot about chords, it’s about learning chords for the purpose of jamming on Jazz tunes, so keep that goal in mind and you will get to where you want to be from an harmonic perspective on the guitar.
One way to practice any chords in this list would be to pick a tune you are working on, and then pick a type of chord, say Drop 2 shapes, 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 2 strings, memorizing those shapes and practicing them over a backing track in order to apply these shapes to a musical situation in your studies.
Common Jazz Rhythms for Comping
While learning how to play chord shapes and other harmonic devices on the guitar is important when learning how to comp, studying specific rhythms is also important when developing your ability to comp over tunes in a jazz guitar setting.
By working out rhythms in your studies, you will ensure that you aren’t caught flatfooted on a jam when someone calls a Bossa Nova groove, or when the band starts to experiment with playing over the barline, or with other creative rhythmic approaches.
Here is a list of 5 essential Jazz rhythms that you can practice in order to better prepare yourself for comping and other rhythm-guitar situations in a jam or on a gig.
- 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 practice applying that rhythm over that tune with a metronome or backing track.
From there, take that same rhythm to other tunes, other tempos, and other voicings on the guitar as you prepare yourself to effectively and comfortably apply that rhythm to a jam or out on a gig.
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 that they spend time learning shapes on the fretboard, but when it comes time to applying these shapes to a tune in a jam, they fall flat, sound too technical, and lack the vocabulary needed to interact with the soloist.
In order to avoid this situation happening to you, you can spend time in your practice routine learning Jazz chord lines and phrases, building your harmonic vocabulary in the same way that you would study single-note lines in your melodic practicing.
There are many great compers and chord soloists out there that you can study, but three of my favorites are Ed Bickert, Joe Pass, and Lenny Breau.
To expand your chord vocabulary in this way, pick a chord line or two, you can transcribe them or learn them from a transcribed source, and work those lines over any tune you are studying in the woodshed.
This could mean that every time the chord progression for the line you learned, ii-V-I for example, occurs in the tune, you practice applying the chord line you learned to those progressions in order to hear and feel how that line sits over different parts of the tune.
If you are unsure of where to start when it comes to learning chord lines and phrases, check out my “5 Joe Pass Chord Lines Every Guitarist Should Know” article to get started working out chord vocabulary in the woodshed.
How to Learn Jazz Melodies
When it comes to learning melodies on the guitar, there are two main approaches that we can take, single-note melody lines or chord melody arrangements.
As well, melody lines are a great resource for improvising, as all of the notes of 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 on the guitar.
Whenever you are learning a new Jazz tune, keep in mind that it is the melody that makes the tune. Jazz tunes will often have similar, or the exact same, chord progressions to that of other tunes, and so it is 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 beforehand, know exactly what tune I am playing by my use of the melody in my playing.
You don’t have to quote it exactly all the time, but having a thorough knowledge of the melody line, and the skills to work it into your improvisations, as well as be creative with the melody section of a tune, will only enhance your ability to be musical as a Jazz guitarist.
Read more about this approach to learning melodies in my lesson, “Play the Tune, Not the Changes.”
Where to Learn Melodies
One of the roadblocks many guitarists face when learning how to play Jazz guitar, is that they are 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.
To help get over this hurdle, there are a number of ways that you can study any Jazz melody to ensure that you can always play the melody in any part of the fretboard, easily transpose it to other keys, play it in different octaves, and train your ears to quickly hear melodies all at the same time.
Here is a list of ways that you can practice melodies in your Jazz guitar practice routine.
- Learn the melody in a lower octave on the guitar.
- Learn the melody in an upper octave on the guitar.
- 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 from there.
- Learn the melody on the top 2 strings only, as preparation for a chord melody arrangement if you are going in this direction in your studies.
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, try learning tune A with steps 1-3, then tune B with steps 4-6, and tune C with steps 7-8, which allows you to cover all the steps 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 in the tune, much like a scale would when played over chords diatonic to that scale.
Because the scale is “diatonic” to the tune, you can use the melody as the basis for your soloing ideas when explore tunes in your studies.
You can do this by playing the melody exactly as written the first time through a backing track, and then begin to 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 to the melody line.
- 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 to the melody line in your playing.
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 our playing.
By exploring melody lines from a soloing perspective, you will note only increase your ability to play that line, you will bring a strong connection between your soloing and the heart of the tune, the melody, at the same time.
As the guitar is a multiphonic instrument, meaning you can play more that one note at the same time, harmonizing any melody line you learn is not only an option, but it is 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 by other players.
Theses approaches are:
- Play chords between melody lines, imitating two hands of the piano in your CM.
