How to Build An Effective Jazz Guitar Practice Routine

One of the most popular questions that I encounter as a jazz guitar teacher is “How do I develop an effective jazz guitar practice routine?”

This is not an easy question to answer without hearing the person play and doing an assessment of where they are in their development as a jazz guitarist.

But, there are certain ideas that I believe we can all include in our playing, regardless of our musical tastes or what we are working on, that can help us move forward as jazz guitarists.

Since I get asked this question a lot, I thought it’s about time that I write an article that lays out five of the practice tools that I use to be more effective in the woodshed.

For me, there are many things that we can practice and we’ll end up getting better, as my teacher Nick Di Tomasso said “If you play guitar for eight hours a day you can’t help but get good over time,” but we can streamline our focus in the practice room so that we get to our goals sooner and enhance our musicianship at the same time.

Here are five of the things that I do everyday to ensure I have a well-balanced and effective jazz guitar practice routine.

Try them out and see how they can make a difference in your journey to learning jazz guitar.

 

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Have a question or comment about this article? Visit the Building an Effective Jazz Guitar Practice Routine thread in the MWG forum.

 

1. Lowest Common Denominator

“Don’t just do something, stand there.” – Zen Saying

 

One of the scenarios that I encounter when working with jazz guitar students is their frustration in not being able to play tunes or run all of the scales, arpeggios and licks that they learned in the past.

They are often trying to play an entire tune at one time, with the result being them getting lost, fumbling through the changes and generally not sounding very good, which leads to more frustration.

After seeing this same situation time and again, I decided to break things down with my students to the smallest idea possible, and then build up from there.

This means isolating one item, maybe a chord, a scale or a lick, and practicing it separately in your jazz guitar practice routine.

Then, moving to the next chord in the tune and practicing that on its own. Then when you can play both separately, practice those two bars together.

Here’s an example of how I would do this with the tune Blue Bossa.

 

  • Solo over Cm7 using only the Cm triad
  • Solo over Fm7 using only the Fm triad
  • Solo over Cm7 for 8 bars then Fm for 8 bars with each triad
  • Do the same for each chord at 4 bars a piece
  • Then the same approach with 2 bars
  • Repeat this process for each 4 bar phrase of the tune until you can play all 16 bars

 

This isn’t going to make you sound like Wes Montgomery overnight, but it will allow you to immediately solo over each chord in the progression, and sounding each chord along the way since the triad is more effective at bringing out the harmony in your solo than a scale would be.

You’re also giving your ears time to digest the sound of the harmony and harmonic movement of the tune, and most importantly, you are successfully improvising over chord changes. Giving you the confidence that you can actually play jazz and sound good.

Having this kind of confidence is often more important than all the licks and chord voicings in the world.

If you believe you can do something, you have a much better chance of doing it than if you don’t.

Try this exercise with any tune you are working on during your daily jazz guitar practice routine.

Practice each chord separately. Start with just the triad, then move on to the 4-note arpeggios, then scales and licks etc.

You might be surprised how easy even a difficult tune becomes once you’ve broken it down to the smallest chunks possible, one chord, and then built it back up again.

If you’ve tried practicing a tune and found that you couldn’t get through it, it was too fast or to complicated, try practicing one chord at a time and then combing them in two and then four bar phrases before building the tune back up to the whole form.

There’s no rush to learn any tune, and it’s better to learn something properly over time than to rush through it, get frustrated and give up.

Try this approach out in your practicing. It might surprise you how effective it can be.


2. Muscle Memory

“Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” – Vince Lombardi

 

Most guitarists love to play fast. The guitar is built in a way that it allows us to fly over the fingerboard and play at quick tempos with more ease than other instruments, especially in the wind and brass family.

But, a common problem among jazz guitar students is that they think that in order to play fast they need to practice fast.

This is definitely not the case. In fact, the exact opposite is true, you need to practice slow to play fast.

How is this possible you may ask?

Well, when you practice slow, you are giving your muscles time to develop proper technique that will be used to play fast at a later time.

If you are practicing fast all the time, but are doing so with bad technique or improper fingerings etc., you’re training your muscles to repeat these errors whenever you play that idea, often translating to playing mistakes at slower tempos as well.

But, if you can practice perfectly at very slow tempos, your muscles will know how to move and react when you begin to play at faster tempos.

For example, this is one of my favorite lessons that I learned from Roddy Ellias.

We were talking about this idea in a lesson once during my undergrad days and he explained it as such:

“Have you ever watched a baby learn to walk? They first learn to crawl, very slowly. Then they learn to walk very slowly, allowing their muscles to develop proper coordination and mechanics.

