How to Learn Jazz Guitar – The Definitive Guide
If you’ve started to study jazz guitar, then I think you’ll agree that it can often seem like an overwhelming task.
But it doesn’t have to be, and it doesn’t have to feel that way.
Sure, you need to learn technique, concepts, tunes, and transcriptions, but you don’t have to overwhelm yourself in the process.
Learning jazz guitar can be a fun and exciting, albeit challenging, experience for any player to undertake.
This article guides you through the proper steps in beginning your jazz guitar journey.
By following these steps, you’ll make sure that you build a solid foundation, as well as enjoy yourself in the practice room along the way.
Where to Start?
If you’ve made the decision to begin this exciting journey, you’re probably wondering one thing:
“Where do I begin with jazz guitar?”
Whether you’re taking jazz guitar lessons in person, as part of an online course, or self-teaching using purchased products, the amount of material to break down and sort through can seem daunting.
But, with a bit of knowledge you can avoid headaches in the practice room, most of them anyway as minor ii-V-I’s will still have you reaching for an aspirin or three.
The material in this article will help you organize your thoughts before taking your first steps to learn jazz guitar.
It’ll also answer any questions you have after starting your jazz guitar journey.
Table of Contents – Click to Skip to Any Section
- Work With a Jazz Guitar Teacher
- Listening Is Just as Important as Practicing
- Practice Slow. Really Slow. No, REALLY slow
- You Can Use the Pentatonic Scale in Jazz. Seriously.
- Plan Your Practice Routine Around Jazz Tunes
- Technique is a Means, Not an End
- Learn to Speak the Jazz Guitar Language
- Learn the Fretboard Inside Out
- Start Transcribing Even If You Don’t Feel Ready
- Never Turn Down a Jam Opportunity
- Bonus Tip – Free eBook Download
Introduction – Who Should Read This Article
If you’re wondering where to begin when studying jazz guitar, then this article is for you.
For those readers that are studying online, on your own, this article provides ample background to help you teach yourself jazz guitar fundamentals.
If you’re studying with a teacher, in person or online, this article will be helpful in a slightly different way.
The information in this article will help you organize your approach to studying between lessons.
It’ll also provide questions that you can take to your private guitar teacher in order to maximize time in your lessons.
Either way, if you’re looking to begin your study or improve your jazz guitar playing, there’s something to be gained from the information in this article.
To help organize this lengthy article, I’ve broken it down to 10 tips to get started with jazz guitar lessons.
You can skip around if you want, or read the list in order, either way is fine.
But, the most important take away from this article is that with time, practice, and a bit of gumption, you can learn to play jazz guitar.
So go for it!
Where to Go Next?
If you feel that you’re ready to jump right in and start playing, here are 3 quick start guides that’ll help you begin to play jazz guitar today.
If you get stuck with any of this material, you can always come back here and read ahead on how to avoid problems when beginning to learn jazz guitar.
- Beginner’s Guide to Jazz Guitar
- How to Play Jazz Guitar – A Practice Guide
- 30 Days to Better Jazz Guitar
Lastly, if you are worried that you can’t play jazz guitar because you don’t have an archtop model to play on, don’t worry.
You can play jazz on any style, make, or model of guitar.
To learn more about jazz guitars, read my article “How to Find the Best Jazz Guitar For You.”
Tip 1 – Work With a Jazz Guitar Teacher
Studying with an experienced jazz guitar teacher is the quickest, easiest, and most efficient way to learn how to play jazz.
Sitting in a room, or virtually studying with a teacher through Skype, is the best way for an experienced player to hear you play, then address your weaknesses and strengths.
From there, they can provide targeted exercises and guidance on the best path to take in your studies.
Having said that, it can also be the least practical option for many players reading this article.
What If Private Lessons Aren’t an Option?
There are many reasons why private lessons may be out of reach at this point in your development.
Private lessons take time and commitment, cost money, and there may note be a teacher close enough to your city to study with, though this is getting easier with the rise of Skype jazz guitar lessons.
Any of these reasons can post a big roadblock between you and being able to study with a jazz guitar teacher.