- Harmonize every note in the melody line with a chord.
- A mixture of both playing between phrases and harmonizing every chord.
As you can see, these three approaches will get you where you want to go when it comes to arranging and playing chord melodies, so experiment with all three as you might find you are drawn to one or the other in your playing, or that some tunes work better with one or more of these approaches and not with others.
No matter how you approach them, learning chord melodies can bring a sense of maturity and variation to your melody lines when applying them to tunes in your jam setlist.
How to Learn Jazz Guitar Soloing
As you have noticed, I have placed soloing at the bottom of the list of the three important concepts to study when learning how to play Jazz guitar.
Soloing is often the most enjoyable aspect of playing Jazz guitar, and the one we tend to spend the most time on in the woodshed, but in a practical sense it is the aspect that we spend the least amount of time on when jamming or playing in a gig situation.
This is not 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 line, then you won’t be able to function in a jam situation, and all the soloing chops in the world won’t help that situation.
So, it is important to practice improvisation, but to make it a part of a balanced approach to learning tunes, where you ensure that you can play the melody to any tune you study, learn how to creatively comp the chords, and work on your soloing chops in equal effort in the woodshed.
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 of Jazz that you need to study, including arpeggios and most importantly vocabulary, in order to avoid sounding like you are simply running scales in your solos.
If you take one thing away from this section on how to learn jazz guitar soloing, it should be:
Scales are important and essential study for any Jazz guitarist. But, they are the beginning of your study of Jazz soloing concepts, not the end.
If you keep that point in mind, then you will use your scale knowledge to build a strong understanding of the fretboard, and then build up upon that strong foundation as you study arpeggios and Jazz vocabulary from there.
Jazz Guitar Modes and Scales
When it comes to studying Jazz improvisation, for some of us, this begins and ends with a study of scales and modes on the guitar.
Scales and modes are important to study when learning how to play Jazz guitar, but they should be seen as the beginning of an understanding of Jazz soloing, not the end result.
Scales can be effective tools for outlining changes, and for translating the Jazz language onto the fretboard, but watch that you don’t fall into the trap of simply running scales over chords in your solos, as this can sound too technical and not musical in a jam situation.
In order to ensure you learn scales in a musical, practical, fashion, here are some exercises you can explore over tunes 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 all of these exercises with one and two-octave scale shapes.
As you can see, there is much more to learning Jazz scales beyond running those shapes on the fretboard in order to become proficient and musical with scales in a Jazz jam situation.
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 to have a strong understanding of scales and modes, but you need to use them as the foundation to build up from that starting point, not as an ending point for your improvisational studies.
Jazz Guitar Arpeggios
Though they are easier to learn on guitar as compared to scales, as they have fewer notes to learn in each shape, arpeggios are more difficult to improvise with as you will need to apply one shape per chord change in your Jazz solos.
As well, while arpeggios are the most direct way to address any chord change, as they contain only the chord tones of the changes you’re applying them to, they can sound a bit stale over time if you don’t move beyond playing arpeggio A over chord B in your lines.
Because of this, it is not only important to learn arpeggios, but to apply them to tunes in a creative and musical fashion in your studies.
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, one note at a time, 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 study when learning how to play jazz guitar, as this will make your arpeggio lines more musical, and bring a deeper sense of the tune to your arpeggio lines and phrases.
For more info on how to build a strong understanding of Jazz arpeggios, check out my “Intro to Jazz Guitar Arpeggios” and “Intermediate Jazz Guitar Arpeggios” lessons, and my best-selling eBook “Easy Jazz Guitar Arpeggios.”
Studying Jazz Guitar Vocabulary
I’ve included vocabulary last on this list, though it is the most important aspect when it comes to building a confident and authentic Jazz guitar sound, because you will need a foundation of scales and arpeggios in order to translate the vocabulary onto the guitar.
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 scales, arpeggios, and harmonic situations is essential when learning Jazz vocabulary.
By studying vocabulary in this fashion, you will not only learn the vocabulary, but you will bring a personal approach to that vocabulary at the same time.
When analyzing lines and solos for common Jazz vocabulary that you can then study further on the guitar, 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 have picked out one or two items from the lick you are studying that you want to add to your own vocabulary, you can then go about applying that vocabulary to other keys, scales, octaves, arpeggios, and chords as you expand upon that language in the woodshed.
To take your study of Jazz Vocabulary further, check out my “Intro to Jazz Guitar Vocabulary” lesson.
The Importance of Transcription
Besides working on tunes in your practice routine, the other most important aspect to learning how to play Jazz guitar is studying the playing of legendary players in the woodshed.