Then, one day, once they’ve learned to walk, they just run. They don’t practice running, they just do it.

They’ve developed all the proper movements very slowly, so it’s just a matter of walking fast. They are one in the same as far as the technique is concerned, one is just done more quickly than the other.”

The same story can be applied to learning the guitar, just replace baby with guitarists and legs with fingers and you get the picture.

So, the next time you’re sitting down to learn a new lick or scale during your jazz guitar practice routine, try working it as slow as possible.

Play the scale in quarter notes at 10 bpms. Then, after doing that for a short time, try playing that idea at a much faster tempo, you’ll be surprised that you can just do it, without having practiced it at that tempo before.

You’ve trained your muscles to play the idea properly, which can translate to any tempo.


3. Practicing Away from the Guitar

“Sometimes my mind wanders. Other times it leaves completely.” – Anonymous

 

In a world where our time is being used to do more and more things, and where the internet and other personal entertainment devices are becoming more integrated into our daily lives, it seems like we have less time to do the one thing that we all want to do the most, play guitar.

Because I have to teach, perform, learn new music, keep my chops up, run an online magazine, learn Portuguese, write articles for this site, book gigs, etc., I’m really careful with how I spend my time during my daily jazz guitar practice routine, and I always work on more than one concept at a time to maximize the limited time I do have to get things done on my guitar.

Now, we don’t want to overdue it, juggling too many items that we don’t learn anything, but if you read my article The 3 Elements of Music, you know that I like to work on at least two of the three main elements of jazz, Rhythm, Harmony and Melody, at the same time.

In the article I talked about things we can do on the guitar to maximize our daily jazz guitar practice routine, but we can also practice away from the guitar to learn the same skills as we wood with our guitar in hand.

Here are some of my favorite ways to practice away from my guitar:

 

  • Singing melodies to tunes I’m working on
  • Running through chord changes to tunes I’m learning in my head
  • Listening to a certain player to try and internalize their time feel and note choices from their records
  • Saying the notes of modes, scales, arpeggios and chord voicings in my head in all 12 keys
  • Soloing along to a tune and just visualizing my fingers on the fretboard, imagining how it would sound on my guitar
  • Tapping rhythms

 

Any or all of these items are great ways for you to better yourself as a guitarist when you’re walking to the store, driving to work, doing the dishes or anything else that allows you to multi-task and squeeze a few more minutes of practicing into your day.

Though you’re not actually playing the guitar itself, this type of mental practice can be just as beneficial as if you were sitting down and working this stuff out on the fretboard.

 

Developing an Effective Jazz Guitar Practice Routine

Matt Warnock at Marshall University Photo Sean Parsons


4. Repertoire

“Nobody has ever paid me to play scales. They pay me to create music from scales” – Roddy Ellias

 

I remember when I was in college, I would spend hours a day locked in my room practicing scales, modes, arpeggios and all the other fundamentals of music.

Then I would go out and play a gig, trying to apply these ideas to the tunes I was playing, and wonder why it sounded so bad.

I was learning all my scales in 12 keys, licks in 12 keys and in different octaves, but I was missing one ingredient.

I wasn’t practicing making music.

I had all the building blocks there, but the finished product eluded me.

Then I heard Pat Metheny talk in a clinic where he mentioned that he practiced tunes as the vehicles for learning new ideas.

So, I took this idea and applied it to my own playing and the improvement was incredible.

I actually sounded good blowing over tunes!

Because it worked so well for me I have also turned around and used tunes to teach scales, chords, licks and arpegggios etc to my own students.

Here are some ways that you might work a technique through a tune in your jazz guitar practice routine.

The first thing you do is pick one idea that you want to work on, say 3 to 9 Arpeggios, and then find a tune that you know, say Blue Bossa, and practice running these arpeggios through that tune.

Here’s a sample of the ways you might approach taking 3 to 9 Arpeggios through Blue Bossa, all at a slow tempo at first before slowly increasing the speed.

 

  • Play each arpeggio ascending
  • Play each arpeggio descending
  • Play one bar of ascending and the second descending
  • Play one bar of descending the other ascending
  • Improvise using only ascending arpeggios, then only descending arpeggios, then alternating both
  • Improvise using only these arpeggios and only one rhythm, maybe only 8th notes or triplets

 

By doing this, you are not only learning to play 3 to 9 Arpeggios, you are learning how to apply them in a real-life situation, where you are creating music with these ideas.

This is a great way to learn tunes, techniques as well as working on improvisation, all helping to build an effective jazz guitar practice routine.

Since we’re all strapped for time, this kind of multi-tasking is a great way to cover a lot of bases in a short time, as long as we don’t put too many eggs in one basket.

