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 learn how to play jazz guitar?”
For many players, learning jazz guitar means playing 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 you can make is that you spend hours on technique and little or no time on performance.
After all, for most of us, you wanted to learn how to play jazz guitar 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 contains a healthy dose of tune study.
In this article, you learn essential jazz guitar practice elements.
These include, how to study tunes, concepts, technical items, and transcriptions to make learning jazz guitar fun and effecient.
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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
- How to Transcribe Jazz Solos
- Learning by Doing
Playing Jazz Guitar Means Playing Tunes
For most of us, the reason why you want to learn jazz guitar is to make music.
In jazz, making music means playing tunes, and more often than not, with jazz standards.
Whether you’re jamming with friends or with backing tracks, playing solo guitar, or doing gigs, each of us makes music in our own way.
So, your practice outline should aim towards the goal of playing either solo or with other musicians.
One of the biggest pitfalls that I see with players, is that they spend all their time learning techniques, such as scales, arpeggios, and chords, and not spending enough time learning tunes.
Because of this, they can play up and down technical devices, often with speed and confidence, but when it comes to functioning as a guitarist over a tune, things fall apart.
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 to practice when it comes to learning tunes, the three main elements are:
When playing tunes, you need to play the chords behind other soloists, and the melody if you’re playing in a group.
As well, sometimes in a group setting, and for sure with solo guitar, you’re 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, so learning how to improvise is the third element in your practice routine when learning tunes.
These elements in order from the item you spend the most time on, comping, to the least time, soloing, to organize your practicing to reflect the time you spend on each during performances.
You now break down each element to learn how you apply them to your practice routine.
How to Learn Jazz Comping
Comping is at the top of the list as it’s the item that occupies most of your time when jamming with other musicians.
While you’ve probably learned chord shapes, you might have stopped at one type of chord, or didn’t dig into rhythms or chord vocabulary yet.
To develop your comping skills, you need to explore these items over tunes to prepare yourself to jam with other people.
Check out the exercises to expand your harmonic skill set and build your confidence when it comes to comping in a jazz situation.
Jazz Guitar Chord Voicings
Here’s a list of chord types that expand your ability to comp 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 learn.
You can go deep into any one of these chord types, such as working drop 2 chords and learning as much about those chords as you can.
Or, you can dip your toes into each of these chord groups, and then apply a bit of each 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 tunes.
Keep that in mind and you’ll reach your harmonic goals in the woodshed in no time.
One way to practice these chords is to pick a tune, a type of chord, say drop 2, and a string set, such as 4321.
From there, 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.
Common Jazz Rhythms for Comping
While learning shapes is important, studying specific rhythms is also important when developing your ability to comp over jazz tunes.
By working rhythms, you ensure that you aren’t caught flat footed when someone calls a bossa nova groove, or when the band plays over the barline, or other rhythmic approaches.
- Quarter Notes – Freddie Green Style
- Dotted Quarter Notes
- Charleston Rhythm
- Bossa Nova Rhythm
- Samba Groove
Once you have a rhythm, pick a tune and apply that rhythm to the tune with a metronome or jam track.
From there, take that same rhythm to other tunes, other tempos, and other voicings, as you prepare to effectively and comfortably apply that rhythm to a jam.
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 they know shapes, but when it comes time to applying these shapes in a jam session, they fall flat.
Their chord shapes sound too technical, and lack the vocabulary needed to interact with the soloist in a musical way.
To avoid this, learn jazz chord lines and phrases, and build your harmonic vocabulary in the same way you study single-note lines.
There are many great compers and chord soloists out there to study, but three of the best are Ed Bickert, Joe Pass, and Lenny Breau.
To expand your chord vocabulary, pick a chord line, you can transcribe it or learn it from a book, and work that line over any tune you’re studying.
This could mean that every time the chords for the line, ii-V-I for example, comes up, you apply the chord line to those changes.
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 guitar, there are two approaches that you take:
- Single-Note Melodies
- Chord melodies
Melody lines are also a solid resource for improvising.
All of the notes in the melody fit the progression, and can be used as quotes or the main source of melodic content when soloing over any tune.
Whenever you learn a tune, keep in mind that it’s the melody that makes the tune.
Jazz tunes often have similar, or the exact same, chord progressions to other tunes, 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 a lesson, Roddy told me that someone should be able to walk in 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, and being creative with the melody of a tune, enhances your ability to be musical as a jazz guitarist.
Where to Learn Melodies
One of the roadblocks guitarists face, is you’re unsure of where to learn melodies on the fretboard.
Or, you learn one position of a melody and then can’t adapt that position when jamming on tunes in a gig situation.
There are a number of ways to learn melodies so you can reference it across the fretboard, transpose it, play it in different octaves, and internalize it.
Here’s are ways that to practice melodies effectively.
- 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 tunes on guitar means more than learning one position of that melody and moving on from there.
You don’t have to run all 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, covering every step, but not getting bored with one melody.
Soloing With Melodies
One thing that many guitarists forget to draw upon in their jazz solos is the melody.
I call melodies the “scale of the tune,” as the notes of the melody work over each chord, much like a scale when played over chords diatonic to that scale.
Because it’s “diatonic” to the tune, you use the melody as the basis for your soloing ideas.
You do this by playing the melody as written the first time through, and then alter the melody to bring creativity and improvisation to the melody in your playing.
Here’s how you alter melody lines when soloing.
- 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, but improvise the notes.
The melody is a useful resource when learning how to improvise over jazz tunes, and is an untapped resource in your playing.
Exploring melody lines from a soloing perspective increases your ability to play that line, and creates a strong connection between your soloing and the tune at the same time.