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 note for note, to Miles Davis writing down Charlie Parker lines live in New York clubs, great players have learned from the great players that came before them.
Because of this, spending time transcribing solos by your favorite players is essential for any serious Jazz guitarist, and something that can be done right from the beginning of our studies of Jazz guitar.
If you are 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 own playing.
If you are 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 Jazz by ear in your practice routine you will be able to learn directly from the greatest players on the instrument.
If you are unsure about which solos to transcribe, check out my “3 Transcriptions That Changed My Playing” lesson.
How to Transcribe a Jazz guitar Solo
After you have 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 will get a lot out of your time spent with any transcription.
Besides just learning the solo along with the record by ear, you can take steps to integrate your voice with the transcribing process, which usually creates a deeper connection between your ears and hands, and allows you to dig deeper into the solo in your studies.
Here is 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, so try them out and see how these approaches fit into your own transcribing practice.
- 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 the articulation, phrasing, and picking correctly.
- Finish the transcription in the same manner from here.
If you find that simply listening to the solo and playing it works for you, by all means go for it. But, if you are looking for a new way to transcribe, or have trouble transcribing in general, then try these steps as they can make learning any transcription easier in your studies.
Studying a Jazz Guitar Transcription
While it is important to learn how to play any transcription you are studying, this is usually just the beginning when it comes to working on the material found in any transcription in your studies.
By breaking down the transcription into lines and phrases, studying one chorus at a time, analyzing the rhythms, and working all of this into your own improvisations, you will ensure that you get the most out of your time spent with any transcription in your studies.
Speaking of time, there is no rush to learn any transcription. If you are digging this deep into a solo, it might take you 2-3 months to learn the transcription, then another 3-4 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 work on in your studies.
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 from 40 to the given tempo.
- Play it with a backing track from memory.
- Play it with the original recording from memory.
- Sing the transcription with the recording, and with a backing track.
- Play each line, ii-V-I’s for example, in all 12 keys and apply them to your soloing phrases over this tune, and others, in your studies.
- Using a backing track, play the first line of the solo at that point in each chorus, and then improvise the rest of the form on your own. Repeat with each phrase from the transcription.
- Using a backing track, play one chorus from the solo, and then improvise one chorus, alternating that way throughout the track. Repeat with each chorus.
- With a backing track, play the same rhythm as the transcription, but you improvise the notes over the backing track.
- Practice one chorus at a time, and 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 are working on, you will not only learn the notes of the transcription, but you will incorporate the vocabulary, articulation, and phrasing from the solo into your own playing in a meaningful fashion.
Most Important Lesson – Learning by Doing
One of the best lessons I ever learned, and the most important item to take away from this article, when it comes to learning how to play Jazz guitar came about five years into my Jazz guitar studies.
Up until that point I had the idea, mostly from reading books and taking private lessons, that if I learned every chord, scale, and arpeggio known to man then one day I would wake up and sound like Wes Montgomery.
What ended up happening was that I was great at playing technical items, but when I improvised, 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.
One day it dawned on me. If I want to learn how to play Jazz guitar, then I have to practice the elements that make that possible – melodies, soloing, comping.
This was the biggest turning point in my own 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 have learned ways in which you can apply technical and musical concepts to tunes in your studies, but apart from running exercises over tunes, you need to make sure 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 and then soloing over those changes in the same way you would on a jam or gig situation.
As well, this also means putting on a famous recording of any tune you are studying and comping behind the melody and solos on that track, in the same way you would if you were in a jam or gig situation.
By spending time each day working tunes from both a technical and performance perspective, you will ensure that you have the tools and experience necessary to sound confident and authentic the next time you jam Jazz tunes with friends and bandmates.
So, the next time you sit down to practice, spend a third of the time studying technical items over tunes, a third of the time performing those tunes, and a third of your time transcribing lines and solos from a famous solo over that tune.
This three-pronged approach will get you to the next level in your playing quickly, and make learning how to play Jazz guitar fun in the practice room, as you will walk away being able to play tunes on the guitar, something that is directly applicable to longer-term goals in your studies.
How to Play Jazz Guitar Checklist
To sum up the concepts and exercises from this article, here are the key items in point form that you can use as a checklist in the practice room in order to make learning how to play Jazz guitar fun and effective in your studies.
- Learning Jazz guitar 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, or more, important than learning technical items in your studies.
- Transcribing is an essential aspect of any Jazz guitar practice routine.
By keeping these five items in mind when you develop your Jazz guitar practice routine, you will be able to dig deep into any tune you are working on in your studies, as well as prepare yourself to jam or gig in a Jazz situation with confidence when the time arises.
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 a little easier and a little more fun at the same time.
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