So the next time you want to learn a new mode, arpeggios, lick, chord or anything for that matter, take it through a tune that you know. It will help you learn to make music and raise the level of enjoyment in the practice room at the same time.


5. Improvisation

“Do not fear mistakes. There are none.” – Miles Davis

 

As jazz guitarists, one of the main ingredients in anything we play is improvisation.

Whether we’re comping behind a soloist, interpreting a melody or soloing over changes, we need to be able to create music on the spot.

But, when I ask my students how often the work on soloing during their jazz guitar practice routine, they rarely say all the time.

This seems to be a little counter intuitive, because if we need to be able to improvise, why do we spend so much time on technique and other items when we could be practicing the one skill that will benefit us the most when we get onto the gig?

So, whenever I learn anything new, or teach a new concept or technique to a student, we improvise with it right away.

If I learn a new fingering for a C Major Scale, instead of running patterns through it or playing it up and down plainly with a metronome, I will get the fingering under my fingers and then improvise melodies through that position, either free of time if I want to focus on the notes, or with a play-along or metronome if I want to bring tempo into the equation.

I do this for everything I learn and teach. For me, this means that there is no difference in how I treat concepts in my practice room than I do on stage.

Far too often I see students who can rip through chords, scales, patterns, licks etc on their own, but freeze up when they get into a playing situation where they have to create music on the spot.

The easy solution to this problem is to practice making music.

The next time you learn anything new, it could be a lick, scale pattern, arpeggio fingering, anything, get it under your fingers and then immediately start to improvise with this concept.

It might not sound great at first, but you’ll notice that you will not only be internalizing this idea, you’ll also be increasing your improvisational skills at the same time.

Improvising is also fun, so it brings an extra dose of enjoyment to our practice routine, which can often be lacking if we spend all our time running scales and patterns instead of creating music.


Do you have a question or comment about building an effective jazz guitar practice routine? Why not share it in the comments section below.



25 Comments

  1. Britt Reed, July 6, 2011:

    As always, great lesson Matt. You hit the human condition squarely on the jaw. I know that I see myself in may of your examples. Thank God there are teachers out there that can address our foibles in a positive way and help us move forward. I thank you for your ongoing insights and attitude adjustments.

  2. Rob, July 9, 2011:

    Great ideas Matt! Thanks.
    I read thru this, but of curse need to read again, slow w/ guitar in hand to apply. But very wise words of wisdom…..hhhhmm…song in there somewhere?

    Rob

  3. Matt Warnock, July 9, 2011:

    Thanks Rob, yeah there are lots of ways to apply these ideas to songs, check out the first, third, fourth and fifth examples they all deal with learning tunes and applying these concepts to song situations.

  4. richard vandyne, July 18, 2011:

    matt= i started on the article about pracrice habits this morning and i must say they work perfectly. i am working on black orpheus now and just couldnt seem to keep things in my head. after your article i started practicing very slowly and within a couple hours i was remembering things without trying-amazing for me. all of a sudden i was improvising a little on the rythum without intention. this is a great article for me and i just wanted to thank you. i havent been able to find this info anywhwere alse-described this way. thanks a bunch richard

  5. Matt Warnock, July 18, 2011:

    Hi Richard,
    That is awesome to hear that you were able to apply these techniques and get results so quickly, congrats! Thanks for checking out my site and the kind words. Keep it up, before you know it you’ll be doing these ideas in you practice sessions without even knowing it, that’s when it gets really fun!

  6. David Logan, August 3, 2011:

    Hi Matt,

    I found your site last week and have been reading and applying the chromatic and bebop lessons every day. I have to say I’m amazed at the depth of material you have compiled.

    Your method of breaking down concepts has helped so much already. As a complement to my studies with my regular teacher this will progress my jazz skills immensely.

    Thank you.

    David

  7. Matt Warnock, August 3, 2011:

    Hi David,

    Thanks for the kind words, I am glad you are digging the site and it has been helpful. Thanks!

  8. Jeff Taylor, August 30, 2011:

    Hi Matt,

    How timely! I was at a jam last night and noticed that on one medium tempo tune (When Lights Are Low) my ideas flowed easily and I truly felt connected to Source..On the next tune (Tune Up) the tempo was so fast I was a mess.

    If I take your steps above, I know I will thrive. There are no accidents and your lessons are so much appreciated.

  9. Matt Warnock, August 30, 2011:

    Cool Jeff, yeah grabbing different tunes at different tempos is tough. hope these exercises help, keep us posted on your progress. Happy shedding!