This doesn’t mean you can’t learn how to play, or that you can’t find ways to study with a private jazz guitar teacher.
If you don’t have access to a private teacher, or can’t afford regular jazz guitar lessons, try some of these options.
They won’t totally replace the experience of regular one-on-one lessons, but they can provide a lot of the same benefits, without a regular commitment or hefty price tag.
- Attend a jazz camp for a weekend or week.
- Sign up for a free online jazz guitar home study eCourse.
- Purchase a jazz guitar eBook or eCourse and study that method.
- Save up and take a one-off in person or Skype lesson with a teacher.
- Post a video of your playing in a forum or on a social network page where a teacher you admire hangs out and see if they’ll provide feedback.
These are just some ideas, besides taking private lessons, which you can explore in order to help you organize your practice routine.
Take Lessons at Your Own Pace
If you do decide to take lessons with a jazz guitar teacher, know that you don’t have to commit to a once a week schedule.
Most of my Skype jazz guitar students come once every two to three weeks for their lessons.
Many have families, jobs, and other commitments that make coming each week unproductive.
It takes time to properly digest the material between lessons.
Go at your own pace and talk to your teacher about finding the best lesson schedule for you.
You’ll want to come regularly enough that it motivates you to practice, but not too often that you don’t have time to learn the material between lessons.
Finding that balance can make the difference between a successful and unsuccessful jazz guitar study experience.
Picking the Right Jazz Guitar Teacher for You
Finding the right teacher of your style of playing and learning is a key element in achieving your goals on the instrument.
You’ll want to do some research before you try out a lesson to see if that particular teacher will be the best choice for you at this point in your development.
One of the best ways to do this is to ask other students about their jazz guitar lesson experience with that teacher.
As well, don’t be afraid to take one lesson with a few teachers and then find the right fit for you.
From there you can commit to a longer block of lessons.
There’s nothing more frustrating than buying a chunk of private lessons, then realizing very quickly that you don’t click with that teacher.
Don’t get stuck in that situation.
Try a lesson out. If it works then go forward. If not move on.
With a bit of research and trial and error you’ll find the right fit.
Importance of a Mentor
Learning how to play jazz guitar can seem like an overwhelming prospect for any player, but it doesn’t have to be.
With the guidance of an experienced teacher, in private lessons or other study options, you can wade through the plethora of material, develop an efficient practice plan, and avoid wasted time in the practice room.
Making the cost of a private lesson seem small in comparison to the benefits.
I know that I wouldn’t have got to where I am today on the instrument without the help of private teachers.
It is because of their help that you’re reading this article today.
If you’re interested in learning more about jazz guitar lessons, visit my “Online Jazz Guitar Lessons with Matt Warnock” page.
Tip 2 – Listening Is Just as Important as Practicing
One of the first roadblocks I encounter with jazz guitar students is that they’re gung-ho to learn how to play, but don’t spend any time listening to jazz.
You can see how this would be a problem.
Even if you learned all the vocabulary in the world, turning it into authentic-sounding jazz is going to be almost impossible without knowing what jazz sounds like.
Now, there are some people who come to study jazz because they believe it will help them learn their fretboard.
And if that’s you, you might think:
“If I can play jazz, I can play anything.”
Which is a comment I commonly hear from guitarists inquiring about lessons.
While there may be some truth to this, but there’s a difference between learning how to play jazz techniques and learning how to play like a jazz musician.
To do the latter, you’ll need to have a strong understanding for what jazz sounds like.
And that understanding is built through listening.
Listening to Develop Essential Skills
For those that want to learn to play authentic-sounding jazz, that goes beyond learning advanced fretboard concepts, then you will need to master specific skills.
These essential skills can’t be learned with time on the instrument alone.
This skill set will come be built by listening to a lot of jazz records, and later on from jamming with other musicians and learning by hearing in real time.
Here are just a few examples of how listening to jazz can benefit your playing.
- Develop Time Feel
- Better Musical Phrasing
- Learn Solo Construction and Contour
- Understand Musical Interaction
- Be Able to Hear Common Vocabulary
- And much more
Some level of understanding can be attained away from records for these items, but to dig deep you’ll need to spend time listening.
