Learn Jazz Standards – A Complete Practice Guide
One of the best ways to develop an organized, practical, and effective practice routine is to learn jazz standards.
Jazz standards are a universal language you can use to communicate with other jazz musicians.
Even if you’ve never met those musicians before a jam session, you can still make music together.
They’re also the backbone of the rich history of jazz recordings, as every great jazzer has performed standards throughout their careers.
For myriad reasons, these American Songbook tunes have found their way into the jazz lexicon, and are here to stay.
Because they’re an important aspect of learning how to play Jazz, standards make up the core of any efficient practice routine.
Working chords, scales, arpeggios, and licks is a good way to learn about the guitar.
But, working those same devices through standards is the best way to learn how to play jazz music.
In this lesson, you’ll expand your jazz repertoire and build fretboard knowledge along the way.
Playing standards can seem intimidating at first.
But, with the right practice approach, you’ll be jamming over your favorite jazz standards with confidence in no time.
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Learn Jazz Standards Contents (Click to Jump Ahead)
- 101 Essential Jazz Standards
- Learn Jazz Melodies
- Learn Jazz Chord Progressions
- Jazz Improvisation Exercises
- Jazz Sight Reading Exercises
- Learn Jazz Standards by Ear
101 Essential Jazz Standards
When it comes time to learn jazz standards in the woodshed, one of the hardest decisions to make is choosing the right tunes.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of possible jazz standards that you could choose from.
So, how do you go about choosing the right tunes to study?
That’s not an easy question to answer, but you can start by breaking down these tunes into categories.
This’ll not only help you manage your practice routine, it’ll provide variety in your repertoire as well.
When working through the jazz standards below, don’t feel like you have to learn them all at once, or in order.
If you’re new to jazz guitar, start with the jam session standards, as these are most likely to be called on gigs.
Then, work on studying one tune from each section in the list.
This’ll expand your repertoire, and ensure that you have a well-balanced set list for any jam or gig.
These 101 jazz standards isn’t the be all and end all of learning jazz tunes.
But, it’ll give you a solid idea of the various categories of tunes, as well as suggestions for tunes to build your repertoire.
Jazz Standards – Ballads
If there’s one area in any guitarist’s repertoire that’s usually thinner than the others, it’s ballads.
While it’s challenging to play fast tunes from a technical standpoint, ballads offer a more musical challenge on the fretboard.
To interpret, personalize, and create an arrangement of any jazz ballad takes maturity on the instrument.
You can hear this mature approach in the playing of the great jazz guitarists, such as Jim Hall, Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, and others.
Though ballads are musically challenging, you don’t have to wait until you’re an advanced player to work on them in your studies.
Start today, that way you’ll be able to develop your ballad techniques as you grow as a player.
This’ll get you over that hump in the practice room sooner than later.
Here’s a list of 11 jazz ballads that are commonly called on gigs to choose from in your studies.
- Body and Soul
- Easy Living
- Goodbye Pork Pie Hat
- I Can’t Get Started
- I Could Write a Book
- In a Sentimental Mood
- My Funny Valentine
- My Romance
- Round Midnight
- When Sunny Gets Blue
Jazz Standards – Bebop Tunes
While Ballads offer a creative challenge, bebop tunes will stretch your technique and ability to play heads and blow at faster tempos.
Even if you don’t plan on playing bebop tunes in a jam session, or on stage, these tunes make great vehicles from study on guitar.
Bebop heads will increase your single-note guitar techniques, and push your ability to play at up tempos at the same time.
As well, they often contain fast-moving chords, which will develop your soloing skills over popular jazz progressions.
The list below contains 9 bebop tunes that are often called at jazz jams, and that are solid vehicles for study in the practice room.
- Donna Lee
- Bouncing With Bud
- Hot House
- Joy Spring
- Salt Peanuts
- Yardbird suite
Jazz Standards – Blues Tunes
Though they’re third alphabetically on this list, the jazz blues chord progression is the most important form in jazz.
Though it’s only 12-bars long, the blues has been the blueprint for countless jazz tunes.
It’s also usually the first tune called when jamming with new musicians in a jam or gigging situation.
Because of this, having a number of jazz blues heads under your fingers is essential.
To help you sort through the long list of tunes to choose from, here are 8 essential jazz blues heads.
- Au Privave
- Bag’s Groove
- Billie’s Bounce
- Birk’s Works
- Blue Monk
- C Jam Blues
- Straight No Chaser
Jazz Standards – Brazilian Jazz Tunes
There’s something very cool about Brazilian jazz tunes on guitar, they just sound right.
With a relaxed swing feel, at any tempo, beautiful melodies, and engaging harmony, Brazilian jazz tunes are essential repertoire for any jazz guitarist.