As the guitar is multiphonic, harmonizing melody lines is not only an option, it’s essential to dig deeper into tunes in their studies.
There are three main ways to practice and learn chord melodies, besides studying written 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 approaches get you arranging and playing chord melodies right away.
Experiment with each as you might be drawn to one or the other, or that some tunes work better with one and not with others.
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, it’s the aspect that you spend the least amount of time on when jamming.
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 can’t function in a jam, and all the soloing chops in the world won’t help.
When it comes to practicing soloing, many of us dive straight into scales and modes.
While these concepts are important, there are other elements you need, including arpeggios and vocabulary, to avoid sounding like you’re simply running scales.
If you take one thing away from this section it’s this:
Scales are the beginning of your jazz soloing concepts, not the end.
If you keep that in mind, you use scale knowledge to build an understanding of the fretboard, then build upon that foundation as you study arpeggios and vocabulary.
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 jazz soloing, not the end result.
Scales are effective tools for outlining changes, and for translating the jazz language onto the guitar, but watch you don’t fall into the trap of running scales over chords in your solos.
To ensure you learn scales in a musical, practical, fashion, here are 9 exercises to 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 jazz guitar, you need a strong understanding of scales and modes, but they need to be the foundation you build from, not the end point of your soloing studies.
Jazz Guitar Arpeggios
Though they’re easier to learn compared to scales, arpeggios are more difficult to solo with, as you apply one shape per chord in your solos.
While arpeggios are the most direct way to address any chord, they can sound stale if you don’t move beyond playing arpeggio A over chord B.
Because of this, it’s not only important to learn arpeggios, but to apply them to tunes in a creative and musical fashion.
Here’s how to learn arpeggios over tunes.
- Learn ascending arpeggios over a tune.
- Learn descending arpeggios over a tune.
- Play one arpeggio up, then one arpeggio down.
- Play one arpeggio down, then one arpeggio up.
- Add chromatic approach notes to each arpeggio note.
- Add enclosures to each arpeggio note, one at a time.
- Practice 3 to 9, 5 to 11, and 7 to 13 arpeggios.
- Do every exercise with one and two-octave arpeggios.
Moving beyond learning arpeggio shapes is essential when playing jazz guitar, as this makes your arpeggio lines musical when soloing.
Studying Jazz Guitar Vocabulary
Studying jazz vocabulary means learning lines from your favorite players, but it goes deeper than that.
Breaking down lines into concepts, then applying those concepts to other situations is essential when learning jazz vocabulary.
By studying vocabulary this way, you learn the vocabulary and 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 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 recur in the same solo
How to Transcribe Jazz Solos
Besides working tunes, most important aspect to learning jazz guitar is studying the playing of legendary guitarists.
This has been a common approach to learning 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 those that came before them.
Because of this, transcribing solos is essential for any serious jazz guitarist, and something that can be done from the beginning of your jazz explorations.
If you’re new to transcribing, start with a short phrase, learn it by ear and work it around the fretboard to apply it to various musical situations.
If you’re more advanced, learning whole solos is the way to go, as well as running those solos through the exercises below.
Whichever approach you decide is fine, as long as you spend time learning by ear you’re able to learn directly from the greatest players on the instrument.
How to Transcribe a Jazz guitar Solo
After you’ve picked a solo, sit down and transcribe that solo onto the guitar, or write it out if you decide to put it on paper.
I write out all of my transcriptions, mostly so I have a record of them in the future, but that is up to you.
As long as you learn the solo, and take it through the exercises in the next section, you get a lot out of your time with any transcription.
Besides learning the solo with the recording, take steps to integrate your voice with the transcribing process, creating 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, but 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 play 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, these steps make learning any transcription much easier.
Studying a Jazz Guitar Transcription
While it’s important to play any transcription, this is the beginning when it comes to working on the material found in a transcription.
By breaking down the transcription into lines, studying one chorus at a time, analyzing rhythms, and working these items into your own solos, you get the most out of any transcription.
Speaking of time, there’s no rush to learn any transcription.
If you’re digging deep into a solo, it can take 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 get the most out of any transcription you study.
Here are exercises 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 one option when it comes to studying great players.
Most Important Lesson – Learning by Doing
One of the best lessons I’ve learned came about five years into my jazz guitar studies.
Up until that point, I believed that if I learned every chord, scale, and arpeggio, 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 exercises.
As well, when I comped it sounded like I was 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, I need to practice the elements that make that possible – melodies, soloing, comping.
This was the biggest turning point in my studies, and has helped my students take their playing to the next level without wasting five years running scales, arpeggios, and chords like I did.
If you want to sound good playing tunes, you have to spend time playing tunes in the practice room.
Throughout this article, you’ve learned to apply technical and musical concepts to tunes.
But, besides running exercises over tunes, you need to spend time each day playing tunes.
This means putting on a backing track and playing the melody from memory, then soloing in the same way you would on a jam or gig situation.
As well, this means putting on a famous recording and comping behind the melody and solos, in the same way you would if you were on a gig.
By spending time each day working tunes this way, you ensure that you have the tools needed to sound confident the next time you’re jamming with friends.
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.
This three-pronged approach gets you to the next level in your playing quickly.
It also makes learning jazz guitar fun, as you walk away able to play tunes, something that’s directly applicable to your long-term goals.
How to Play Jazz Guitar Checklist
Here are the key items 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 items helps you dig deep into any tune, and prepares you for any jazz jam or gig situation.
Learning how to play jazz guitar seems like a daunting, and sometimes boring, task.
But, with the right approach, you make that task easier and more enjoyable at the same time.
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