So, the next question is:
“What should you listen to?”
Spending Time With the Classics
Just like in literature, film, and art, there are certain albums that every jazz guitarist must spend time listening to.
These records come from guitarists and other instrumentalists, and they contain some of the best playing, writing, and interaction in the genre.
By becoming familiar with these records, even if you aren’t a total fan of every player, you will develop an understanding of what elements make up a classic jazz recording.
Here are 5 albums that I would recommend every beginning jazz guitarist check out, at least once, and spend time with in your listening room.
- Kind of Blue – Miles Davis
- Everybody Digs Bill Evans – Bill Evans
- Smokin’ at the Half Note – Wes Montgomery
- Bright Size Life – Pat Metheny
- Blue Train – John Coltrane
Now, there are countless other albums that are worth spending time with, from both an education and enjoyment perspective.
These 5 albums will provide you an overview of how the greatest players of the last 100 years approached writing jazz tunes, arranging, and improvisation.
If you haven’t heard any of these albums yet, stop reading and go listen.
You can always come back to this article and read further.
But, listening to any of these records just might change your life.
Listening to each of these records surely changed mine.
How to Listen to Jazz
Now that you know the “why” and “what” when listening to jazz albums, you can learn how to listen to jazz.
Listening to jazz as a student of the genre is different from listening for the pure enjoyment of it.
This isn’t to say that educational listening is not enjoyable, it’s just different.
When listening to jazz recordings, try to listen for the nuances that make any track worth spending time with.
These items can include:
- How the tune is arranged
- What is the structure of the form
- Does everyone solo? If not, who sits out?
- Is the playing chilled out or is there a lot of tension?
- How would you describe each solo in 3 words or less
- Do the players interact in the solos, and if so how?
- What is the “best part” of any solo to your ears?
By learning how to listen with an ear for these, and similar, items, you’ll train your ears to listen beyond the surface, getting to the heart of any jazz tune you hear.
This will improve your ability to hear the elements that make a jazz tune great, and it’ll prepare your ears for transcribing when you’re ready to add that to your practice routine.
Lastly, knowing how to listen for these elements will also allow you to add them into your playing when the time comes.
If you know how Coltrane organized his solos, or how Miles phrases were unique and engaging, or how Wes reached such heights of intensity in his playing, you’ll be able to bring those elements into your own playing.
That sounds like a pretty cool thing to me.
Tip 3 – Practice Slow. Really Slow. No, REALLY Slow
With the advent of online jazz guitar websites, on top of the mountain of books and DVDs already out there, it can seem like you would need many lifetimes just to learn how to play jazz.
Yes, there is a wealth of information out there to study, and it can seem overwhelming.
But you don’t have to learn everything, especially all at once.
One of the most important lessons to learn when starting your jazz guitar studies is:
“There is no rush to learn jazz guitar.”
Once you’ve learned this important lesson, time in the practice room becomes much more effective and efficient.
Learning Jazz Guitar One Bite at a Time
The first step to slowing down your practice is to pick a few elements, or even just one, and working it until it’s fully comfortable in your playing.
This could mean digging into just one key of a major scale until you can play it from memory, and solo over a Maj7 backing track with that same scale.
If it takes one day, one week, a month, or longer, that’s fine.
Just work on this one item, or at most a few, until you can nail it.
Then move on.
When you stand back and look at the mountain of information out there about jazz guitar, it can cause you to half-ass a whole lot of concepts in the woodshed.
Overloading your practice routine, then jumping around to new concepts before you’ve learned old ones, can cause major problems in your playing.
Slowing down, focusing on a few items, and working them until they are solid, is the best way to avoid problems in your playing.
If you think that you won’t progress fast enough to achieve your goals, think about it this way.
When you learn one new item each month in the practice room, after a year you’ll have 12 new concepts under you belt.
And not just skimming the surface with these concepts, you’re fully learning them.
That is huge growth on the instrument in one year.
If you continue that slow but steady growth you’ll reach your long-term playing goals before you know it.