While you may not learn all of these tunes, having two or three Brazilian jazz standards under your fingers is worth working out.
Not only will this fill out your repertoire, it’ll develop your rhythm, comping patterns, and picking-hand technique at the same time.
To get you started, here are 8 classic Brazilian jazz tunes to choose from when exploring bossa nova and samba in your studies.
- Black Orpheus
- Girl From Ipanema
- How Insensitive
- One Note Samba
- So Danco Samba
- Summer Samba
Jazz Standards – Guitar Jazz
As guitarists, it’s not only important to study the compositions of jazz’s greatest composers, but also those of jazz’s greatest guitarists.
Learning how these guitarists approached composition will provide you insights into their understanding of harmony and melody.
As well, you’ll be able to see how they visualized their fretboards, which can open up new avenues of exploration in your own guitar practice routine.
Though not all other musicians will know these tunes, so they won’t be called that often at jam sessions, you can call them on your own gigs as a bandleader.
To help you dig into these compositions, here are 9 jazz tunes written by guitarists that you can add to your repertoire list.
- A Go-Go – John Scofield
- Bright Size Life – Pat Metheny
- Careful – Jim Hall
- Chitlins Con Carne – Kenny Burrell
- Chromozone – Mike Stern
- Four on Six – Wes Montgomery
- Ralph’s Piano Waltz – John Abercrombie
- Solo Flight – Charlie Christian
- Walk Don’t Run – Johnny Smith
Jazz Standards – Jam Session Classics
Here is the meat and potatoes of any jazz repertoire list – jam session essentials.
Though this isn’t a complete list of the most common jazz jam tunes, knowing these standards will give you enough material to get through any jam session.
If you only have time to study one area of tunes on this list, start here.
After learning five or six of these tunes, move on to other categories to expand out from there in your studies.
As well as being jam session essentials, these tunes also offer popular melodic and harmonic devices that’ll make learning other tunes easier down the road.
Here’s a list of 14 jazz standards that you can learn and bring to your next jam session.
- All The Things You Are
- Autumn Leaves
- Blue Bossa
- Days of Wine and Roses
- Have You Met Miss Jones
- Killer Joe
- Satin Doll
- Softly As in a Morning Sunrise
- Stella by Starlight
- Take the A Train
Jazz Standards – Latin Jazz
Along the same lines as the Brazilian jazz standards, working on Latin jazz tunes will not only increase your repertoire, but will expand your musical knowledge at the same time.
Working montuno patterns on guitar, among other challenges, will greatly expand your rhythmic fundamentals.
As well, improvising over Latin jazz standards can pose technical challenges, both from a tempo and chord progression standpoint.
And so working on Latin jazz tunes will provide an all around positive practice room experience.
Here are 7 Latin jazz standards to get you started in your studies of these fun, and great sounding, tunes.
- Afro Blue
- A Night in Tunisia
- Con Alma
- On Green Dolphin Street (Swing-Latin)
Jazz Standards – Modal Jazz
Though they’re often studied by beginning jazz guitarists, due to their slow-moving harmonic rhythms, modal jazz tunes offer their own unique challenges.
While some of these tunes have only one or two chords, others over more difficult chord progressions to navigate in your comping and soloing.
As well, keeping track of the form when playing modal jazz standards can be tricky for any level of guitarist.
It’s not uncommon for people to call a modal tune on a jam, thinking it’ll be an easy tune to play, and then they get lost in the form halfway through.
So, focus on the form when learning these tunes, as that’s often where the challenge lies in playing modal jazz music.
Here are 10 tunes to study when building up your modal jazz repertoire.
- Blue in Green
- Cantaloupe Island
- Little Sunflower
- Maiden Voyage
- Milestones (New)
- My Favorite Things
- So What
- Take 5
Jazz Standards – Modern Jazz
This is a bit of a catchall title used to group together jazz tunes written after 1965 or so, which is a lot of ground to cover.
Though they aren’t fusion tunes entirely, modern jazz standards cover a wide-range of styles in their compositions.
Because it’s such a long period of time to cover with one label, working on modern jazz tunes will mean different things to different players.
To help you expand your repertoire into this musical realm, here are 9 modern jazz standards that are often called on jazz gigs.
Because they feature odd forms, difficult melodies, and tough chord progressions, you probably won’t get these called on you in a jam session.
But, having a few of these tunes under your fingers will expand your technique, and give you a few modern jazz options to call when you have time to rehearse a band before any jazz gig.
