One of the best ways to develop an organized and effective practice routine is to learn jazz standards.
Standards are a universal language you can use to communicate with other jazz musicians.
Even if you haven’t met those musicians before, you can still make music together.
They’re also the backbone of the rich history of jazz recordings, as every notable jazzer has performed standards throughout their careers.
For many 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 to play jazz, standards make up the core of an efficient practice routine.
Working chords, scales, arpeggios, and licks is a good way to learn about the guitar.
But, working those devices through standards is the best way to learn to play jazz.
In this lesson, you expand your jazz repertoire and build fretboard knowledge along the way.
Playing standards can be intimidating at first.
But, with the right practice approach, you’ll be jamming over your favorite jazz standards with confidence in no time.
To dive into specific tunes, check out my Jazz Standard Study Guides.
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 is choosing the right tunes.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of jazz standards to choose from.
How do you choose the right tunes to study?
That’s not an easy question to answer, but you can start by putting these tunes into categories.
This manages your practice routine, and provides variety in your jazz repertoire.
When working the jazz standards below, don’t feel that you have to learn them all at once, or in order.
If you’re new to jazz guitar, start with the jam session standards.
Then, work on one tune from each section in the list.
This expands your repertoire, and ensures that you have a well-balanced set list for any jam or gig.
These 101 jazz standards aren’t the be all and end all of learning jazz tunes.
But, they give you a solid idea of the 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 thinner than 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.
Though ballads are musically challenging, you don’t have to wait until you’re an advanced player to play them.
Start today, that way you develop ballad techniques as you grow as a player.
This gets 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.
- 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 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, these tunes make great study vehicles on guitar.
Bebop heads increase your single-note technique, and push your ability to play at up tempos.
As well, they often contain fast-moving chords, which develop your soloing skills over jazz progressions.
The list below contains 9 bebop tunes that are often called at jazz jams.
- 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 gig 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, 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, 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 standards under your fingers is essential.
Not only will this fill out your repertoire, it develops your rhythm, comping patterns, and picking-hand technique.
To get you started, here are 8 classic Brazilian jazz tunes to explore.
- 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 tunes by jazz’s greatest composers, but also those of jazz’s greatest guitarists.
Learning how guitarists approached composition provides insight into their understanding of harmony and melody.
As well, you can see how they visualized the fretboard, which opens up new avenues of exploration in your own practice.
Though not all musicians will know these tunes, you can call them on your own gigs as a bandleader.
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’s the meat and potatoes of any jazz repertoire list – jam session essentials.
Though this isn’t a complete list of jazz jam tunes, knowing these standards gives you enough material to get through any jam session.
If you only have time to study one area on this list, start here.
After learning five or six of these tunes, move on to other categories to expand out from there.
As well as being jam session essentials, these tunes also offer popular melodic and harmonic devices that makes learning other tunes easier.
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 standards, working Latin jazz tunes increases your repertoire and expands your musical knowledge at the same time.
Working montuno patterns on guitar, among other challenges, greatly expands your rhythmic fundamentals.
As well, improvising over Latin standards poses technical challenges, both from a tempo and chord progression standpoint.
So working on Latin jazz tunes provides an all around positive practice room experience.
Here are 7 Latin jazz standards to get you started.
- 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, modal jazz tunes offer their own unique challenges for all levels of player.
While some of these tunes have only one or two chords, others over more difficult progressions to navigate in your comping and soloing.
As well, keeping track of the form when playing modal tunes is tricky for any level of guitarist.
It’s not uncommon for people to call a modal tune on a jam, thinking it’s an easy tune to play, and then get lost in the form halfway through.
So, focus on form when learning these tunes, as that’s often where the challenge lies with modal jazz.
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 catchall title used to group together jazz tunes written after about 1965, 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 a long period to cover with one label, working modern jazz tunes means different things to different players.
To expand your repertoire into this musical realm, here are 9 modern jazz standards that are often called on gigs.