Slowing Down the Tempo
The other way to slow things down in your practice routine is a bit more literal.
When working on any technique, tune, bit of vocabulary, or anything you study in the woodshed, go as slow as you can possibly stand.
This could mean working scales at 10 bpm to start your practice.
Or it could mean jamming over a jazz blues progression at 30 bpm.
Whatever is slow for you tempo wise, should be where you spend your time practicing.
By slowing the tempo down, you will notice all your bad habits, fix them, and prevent new ones from grabbing hold in your playing.
Developing Concentration With Slow Practice
Slow tempos are also much tougher for keeping the form on a tune, or keeping track of the notes in any technical exercise you’re working on.
This means that you have to maintain concentration for the entire exercise.
Being able to concentrate and maintain focus like this will greatly increase your ability to jam confidently over jazz tunes with other people.
It’s easy to be distracted, even for a second, in a jam session, and before you know it you’ve missed a cue, or worse, lost the form.
By working slowly in the woodshed, you’ll increase your ability to maintain focus for entire tunes, which will make it easier to never lose your place when jamming.
Lastly, practicing slowly will allow your ears to properly digest any concept you’re working out in the practice room.
When you rush through an exercise, besides making the same old mistakes you usually make, you’re also going to fast for your ears to grab hold of that new information.
Working slowly brings your ears into the game, which is always an added benefit to any exercise you spend time on in your studies.
Tip 4 – You Can Use the Pentatonic Scale in Jazz. Seriously
When working with new jazz guitar students in lessons, I’ve found a common misunderstanding that many player have about learning jazz.
This misconception is that you have to forget everything you’ve ever learned on guitar and start from scratch when learning to play jazz guitar.
This couldn’t be further from the truth.
There are many items from rock, blues, classical, and other genres that can transition to jazz, and make your life easier when first dipping your toes into the genre.
One of the main “bridge” concepts, and one that everyone forgets about, is the minor pentatonic scale.
Jazzy Pentatonic Scales
If you are looking at Day 1 of your jazz guitar studies, look no further.
This exercise will allow you to take the minor pentatonic scales you’ve learned in previous studies and apply them right away to a jazz situation.
Before you dive in, here is a backing track to use with this exercise.
And here are the steps to follow to bring the minor pentatonic scale to your jazz studies.
- Review the Dm pentatonic scale position 1
- Solo over the track with that scale
- Review the Em pentatonic scale position 1
- Solo with that scale over the track
- Review the Am pentatonic scale position 1
- Solo with that scale over the backing
There you have it; you’ve just completed your first series of jazz guitar solos.
Wasn’t so bad, was it?
That’s because you were able to take previously learned material, the minor pentatonic scale, and apply it in a jazzy way over those chords.
Now go back and repeat with the same blues scales, Dm-Em-Am, over the same track to take it a step further.
Congrats, you’ve graduated onto Day 2 of your jazz guitar studies!
Bebop Pentatonic Scales
Now, while all of the notes in each scale you just played fit over those chord changes, and sound correct, they probably don’t sound like Kenny Burrell just yet.
So, let’s look at one concept you can use to spice up your minor pentatonic scales when transferring them to a jazz situation.
This concept is one of the most important to learn and study in jazz; it’s called an enclosure.
Here’s how you can begin applying this concept to your pentatonic scale soloing ideas.
- Play one fret above the root note of the scale
- Play one fret below the root note of the scale
- Play the root note of the scale – that’s an enclosed root note
- Repeat on each note of the minor pentatonic scale
- Put on that same backing track and add enclosures to some notes in your solo lines
There you have it, Day 2 completed, and you’re starting to sound like bebop.
Jazz is Easier Than it Looks…Kinda
As you can see from these two exercises, getting started with jazz guitar isn’t impossible.
In fact it’s easier than it looks to begin learning this fun and engaging musical style.
You just have to start.
And minor pentatonic scales are a great place to begin your jazz guitar journey.
Now, it will get harder from here on out.
Also, you may struggle to make these scales and enclosures sound like your favorite player right away.
You can start today.
Then build up from there, one brick at a time.