- Dolphin Dance
- Infant Eyes
- Lucky Southern
- Sing a Song of Song
- Some Skunk Funk
- Speak No Evil
- Pee Wee
- Portrait of Tracey
Jazz Standards – Pre-Bebop
What might surprise you about this list of pre-bebop standards is that some of these tunes are actually pre-bebop.
Though they were written almost 100 years ago these tunes have remained in the jazz repertoire to this day.
With the exception of one or two of these tunes, every one of these tunes could be called on any gig or jam session.
Because of their popularity, working these jazz standards will give you a solid foundation in the popular jam repertoire.
To help you get started with these important tunes, here’s a list of 8 pre-bebop jazz standards that you can add to your repertoire list.
- All of Me
- Cotton Tail
- Don’t Get Around Much Anymore
- Georgia on My Mind
- Honeysuckle Rose
- I Got Rhythm
- St. Louis Blues
Jazz Standards – Waltzes
While many tunes you’ll play on a jazz jam session or gig are in 4/4 time, not all of them are in this common time signature.
Jazz waltzes are some of the most beautiful tunes written for the genre.
As well, they open up your understands of how different time signatures effect your approach to comping and soloing on the guitar.
Learning how to play jazz waltzes will not only allow you expand your understanding of time signatures, it’ll add rhythmic variety to your set list.
Having at least one waltz in your repertoire is essential for any jazz guitarist.
To help you bring a 3/4 tune into your repertoire, here are 8 jazz waltzes that you can explore in the practice room.
- A Child is Born
- Alice in Wonderland
- All Blues
- Someday My Prince Will Come
- Up Jumped Spring
- Waltz for Debby
- West Coast Blues
Learn Jazz Standards – Melody
The first thing to study when learning jazz standards is the melody.
This is because the melody is the tune; it’s what makes a standard sound unique.
There are a number of tunes that use the same or similar chords, so the melody is what differentiates any jazz standard.
While it’s important to learn the melody first, that’s easier said than done for guitarists.
Roadblocks such as range, positions, and fingerings, come into play and make it tough to know exactly where to play any melody on the fretboard.
To help you develop your ability to quickly and thoroughly learn any melody, here are a number of exercises that you can apply to your practice routine.
How to Read a Lead Sheet Melody on Guitar
Before you learn any melody on the guitar, you’ll need to know how to interpret what you see on the page as compared to the fretboard.
Because the guitar sounds one-octave lower than written, playing melodies as written in lead sheets is often too low on the fretboard.
So, the first thing to do when learning any jazz standard melody is to take it to two octaves.
After doing so, you’ll know whether you can play it as written, or if it’s better to transpose it up an octave on the guitar.
- Learn melody in written octave
- Learn melody one octave higher
Here’s an example of this approach to the first four bars of the jazz standard “After You’ve Gone.”
First, here’s that phrase in the written octave, in notation and on the fretboard.
Click to hear jazz standards 1
Next, here’s the same line one octave higher.
Click to hear jazz standards 2
As you can see and hear, the second line cuts through the band much more clearly.
Though the first example is fine, it’s not out of range to play; the second version is easier to hear.
When learning any melody, learn it in two octaves.
From there, you can choose one over the other.
Or, in the Wes Montgomery approach, use one octave for one section and the other octave in a different section.
Learn Jazz Standard Melodies – Positions
As well as learning melodies in two octaves, it’s important to learn melodies in multiple positions on the fretboard.
This’ll open up your neck, as well as ensure you can always reference the melody in any position.
Start by working any melody in the following positions on the fretboard.
Doing so will cover the first half of the guitar, and allow you to always have the melody under your fingers on the neck.
- Within Frets 1-4
- Within Frets 5-8
- Within Frets 9-12
If you’ve tried these positions out, you’ll realize that keeping the melody in one octave is not normally an option.
So, feel free to alter the octave as necessary when working melodies in one position on the fretboard.
Single String Melodies
A more unconventional, though highly beneficial, exercise is to learn melodies on one string at a time.
When doing so, you’ll pick a string, and then play a melody on that string only.
Again, change the octave when necessary to make this exercise possible.
Go slow at first, as fingerings will become an issue with melodies on one string.
Watch that you don’t get caught playing every note with one or two fingers.
Try to use all four if possible.
Though it seems a bit unorthodox, one-string melodies will get your ears involved in the learning process.
As well, you’ll never be lost with a melody as you’ll have it under your fingers on each string in all areas of the neck.
Jazz Melodies as Improvising Vocabulary
One of the best improvisational tools that players overlook is the melody.
The melody is the scale of the song; it already fits over the chord progression.
So, working melodies from an improvisational standpoint will not only increase your creativity, it’ll help you nail chord changes at the same time.
To begin soloing with melodies, start with the following exercise.