  10. Bill Giles, September 29, 2011:

    Matt,

    Great lesson today. I am really excited about taking classes from You via Skype. I would have never guessed that I would be able to sit in my own practice room in California taking a lesson from a Pro like You in Brazil.

    See you next week.

    obrigado!
    -Bill-

  11. Matt Warnock, September 29, 2011:

    For sure Bill, great lesson! Technology is making the world a smaller place, we’re about 6000 miles apart and yet we can connect and talk about jazz guitar. Gotta love it. Ate mais!

  12. Matthew Warnock, May 9, 2012:

    Thanks Britt, glad you dug the article. Teachers are the best guides we can have, especially the ones that really take an interest in our development.

  13. Sailor, May 11, 2012:

    Soooo helpful…what a great teacher!!!

    Sailor

  14. Matthew Warnock, May 11, 2012:

    thanks Sailor, glad you dug the article!

  15. Lon, July 8, 2012:

    Boa noite amigo
    Estou gostando muito das suas idéias!
    Venha pra Bahia, pra melhorar seu domínio da língua portuguesa.
    Abraço
    Lon
    Dude this font is really small, I can’t see what I m writing!
    All the best from Bahia

  16. Danny, September 28, 2012:

    My teacher, Sean McGowan, told me to think of it as three separate parts to each new technique:

    1) Discovery: finding it on the neck.
    2) Application: practicing it behind chords in the specified order.
    3) Creative: applying to soling (aka: having fun with it)

    I love this approach. Your suggestions help round that out to see how to apply it. Awesome article as always.

  17. A. J., February 10, 2013:

    Hey Matt, thought you would get a kick out of this. I have been out of town for two weeks with no access to a guitar! Drove me a little nuts, but before I fell asleep every night I went over several tunes in my head very carefully. I ran the melodies, chord changes and actually pictured, in my minds eye, the finger movements and picking patterns. When I got home, these tunes were EASIER to play. This is now a going to be a regular part of my practice routine. Thanks for all your insights, you really help.

  18. Matthew Warnock, February 10, 2013:

    That’s great man! I do that all the time when I commute to work on the train, running tunes and even transcriptions in my head. Always better when I get to my guitar after doing that for sure!

  19. erwin, February 27, 2013:

    I learned Take 5 in bits & pieces and it worked! I recognized myself in your lesson!

  20. jerry, February 27, 2013:

    Interestingly, jazz guitar titan Martin taylor says that when he was a kid at school, he would create arrangements on the fingerboard whilst daydreaming in class, then at night he would be able to play them.
    i saw him at a gig recently play an amazing solo version of ‘someday my prince will come’, and at the end of the tune he said he’d never played it before, but had learned it in his mind whilst driving to the gig!

  21. Guno Elshot, May 23, 2013:

    Hi Matt, your the best. Thans you so much for your lessons.

  22. Jim, June 21, 2013:

    Matt,

    Great ideas. One thing I’ve found, in coming from another background in music, when trying to work on jazz lines, whether extensions or improvisation, I don’t get too far unless I have a rhythm or back-up track of some kind. I’m trying to figure out a good device, e.g., Band in a Box, that will give me the practice tracks as I need them, vs. trying the ideas out against a complete performance recording. Otherwise, the extensions, improvisations, especially in single lines, don’t have the “outside” feel that they would have with an underlying rhythm. The metronome keeps time, but it doesn’t give the harmonic base.
    Anyway, thanks for this and your other fine posts.

  23. lane arndt, September 27, 2013:

    was nice to see a quote from Roddy Elias in this article, I was fortunate enough to study with rod for a year during my undergrad studies (it was his last year at STFX and my 1st year there though it was my 4th year of undergrad Jazz studies at the time). He logically and understandably took a post at Concordia University in Montreal with late notice that summer (’94 i believe it was) and so i didn’t get my final year with him but c’est la vie.
    He was an influential teacher in that all through my college years I was learning all the right things to play but no one could tell me why i still didn’t SOUND like a Jazz guitar player…Lesson #1 with Roddy and he put on Wes Montgomery’s Dynamic New Sound album and explained that Wes wasn’t playing a swing triplet rhythm, the rhythm section was, but Wes was essentially playing straight 8ths. That one moment in time changed the way i sounded almost immediately and has to this day been one of the most important moments in tutelage and pedagogy I have received! I keep that moment in mind much of the time as I teach daily.

  24. jacob, October 23, 2014:

    Hi Matt. I’m following you religiously. Because of your knowledge I’m a beter player. God bless you.

  25. Jesse Pearson, November 4, 2014:

    Matt, just wanted to tell you how much I enjoy using your site to study. Thanks bro, good job!

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