Before you know it, you’ll have a strong foundation of jazz guitar fundamentals under your fingers and in your ears.
And it all began with the humble minor pentatonic scale.
Tip 5 – Plan Your Practice Routine Around Jazz Tunes
Before reading ahead, ask yourself:
“Why do you want to learn to play jazz guitar?”
Is it to learn scales, arpeggios, and chords? Maybe.
Is it to build your chops? Possibly.
Is it to improve your ear training? Might be the case.
These are all good reasons to study Jazz guitar, but in my experience, the vast majority of players learn jazz guitar to play music.
And playing jazz music means playing tunes.
Tunes are the vehicles that jazz musicians use to communicate with each other.
They’re also the organizational tools that bind all the improvisation you do together.
Working your practice routine around learning tunes will accomplish two very important goals.
- It’ll break down the endless list of material you feel you should learn, focusing your attention on concepts needed to play just the tune that’s in front of you.
- Tunes provide you with a common language that you can speak with other musicians. Allowing you to jam with anyone you meet who knows the same tunes.
Using Tunes to Provide Practice Room Focus
With so many concepts and techniques available to study, it can be hard to narrow down these items into what’s important right now in the woodshed.
Tunes provide this focus.
Instead of feeling like you need to learn every chord, scale, and arpeggio, you just need to learn the chords, scales, and arpeggios that allow you to play the tune you’re studying.
That narrows things down quite a bit.
While you won’t cover everything in one tune, though you’d be surprised depending on the tune, you’ll work on a number of essential concepts over just one standard.
Then, when you move on to the next tune, you’ll learn a few more essential concepts.
By the time you’ve learned 10 tunes, you’ll have learned a large number of the foundational concepts needed to move on to the intermediate level of jazz study.
And the most important part.
You’ve also got 10 tunes that you can now play with other musicians.
Pretty damn cool if you ask me.
Tunes as Communication Devices
Probably the best part of being a jazz musician is going to a foreign country, not speaking the language, and within 1 minute be jamming on a standard with musicians I’ve just met.
Because I know a fair number of jazz tunes, I can jam with any other musician who knows any of those same tunes.
This is one of the beautiful things about jazz music, the ability to converse with musicians from all over the world using a shared vocabulary of standard tunes.
By focusing on tunes in your studies, you’ll be building your repertoire list, which will allow you to jam with people when the opportunity arises.
If your goal for learning jazz guitar was to play music, then this is the opportunity you need to achieve that goal.
And it all begins with studying tunes in the woodshed.
If you’re unsure about which tunes to look at first in your studies, here are the 5 jazz tunes, or common forms, that I’ve seen people play around the globe in my travels.
- Jazz Blues Tunes
- Blue Bossa
- Autumn Leaves
- Take the A Train
If you learn these five tunes, not today but over time, you’ll provide yourself with the best start possible for jamming with other musicians.
Then when you’re ready, take them to a jazz jam session and try one or two out to see how you do when playing these tunes in a live situation.
It’ll be scary, but as my friend Jack Grassel says:
“It’s the most fun you can have with your clothes on.”
Tip 6 – Technique is a Means, Not an End
Guitarists love technique. We really do.
We can spend hours running scales, arpeggios, and chord shapes around the fretboard.
Bringing our facility on the instrument and knowledge of technical concepts to dizzying heights.
But there is a stark reality that many jazz guitarists have a tough time facing.
“Learning the essential chords, scales, and arpeggios, is not the end of your fretboard study, it’s just the beginning.”
This can be a tough pill to swallow for many of us that have dedicated a lot of time to mastering these items, thinking that was the end of the road.
But it’s just the beginning of the journey.
Before you read on, know one thing.
Having a strong foundation with these technical concepts is essential for the vast majority of jazz guitarists.
If you’re one of a small percentage of players who can pick up a guitar, and with little or knowledge, rip a solo that sounds like Jim Hall meets Mike Stern, then you can skip to the next section.
If you’re not one of those players, read on.
Building Your Jazz Foundation
In order to progress as a jazz guitarist, you’ll need to think of chord shapes, arpeggios fingerings, and scale boxes as the foundation of your jazz house.