Because they feature odd forms, difficult melodies, and tough progressions, you probably won’t get these called on a jam session.
But, having these tunes under your fingers expands your technique and gives you a modern jazz option to call when you have time to rehearse a band before a 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 remain in the jazz repertoire to this day.
With the exception of one or two tunes, each one of these tunes could be called on any gig or jam session.
Because of their popularity, working these standards gives you a solid foundation in jam repertoire.
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 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 understanding of how different time signatures affect your comping and soloing.
Learning jazz waltzes expands your understanding of time signatures and adds rhythmic variety to your set list.
Having at least one waltz in your repertoire is essential.
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 make it tough to know exactly where to play any melody on the fretboard.
To develop your ability to quickly and thoroughly learn any melody, here are exercises to use in your practice routine.
How to Read a Lead Sheet Melody on Guitar
Before you learn any melody, you 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 lead sheet melodies is often too low on the fretboard.
So, the first thing to do when learning any melody is to take it to two octaves.
After doing so, you know whether you can play it as written, or if it’s better to transpose it up an octave.
- 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 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, 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 opens up your neck and ensures you can reference the melody in any position.
Start by working any melody in the following positions on the fretboard.
Doing so covers the first half of the guitar, and allows you to always have the melody under your fingers on the neck.
- Within Frets 1-4
- Within Frets 5-8
- Within Frets 9-12
After you work these positions, you 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.
When doing so, 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 become an issue with one-string melodies.
Watch that you don’t get caught playing every note with one or two fingers.
Try to use all four fingers if possible.
Though it’s a bit unorthodox, one-string melodies get your ears involved in the learning process.
As well, you can never be lost with a melody, as you 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 increases your creativity and helps you nail chord changes at the same time.
To begin soloing with melodies, use 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 internalize them to the point that you never forget them.
As well, you bring a sense of the melody into your solos.
One of the best exercises I ever learned 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 connects your solos to the tune.
Learn Jazz Standards – Chords
After learning to play the melody, guitarists need to work on nailing comping over jazz standards.
Being able to play the chords to any standard may not be as fun as soloing, but it’s practical.
As a guitarist, you spend 90% or more of your time comping behind melodies and solos.
So, having a strong command of comping over any jazz standard is essential.
To build your comping skill set, here are three approaches to 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, 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 to apply voice leading jazz standards.
- Pick a tune.
- 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 can’t always avoid jumps when working with root-position chords.
But, you can make those jumps minimal on the fretboard.
This exercise also sets you up to work on chord inversions in the next section.
Voice Leading Exercises – Level 2
After working root chords, you can work chord inversions through jazz standards.
In the following exercise, you approach it the same way as the first, though now you use inversions.
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.
- 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 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 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.
To help you apply guide tones to jazz standards, here’s an exercise you can work on in the woodshed.
- Pick a tune.
- 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, only two notes, seeing guide tones on the fretboard takes time.
Without having a root, you need to know the 3rd and 7th for the underlying changes.
This takes practice.
But, with time, you can see and play guide tones over any 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 every scale and arpeggio 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 practicing soloing makes 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 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 your ability to outline chord changes, here are important exercises to work in the practice room.
The first device to work on when practicing improvisation over jazz standards is 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 arpeggios to any tune, 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, 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.
When doing so, 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 standards as well as work them with a metronome.
It’s easy to spend all your time with technique, and not leave time to work soloing in your routine.
But, soloing is a learned skill, just like scales and arpeggios.
So, practicing soloing builds your ability to apply any technical device to a real-life jam situation.
Lastly, mix both scales and arpeggios 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 standard.
- 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 of the fretboard, it’s tough to work them with a backing track.
So, work them out with a metronome first.
Then, when ready, put on a backing track and solo with both devices over the tune.
This way you get both a technical and creative workout with these exercises in the woodshed.
As well as working technical items over standards, such as scales and arpeggios, you can expand your vocabulary over tunes.
To do so, 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, move 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 ensures you have an understanding of vocabulary, without becoming a line player at the same time.