- Memorize a jazz standard melody
- Put on a backing track and play the melody
- Each chorus start to alter the melody
- Change the rhythm, add notes, take notes away
- But, always keep the melody at the core of your solo
By working melodies this way, you’ll internalize them to the point that you’ll never forget them.
As well, you’ll bring a sense of the melody into your solos.
One of the best exercises I ever did came from my teacher Roddy Ellias.
He would step out of the room in our lessons and tell me to start soloing over a tune.
When he walked back in the room he wanted to know exactly what tune I was soloing over right away.
This isn’t too hard with a tune like Stella by Starlight.
Give this exercise a try, and work melodies into your solos in jam sessions.
Everyone loves a good melody, and it’ll connect your solos to the tune.
Learn Jazz Standards – Chords
After learning to play the melody, guitarists need to work on nailing the comping over jazz standards.
Being able to play the chords to any standard may not be as fun as soloing over that tune, but it’s practical.
As a guitarist, you’ll spend 90% or more of your time comping behind melodies and solos.
So, having a strong command of comping over any jazz standard you learn is essential.
To help you build your comping skill set, here are three approaches you can take in the practice room over standard chord progressions.
Voice Leading Exercises – Level 1
If you’re new to jazz guitar chords, then working root-position voicings is the way to go.
But, that doesn’t mean that you have to jump around the fretboard between each chord.
Instead, you want to aim for smooth and minimal movement between chords.
This minimal movement is called voice leading.
It means that you move the “voices,” notes, with a minimal distance between each voice.
Here’s an exercise that you can do to apply voice leading your jazz standard chord progressions.
- Pick a tune to work on
- Play the first chord with a 6th-string root
- Move to the next closest shape for the next chord
- Repeat through the tune
- Repeat all steps from the 5th-string root first chord
Here’s an example of this exercise applied to the opening phrase of Stella by Starlight.
Click to hear jazz standards 3
You won’t always be able to avoid jumps when working with root-position chords.
But, you can make those jumps minimal on the fretboard.
This exercise will also set you up to begin working on chord inversions in the next section.
Voice Leading Exercises – Level 2
After working through root chords, or if you’re at a more advanced level, you can work chord inversions through jazz standards.
In the following exercise, you’ll approach it the same way as the first, though now you’re moving to inversions on each chord.
This is the best way to work voice leading into your comping, as you can alter only a few, or sometimes one, notes between chords.
- Pick a tune to work on
- Play the first chord in root position
- Move to the closest next chord inversion
- Repeat through the whole tune
- Repeat starting on other inversions of first chord
Here’s an example of how to work inversions over the first four bars of Stella by Starlight.
Click to hear jazz standards 4
As you can see, you’ll need an understanding of chord inversions to work this exercise.
But, if you go slow, and have a chord dictionary handy, you can use this exercise to learn chord inversions.
Try it out, even if you don’t feel ready.
Use the chord dictionary when needed, and build your comping skills and chord knowledge over jazz standards at the same time.
Guide Tones – 3rds and 7ths
When you can play chord inversions through any jazz standard, you’re ready to take it up a notch by learning guide tones.
Guide tones are the essential notes of any chord, in most cases the 3rd and 7th.
These two notes may be small shapes, but they can sound any chord progression when applied to a standard.
Though they’re important shapes, there’s no root, making them tough to learn when first working guide tones in your studies.
To help you apply guide tones to jazz standards, here’s an exercise you can work on in the woodshed.
- Pick a tune to work on
- Pick a string set – 34 or 45
- Play the 3rd and 7th of the first chord
- Move to the next closest 3rd and 7th for chord two
- Repeat through the whole tune
- Repeat on other string sets and fingerings
Here’s an example of guide tones over the first phrase to Stella by Starlight, one position on the 4th and 3rd strings.
Click to hear jazz standards 5
Though they’re easy to play on the guitar, only two notes, seeing guide tones on the fretboard can take time.
Without having a root in the chord, you’ll have to know the 3rd and 7th for the underlying changes.
This will take practice.
But, with time, you’ll be able to see and play guide tones over any jazz standard on multiple string sets.
Learn Jazz Standards – Improvising
One of the biggest mistakes musicians make when learning jazz standards is thinking:
“If I know all my scales and arpeggios then I’ll be able to solo over any Jazz Standard.”
While knowing these technical devices is important, practicing improvising is something that every jazz musician needs to do.
Improvisation is a learned skill, and so practicing soloing will make you a better soloist.
Working scales and arpeggios on your instrument is great for learning the fretboard.
But, unless you apply those devices to tunes in your studies ahead of time, you’ll never be able to convincingly solo over tunes in a jam situation.