The foundation needs to be strong, supportive, and well constructed.
Then you need to build the rest of the house on top of that solid foundation.
This means learning tunes, developing your vocabulary, developing a strong time feel, expanding your rhythmic knowledge, etc.
Important concepts that enable you to play jazz guitar with confidence, all of which are built on a strong understanding of fundamental items such as scales and arpeggios.
Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to wait until you know every chord, scale and arpeggio to begin making music.
It just means that as you work on learning technical items, you also work on turning those techniques into music.
Here’s an exercise that you can do in order to understand how this process works.
- Learn one shape for a 6th-string root Maj7 arpeggio
- Run that shape in all keys on the fretboard
- When it’s memorized, add an enclosure to the root note of that shape
- The enclosure will be fret above-fret below-root note
- Once you can play that with a metronome, put on a backing track and solo with the arpeggio and enclosure
You can see how this type of study approach is beneficial.
As you learn a new technical item, such as the Maj7 arpeggio, you’re also learning how to speak the jazz language, applying the enclosures, and developing your improvisational skills, soloing over the backing track.
Combined, these three elements will allow you to secure your foundation, and build your jazz house on top of that foundation, right from day 1.
Improvisation As a Learned Skill
Learning how to improvise is a skill that’s not much different from learning how to play scales.
You just have to do it.
With practice it gets easier, and you become more confident as a soloist.
If you wait to move on from your foundational techniques, you’ll never build the ability to improvise.
So, the lesson to learn is that chords, scales, and arpeggios are important, but only if you practice applying them to improvisational, musical situations.
Tip 7 – Learn to Speak the Jazz Guitar Language
When I was first studying jazz guitar I got a lot of advice that went like this:
“Learn all the possible scales, chords, and arpeggios. That’s the way to play jazz guitar.”
Wow, that’s not bad.
If I just put the time in and learn all of these technical items I’ll sound like Joe Pass.
Turns out that wasn’t quite right.
I learned all the scales, arpeggios, and chords I could.
Then, when it came time to go jam with other people, my lines sounded like I was running scales and arpeggios up and down the fretboard.
The notes were “correct” but they didn’t sound like jazz at all.
This was frustrating.
I was doing everything right in the practice room, but I couldn’t quite get the jazz sound in my playing.
What was I doing wrong?
Moving Beyond Technique
As you just read, learning technical items on the guitar is important.
You have to take it a step further in order to sound like a jazz guitarist.
This means learning the jazz language.
This was the lesson learned that had the biggest impact on my playing.
Taking the time to learn to speak the Jazz language rather than simply running technique in the woodshed.
At this point you might be asking yourself:
“What is the jazz language?”
What Is Jazz Vocabulary
The language of jazz is the idiomatic phrases and bite-size melodic lines that jazz musicians on all instruments speak when they improvise.
These items include:
- Passing Tones
- Lower and Upper Neighbor Notes
- The Honeysuckle Rose Riff
- 1235 Outlines
- And many more
These are the musical concepts that, when combined with your scale and arpeggio knowledge, will allow you to sound “jazzy” in your solos.
Start with one and build up from there.
Before you know it, you’re lines will sound less like scales and arpeggios and more like the phrases you hear on your favorite jazz records.
Finding Your Own Voice
It’s not easy, but with time, effort, and a focus on the language, you can get there.
Now, you might be worried that if you study the language that you’ll never develop your own voice on the guitar.
That’s a valid concern for any jazz guitarist.
But, if you do one thing then you needn’t worry about becoming a “line” player.
Learn all the language you can early on.
Study lines, phrases, micro-phrases, solos, anything you can get your hands and ears on.
Memorize as many of these patterns as you can and work your butt off to get them into your solos, both consistently and with confidence.
And then move on.
If you learn the language and integrate it into your playing you will start to sound like your favorite players.
Which is a good thing early on in your studies.
But, at some point you need to find your own voice.
And the best way to do that is move on from studying the language and really digging into your own musical ideas on the guitar.
Having a strong understanding of the jazz vocabulary allows you to establish a solid foundation to build upon when you’re ready to move on.
Where the problem often lies is that players either learn the language and never discover their own voice, or they only practice being original with no foundation in the genre.
Either way can cause problems in your playing.
So, as you begin your jazz guitar journey absorb as much jazz vocabulary as you can.
Then when you’re ready, move on and figure out what you want to add to the language in your playing.
It’s the best of both worlds – being grounded and developing originality.
Tip 8 – Learn the Fretboard Inside and Out
From any angle you look, the guitar is a shape-oriented instrument.
Chord grids, scale boxes, arpeggios fingerings, almost anything you learn on the guitar can be memorized as a shape on the fretboard.
This gives you a distinct advantage compared to other instruments that have to learn note names to play these same musical concepts.
Or does it?
While shapes make learning musical devices on the guitar much quicker than other instruments, they can also leave holes in your knowledge of the fretboard.
This can lead to serious problems down the road as you progress to the next level in your jazz guitar studies.
To avoid these holes in your knowledge from holding you back in your development, take time to learn the notes on the fretboard.
Filling in the Fretboard Blanks
Now, what does that mean exactly?
It means that you can play any note on the guitar and name it immediately.
That you can play any chord, scale, or arpeggio, and name all the notes in those musical devices.
It means that you can quickly play every F, Gb, B, Db, etc. on all 6 strings from memory, without counting up from the open strings.
OK, that sounds like a tough task, I know.
It can be done. You just have to start doing it.
Here is one of my favorite exercises for learning notes on the guitar.
Start here, it’ll help make this process much less painless.
- Begin with the C major scale (C D E F G A B)
- Play those notes on the 6th string from the lowest note possible (open E)
- Name the notes as you play them and use a reference chart if needed for help
- Play them backwards down the same string
- Repeat on each string
- Put on a Cmaj7 or similar backing track and solo one string at a time over that chord
- Repeat these exercises with every other key, one at a time
As you can see, this will help you learn the notes on the fretboard and improve your soloing chops at the same time.
Doesn’t sound so bad, does it?
Reading Music – Don’t Run Away!
Now, we need to talk about Kryptonite for guitarists – reading music.
Learning how to read music, notes not tab, will greatly improve your knowledge of the fretboard.
You probably already know or suspect this.
But the vast majority of guitarists won’t learn to read.
It seems too hard.
Well, it’s difficult to learn how to read music on the fretboard.
If you learn how to read notes on the guitar, the benefits to your playing will be enormous.
As well, you’ll have access to a ton more learning materials that are only written in notation.
And, best of all, you’ll be able to quickly learn any tune you want from a fake book.
This opens up many new possibilities for learning and performing as a jazz guitarist.
Possibilities that would be locked behind a closed door if you didn’t learn how to read music.
So, make some time in your routine, even 5 minutes, to work on reading music.
You don’t have to be able to sight-read the Omni Book or read Coltrane solos.
Aim to be able to pick your way through a standard melody from the real book on the guitar.
Start there, and see where it takes you.
Just learning the notes on the staff, how rhythms work in notation, and how to translate that information on the fretboard will transform your playing.
It’s not that painful, honestly.
Tip 9 – Start Transcribing Even If You Don’t Feel Ready
I can tell you right off the bat that transcribing jazz guitar lines, chord changes, and melodies from records is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do as a player.
So start now.
Even if you don’t think you could hear one note correctly and learn it by ear, try.
Put on a jazz guitar solo you want to learn to play and give it your best shot.
Listen to the first phrase over and over until you can sing it in your sleep.
Then spend as much time as you need to find that first note on the guitar.
Once you have that first note learned, even if it takes hours, move on to the second note.
“The journey to a fully transcribed solo begins with a single note.”
All Technique and No Ears
Over the years, I’ve met too many students and peers who have incredible technical facility on the guitar.
But they can’t pick out a single line by ear on the guitar.
They’ve spent countless hours in the woodshed improving their chops, but forgot one of the most important things about jazz guitar; it’s an aural art form.
All the chops in the world won’t help you achieve your goals as a player if you don’t have the ears to back up that technique.
I know you don’t feel ready to learn a line from your favorite jazz solo.