To help you build your soloing chops, and build your ability to outline chord changes, here are a number of important exercises to work on in the practice room.
The first device to work on when practicing improvisation over jazz standards are arpeggios.
Because they’re built from chord tones, arpeggios are the most direct way to outline any chord progression in your solos.
The following variations can be applied to any one or two-octave arpeggio shape for each chord in a jazz standard.
Start by playing through each without any time, then with a metronome, and finally a backing track.
- Arpeggios Ascending
- Arpeggios Descending
- Alternating One Up and One Down
- Alternating One Down and One Up
After working out the arpeggios to any tune you’re learning, put on a metronome and solo using only arpeggios over the changes.
Because they use chords tones, arpeggios will sound the changes even without a band to back you up.
If you can sound the tune without a band, using arpeggios or other devices, then your solos with a full band will be that much stronger.
As well as working on arpeggios over jazz standards, you can work scales over each chord in any tune you’re learning.
When doing so, you can use the same variations that you applied to your arpeggio workout.
- Scales Ascending
- Scales Descending
- Altering One Up and One Down
- Alternating One Down and One Up
Don’t forget to practice soloing with scales over jazz standards in your studies as well as work them with a metronome.
It’s easy to get caught up spending all your time with technique, and not leaving time to work soloing in your routine.
But, soloing is a learned skill, just like scales and arpeggios.
So, practicing soloing will build your ability to apply any technical device to a real-life jam situation.
Lastly, you can mix both scales and arpeggios in your studies to build a well-rounded approach to soloing over jazz standards.
The following variations should be applied to one and two-octave shapes over any jazz standard you’re learning in the practice room.
- Arpeggio Up and Scale Down
- Scale Up and Arpeggio Down
- Arpeggio Down and Scale Up
- Scale Down and Arpeggio Up
Because these mixed exercises cover more ground on the fretboard, and rhythmically, it’s tough to work them with a backing track.
So, work them out with a metronome first.
Then, when you’re ready, put on a backing track and solo with both devices over the tune.
This way, you’ll get both a technical and creative workout with these exercises in the woodshed.
As well as working more technical items over Jazz Standards, such as scales and arpeggios, you can expand your vocabulary over tunes in the woodshed.
To do so, you can use the following exercises to add the Jazz language to your solos in both an accurate and musical fashion.
Here’s the first exercise, which sets you up to use language in your solos.
- Pick a short line to work on (2-4 bars)
- Find a tune where you can apply that line
- Put on a backing track and solo over the tune
- When those chords come around, play the line
Once you can do that with confidence, and accuracy, you’re ready to move on to the second half of this exercise.
- Use the same tune and line
- Begin to alter the line – change rhythms, notes, etc.
- Focus on getting into the line smoothly
- Aim to move out of the line smoothly
- Play parts of the line then add your own material
As you can see, learning licks and adding them to your solos is only the first step.
When you can integrate them into your phrases smoothly, and alter them in the moment, then lines become personalized.
Moving beyond quoting lines in your solos will ensure you have an understanding of vocabulary, without becoming a line player at the same time.
Out of the Box Improvisation Exercises
Besides working on the traditional improvisation exercises above, you can also step outside of the box a bit with these soloing exercises.
Each exercise is designed to get you out of your soloing habits and into new areas of creativity.
They might seem a bit strange at first, but give them a try.
You might be surprised to find you get absorbed into these types of exercises, spending hours in the woodshed without realizing it.
Here are six out of the box jazz improvisation exercises to check out over jazz standards.
- Solo only within one octave
- Solo only in frets 1-4, 5-8, or 9-12
- Solo on one string at a time
- Solo on two strings at a time
- Solo with one fretting-hand finger only
- Solo with one rhythm only, i.e. triplets or 8ths
As you can see, these exercises will open up new doorways in your soloing explorations.
And, at the same time, they’re fun to work on in the practice room.
Give them a try; some might be easier to attempt or more to your liking than others.
Learn Jazz Standards – Sight Reading
Jamming with other musicians means learning tunes ahead of time, but it also means being able to read tunes in a jam session or on a gig.
There’s nothing more stressful than having a chart dropped in front of you on the bandstand and you’re sight-reading chops aren’t up to par.
But, if you’ve sharpened your reading skills, then sight-reading in a jam or on a gig can be an enjoyable experience.
If you’ve shied away from learning how to read music because you thought it meant working on reading studies, or working on boring textbooks, this isn’t the case.
If you’re playing in a big band, then yes you’ll need to work on reading more complex lines and changes.
But, if you want to learn to read in a combo jam situation, then you need to practice practical, musical, exercises.
Not only practical reading exercises beneficial, they’re usually a lot more fun to work out in the woodshed.
As well, for guitarists, learning how to sight-read jazz standards means reading chords, melodies, and soloing in real time.
To help you build your ability to jam tunes at sight, here is a break down of how to approach these three areas of sight-reading in your studies.
Sight Reading Chords
The first side of sight-reading to work on is reading chords.
While you may feel like reading melodies should be your priority, as a guitarist you’ll spend most of your time comping chords in a jam session.
Therefore, making sure you can read chords at sight will ensure you can function in a jazz jam situation.
Because you probably know how to read chord changes better than single notes, you can dive in and challenge yourself with the following exercise.
- Pick a tune to read that you don’t know
- Put on a backing track
- Comp the chords along to the track at sight
- Aim to be able to nail the chords by the end of the track
- With each new tune, shorten the time it takes to nail the chords
It’s a pretty straightforward exercise, but one that emulates a real-life reading situation.
If you can get it to the point where you can accurately play the chords by the end of the first chorus, or even second, you’re ready to sight-read chords in a jam situation.
Sight Reading Solos
The next exercise will focus on helping you to play solos at sight over jazz standards.
This is a skill that many players put off developing in their studies.
It’s one thing to be able to work on soloing over one tune for a long period in your studies.
But, it’s another thing all together to be able to outline chord changes when sight reading, and sound musical at the same time.
There’s nothing more frustrating than nailing the comping at a jam session only to fall on your face when it comes time to solo.
To help you get over this hump, you can work on the comping exercise above just replace soloing with comping.
But, if you need a bit more study to get to a level where soloing in real time is possible, check out this preparatory exercise.
- Pick a tune you don’t know
- Play the root notes on the top two strings for each chord
- Play the triad for each chord from the 4th, then 3rd, string roots
- Play one-octave scales for each chord from those same strings
- Solo with no tempo using arps and scales over the chords
- Put on a backing track and solo in time with these devices
Though it’s not sight soloing, this exercise will build your ability to outline changes for tunes you don’t know.
Then, taking that knowledge to a sight-reading situation will be much easier when you’re ready to take that step.
Learning to sight solo is an important skill to have, though it can take time to build up in your playing.
So, start today.
Grab a tune you don’t know and jam on it, or work out the prep exercises.
The sooner you begin, the sooner soloing at sight will be easy to do in your playing.
Sight Reading Melodies
You’ll notice that reading melodies, notes on the staff, is last in this list of exercises.
This is because, as a guitarist, you’ll be comping and soloing more often than playing melodies in a sight-reading situation.
Not to say it won’t happen, but if there’s a sax, trumpet, trombone, or vocalist in the band, chances are they’ll take the head and you’ll comp.
So, it’s important to learn how to read music on guitar.
But, at the same time it’s important to prioritize your practice routine so you’re best prepared to function in a real-life situation.
Besides learning how to read notes on the staff, which is a whole other topic of study, here is an exercise that you can do in order to build your sight-reading chops.
- Pick a tune you don’t know
- Read the melody in the given octave
- Read the melody one octave higher
- Begin to add fills to the melody
- Add chords between phrases or under notes if possible
By working this exercise, you’ll study sight-reading melodies in a practical way.
You’ll be able to read in any octave, as well as learn how to make a melody sound musical and arranged even when sight-reading.
Learn Jazz Standards – Transcribing
There’s no more important approach to learning jazz standards than transcribing.
Spending time listening to a melody, chord progressions, or improvised solo, and learning them by ear produces sizeable results in the woodshed.
Beyond learning what notes to play, repeated and intense listening teaches you how to hear subtle nuances in the music.
This ability to hear music with greater detail is a huge help when jamming with other musicians.
If you can transcribe chords, you’ll always know where the piano player is in the form, even when they deviate from the written chords.
Then you’ll rarely get lost in the form, or if you do get lost you’ll quickly get back on the form.
If you can transcribe single notes, hearing when the sax player uses steps outside, or uses a chord substitution, becomes doable in real time.
Then, you can react by going with their new harmony, or playing a counter harmony to their lines.
Reacting to rhythmic cues and interacting with the drums becomes easy after you’ve written out melodies and chords, both notes and rhythms.
This’ll allow you to always been in time with the band, never get off the beat, and really lock in with the rhythm section.
It’s this level of hearing and interaction that you want to strive for when jamming with other jazz musicians.
And, transcribing jazz standards will get you there faster than any other exercise in the practice room.
In this section of the lesson, you’ll study a number of exercises that you can use in your routine to help you increase you ability to hear jazz music in real time.
As well, after working these exercises, you’ll be able to quickly learn any jazz standard chord progression or melody just by listening to it.
No Real Book needed.