This is the main reason you should begin transcribing jazz guitar.
It will never get easier if you don’t start.
So start today.
Which Jazz Guitar Solo to Transcribe First
If you’re looking for a solo to begin with, especially if you have trouble learning jazz guitar by ear, here is what I suggest.
Start with “Movin’ Along” by Wes Montgomery.
Yep, that Wes Montgomery, the one with all the chops.
While Wes had amazing chops on the guitar, this solo starts very chilled out.
It’s a beautiful solo, very clearly played, and highly melodic in its construction.
All elements that will allow you to get the lines in your inner ear, and then take them to the guitar from there.
Begin with the first note.
Then get the second note.
Don’t give up.
Take as long as you need to hear those notes and find them on the guitar.
Keep going until you’ve got the first line.
Then move on to the next line.
Before you know it you’ll have the first 12 bar chorus down.
See, it wasn’t that bad was it?
Making the Impossible Possible
If you find transcription to be difficult, or seemingly impossible, practice it every day.
It will frustrate you to no end at first, but it will get easier.
And when it does, your playing will improve in ways you never expected.
Being able to hear music and immediately play it on guitar is a very cool skill to have.
It’ll take hard work, but it’s worth it.
Tip 10 – Never Turn Down a Jam Opportunity
One of the most important lessons that you can learn is there are experiences that you can’t find in the practice room.
While studying at home is important, you’ll need to play with other people to really grow as a jazz guitarist.
There’s a famous saying by Sonny Rollins that sums this tip up perfectly.
“An hour on the bandstand is worth a month in the practice room.”
Now, that doesn’t mean you have to go out and hit up a jam session, or book a gig, especially in the early days of learning to play jazz guitar.
If you ever get asked to jam with a friend, in a community music school combo, to sit in with a band even for one tune, take it.
Jam Tracks Are Cool, But…
There’ a big difference between jamming with a backing track at home and playing with other human beings.
And this difference will very quickly show you where your strengths and weaknesses are as a jazz guitarist.
Then you can emphasize these strengths and target those weaknesses in your study in order to quickly progress as a player.
If you’re used to jamming with backing tracks, they become predictable.
But human musicians aren’t predictable.
Learning to be in charge of the tempo, groove, chord changes, and melody line, without the option of rewinding will teach you more in one jam session then in months of study at home.
Go Make Mistakes
So, if you get the chance to jam with another person take it.
It probably won’t go well at first, but that’s kind of the point.
Go make mistakes.
Then learn from those mistakes.
Allow those mistakes to help you improve as a jazz guitarist.
You Will Never Feel Ready
Now, I know what you’re thinking.
“But I just started to study jazz, I don’t feel ready to jam with people.”
That may be a valid thought, but I can tell you one thing:
You will never feel ready.
None of us is a perfect player, and we never will be.
So waiting until you feel ready, until your playing feels “perfect” to jam with other people is a waste of time.
You’ll never be perfect, so don’t bother worrying about it.
If you get the chance to jam, go have fun.
Take the opportunity and don’t put any pressure on yourself, it’s not worth stressing about.
Do your best; make mental notes on what went well and what didn’t.
Then, after the jam go home and practice those items you felt need work.
If you do this, the next time you jam those sides of your playing will be improved, so you can work on new items in your studies.
Each time you jam with people you will see your improvement from the last time, and find new material to focus on in your studies.
This will lead to vastly improved growth as a player compared to just jamming at home.
Take a chance. Play a tune you know, or don’t. And have fun.
You may be nervous beforehand, but you won’t regret it afterwards.
Bonus Tip – Study the Beginner’s Guide to Jazz Guitar eBook
As a bonus to my readers, I’ve put together an 84-page jazz guitar eBook that you can download today and use to help organize your first steps into the world of Jazz guitar.
Check this eBook out, and have fun with 11 lessons contained in its contents.
It’s not a complete A to B guide to learning everything about jazz guitar.
But, it will provide you with the solid foundation you need to begin learning Jazz guitar concepts today.
Download your Free Beginner’s Guide to Jazz Guitar today.
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