Transcribing can be a difficult skill to develop, and many players struggle with it in the woodshed.
But, with time, effort, and determination, you’ll be able to reach your transcription goals, and bring your heightened sense of hearing to the bandstand.
How to Learn Jazz Melodies by Ear
There are two important reasons why you should learn jazz heads by ear.
The first is accuracy, as lead sheets will sometimes contain errors.
While the second is that it teaches you how famous jazz performers interpret melodies in their playing.
Often times, beginning Jazz musicians will learn tunes from the Real Book and play them as is on a jam session.
While this is accurate, the notes are correct, they’re often written in the plainest rhythms possible with no fills in a lead sheet.
But, when you listen to players such as Wes Montgomery, John Coltrane, and Herbie Hancock play a melody, it sounds nothing like a lead sheet.
Learning melodies by ear will not only get the tune under your fingers, but also teach you how to interpret those melodies like these great players.
To help you get started with learning jazz standard melodies by ear, here are steps you can take when working them in the woodshed.
Vocal vs. Instrumental Melodies
To begin, you’ll need to decide if you’ll transcribe a jazz melody as played by a vocalist or instrumentalist.
Both will offer a different learning experience, and so should be worked on over time as you learn more tunes by ear.
But, to help you figure out which is best to start with in your studies, here are a few points to consider when learning melodies by ear.
When learning a jazz melody from a vocalist you’ll want to consider the following points.
- The melody will be closer to a lead sheet version
- There are usually less ornaments – fills, riffs, etc.
- The range will be smaller compared to some instruments
- You’ll learn the lyrics as you learn the notes
- You’ll learn about breathing and phrasing melodies
When working on learning Jazz melodies from instrumentalists, keep the following in mind.
- Melodies are usually more openly interpreted
- More fills, riffs, and sometimes solos in place of the melody
- Range can be expanded beyond lead sheet version
- No lyrics to learn
- If it’s guitar or piano there’s no breathing
Both will offer you unique approaches to playing and interpreting Jazz melodies.
If you’re unsure where to start, do both.
A great exercise would be to learn the melody from a vocalist, then learn the same melody from an instrumentalist.
This would give you a comparison to work from when building ability to interpret jazz melodies on your own instrument.
It’s the best of both musical worlds.
Learning Melodies in Real Time
Besides sitting down and learning melodies note by note, you can challenge yourself further by working on melodies in real time.
There are two sides to this exercise, one with your instrument and one without.
If you want to work with your instrument, here are the steps you’d take to work this exercise over any jazz standard.
- Pick a tune to learn
- Find a recording of that tune
- Listen to the melody section
- Reset the track and play along with the melody if you can
- Repeat until you can play the melody perfectly
As you can see, that’s a bit of a challenge compared to working one note or phrase at a time with your instrument.
But, while it’ll be tough, it’ll get your ears to new levels very quickly.
The second variation to this exercise uses these steps.
- Pick a tune to learn
- Find a recording of that tune
- Find the first note of the melody on your instrument
- Write out the melody by ear from there
- Check your work by playing the melody when done
Now, this exercise isn’t for everyone as it’s very challenging.
But, for those players will naturally good ears, or that have learned a lot of tunes by ear, this can push you in new directions in your studies.
Either way, take the challenge and try to work on learning jazz standard melodies with these exercises.
You might curse a bit, but you’ll get there, and the effort will all be worth it in the end.
Checking Your Work
After you’ve learned any melody by ear, either piece by piece or with the real-time exercises, you’ll want to check your work.
You can do this by playing the melody along to the recording to check your accuracy.
The second approach would be to refer to a lead sheet to see if your notes line up with the music.
Either way is fine, the important thing is that you check your note accuracy before taking the tune to a jam session.
This’ll ensure you’re playing the melody correctly, and avoid awkward moments on the bandstand at the same time.
How to Learn Jazz Chords by Ear
Here’s where most people struggle when working on learning jazz standards by ear.
Hearing melodies is sometimes tough, but mostly doable for most musicians.
But, hearing chord changes and learning them by ear is another challenge altogether.
Though you may struggle with hearing changes, give it a try.
Work on hearing one chord at a time, and then check your work with a lead sheet.
From there, build your ears up to the point where you can hear the chords to full tunes in your studies.
You’ll never regret spending time working on hearing chord changes in the woodshed.
To help you get started with learning jazz chords by ear, here are steps you can take to make this process easier for you in the practice room.
Start With the Bass Line
When learning chord progressions by ear, the bassist is your best friend.
During a melody section, bassists will often play simple, root-heavy bass lines.
This makes it easier to hear the root of each chord in the progression that you’re transcribing.
Even if they’re playing a busier bass line, the root will most likely be on the downbeat of a new chord change.
Again, making it easier to hear the chord changes to any jazz standard.
So, when learning Jazz Standards by ear, start by getting the bassline.
You don’t have to memorize the bass line, or write it all out.
Instead, just use it to pick out the root notes for each chord in the tune.
Then, once you have the root notes, you’ll be able to find the chord qualities for the changes from there.
Get the Melody Line Down
Here’s where knowing the melody line to any jazz standard will come in handy.
If you’ve already worked out the melody line, you’ll be able to compare it to the bass notes you just transcribed.
By doing so, you’ll be able to work out some, or most, of the chords in the tune.
Often times, the melody contains chord tones, or other diatonic notes that’ll provide clues to the underlying chord qualities.
For example, if you’ve got a G root note, and the melody line is a Bb, you can try out a Gm7 chord over that bass note.
Then, if that’s not the right chord, try Gm7b5, or G7#9, until you find the chord change.
If this approach doesn’t work out, then you can move on to the next step.
But, a lot of times combining bass notes with the melody, and a little experimentation, will give you the chords to any jazz standard.
Fill in the Blanks
If you’ve got the melody and bass notes down, but can’t figure out the chords, then you’ll have to look for a few more clues to help you grab the changes by ear.
The first step would be to look for common chord progressions.
For example, if you have the notes A-D-G, that forms a ii-V-I chord progression in G.
But, you won’t know if it’s a major or minor ii-V-I.
Sometimes the melody will provide clues, but sometimes not, or it may not be played over these chords.
So, here’s where you use a bit of theory and experimentation to fill in the gaps.
Start by playing Am7-D7-Gmaj7 over the bass notes.
Then, play Am7b5-D7alt-Gm7 as a comparison.
Find the one that fits and you’ve got the chords.
Between the melody-bass comparison, and filling in the blanks with theory and common progressions, you’ll be able to learn most chord progressions by ear.
Don’t Let Inversions Fool You
One thing that can through a wrench into the gears when transcribing progressions are chord inversions.
There are even fake books that contain errors because the transcriber heard a bass note and wrote a chord from that note in root position when it was an inversion.
So, if you hear bass notes such as Bb-C-F, use some theory and common sense to fill in those chords.
At first glance, these chords look like a IV-V-I progression in F.
But, in Jazz, IV-V-I is rarely if ever used in standard changes.
The more common progression is ii-V-I.
So, using some theory, you can infer that it’s a Gm7/Bb-C7-Fmaj7 chord progression.
This makes a lot more sense, and is a common progression in jazz, so it would more likely be these chords.
You’d then play these chords with the recording to check your work, and move forward in the transcription.
Jazz changes move in patterns, which makes them easier to hear the more experience you have with learning standards.
You’d be surprised how many tunes you can transcribe just by being able to hear ii V I’s in major and minor keys.
Checking Your Work
Now comes the most important part, checking your work.
There are two ways you can do this, playing with the recording, or checking a lead sheet.
If you’re ears are more advanced, then jamming over the recording will tell you if your chords are correct or not.
If you’re just beginning to learn jazz standards by ear, then checking a lead sheet will be the better option.
This’ll make sure that your chords are correct, and prevent any awkward moments in a jam session if you all of a sudden start playing wrong chords over a tune.
Lead sheets aren’t perfect, but they can help you check your work when transcribing jazz chord progressions.
Backing Track Exercise
One of the best exercises you can do when learning chord progressions by ear is to work with backing tracks.
Here are the steps to work on this exercise in your studies, which can be difficult to work through at first.
But, if you’ve transcribed a few chord progressions from recordings, then you should be ready for the challenge.
At first it might seem almost impossible, but stick with it, over time it’ll become easier.
- Put on a backing track to a tune you don’t know
- Comp the chords along to the band by ear
- Give yourself until the end of the track to get all the chords
- After the track’s over, check your work with the lead sheet
- Aim to get the chords in less choruses each time
- Set a goal to be 100% accurate by the end of the track
As you can see, this is a tough exercise.
But, it’ll increase your ability to hear jazz harmony in real time.
This’ll make jam session that much easier, as you won’t be worried about playing a tune you don’t know.
You also won’t be scrambling for a lead sheet and holding up the band.
Instead, you’ll ask for the key, maybe the first chord, then confidently comp the chords by ear from there.
And that’s a very cool skill to have.
Learning jazz by ear is a big challenge for many players, especially beginners.
But, even if it seems impossible, don’t give up.
Work on learning one note by ear at first.
When that’s doable, learn two notes by ear.
Then build up from there to full melodies and eventually chord progressions.
You’ll never regret time spent building up your ear in the woodshed.
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