Out of the Box Improvisation Exercises
Besides working on traditional improvisation exercises, you can step outside of the box with these soloing exercises.
Each exercise gets 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 exercises, spending hours in the woodshed without realizing it.
Here are six out of the box jazz improvisation exercises to check out.
- 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 open up new doorways in your soloing explorations.
And, 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 the moment.
There’s nothing more stressful than having a chart dropped in front of you and your sight-reading chops aren’t up to par.
But, if your reading skills are sharp, then sight-reading is an enjoyable experience.
If you shy away from learning to read music because you thought it means working on reading studies or boring textbooks, this isn’t the case.
If you play in a big band, then yes you need to work on reading complex lines and changes.
But, if you want to read in a combo, you need to practice practical, musical, exercises.
Not only are practical reading exercises beneficial, they’re fun to work on in the woodshed.
As well, for guitarists, learning to sight-read jazz standards means reading chords, melodies, and soloing.
To build your ability to jam tunes at sight, here’s a breakdown of how to approach these three areas of sight-reading.
Sight Reading Chords
The first side of sight-reading to work on is reading chords.
While you may feel that melodies should be your priority, as a guitarist you spend most of your time comping in jam sessions.
Therefore, making sure you can read chords at sight ensures you can function in a jazz jam situation.
Because you can probably read chord changes better than single notes, 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 real-life reading situations.
If 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 focuses on playing solos at sight over jazz standards.
This is a skill that many players put off developing.
It’s one thing to work on soloing over one tune for a long period of time.
But, it’s another thing altogether to outline chord changes when sight reading, and make it sound musical.
There’s nothing more frustrating than nailing the comping, only to fall on your face in your solo.
To help you get over this hump, work on the comping exercise above, just replace soloing with comping.
But, if you need a bit more study, 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 builds your ability to outline changes for tunes you don’t know.
Then, taking that knowledge to a sight-reading situation is much easier.
Learning to sight solo is an important skill to have, though it takes 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 is easy to do at a jam.
Sight Reading Melodies
Notice that reading melodies, notes on the staff, is last in this list of exercises.
This is because, as a guitarist, you comp and solo more often than play 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 take the head and you 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 to be 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’s an exercise 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’ study sight-reading melodies in a practical way.
You can read in any octave and learn how to make a melody sound musical 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 solos, and learning them by ear produces sizeable results.
Beyond learning what notes to play, repeated 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 always know where the piano player is, even when they deviate from the written chords.
Then you rarely get lost in the form, or if you do get lost, you quickly get back on the form.
If you can transcribe single notes, hearing when the sax player steps outside or uses a chord substitution becomes doable in real time.
Then, you can react by going with their new harmony, or play a counter harmony to their lines.
Reacting to rhythmic cues and interacting with the drum is easy after you’ve written out melodies and chords, both notes and rhythms.
This allows you to always been in time with the band, never get off the beat, and 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 gets you there faster than any other exercise in the practice room.
In this section, you study a number of exercises that increase you ability to hear jazz music in real time.
As well, after working these exercises, you can quickly learn any jazz standard chord progression or melody just by listening to it.
No Real Book needed.
Transcribing is a difficult skill to develop, and many players struggle with it in the woodshed.
But, with time, effort, and determination, you can 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 sometimes contain errors.
The second is that it teaches you how famous jazz performers interpret melodies.
Often times, beginning jazz musicians 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 gets the tune under your fingers and teaches you how to interpret those melodies like great players.
Here are steps to take when working this skill in the woodshed.
Vocal vs. Instrumental Melodies
To begin, you need to decide if you want to transcribe a jazz melody from a vocalist or instrumentalist.
Both offer a different learning experience, and both 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, 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 learn the lyrics as you learn the notes.
- You 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 offer you unique approaches to playing and interpreting jazz melodies.
If you’re unsure of where to start, do both.
A great exercise is to learn the melody from a vocalist, then learn the same melody from an instrumentalist.
This gives you a comparison to work from when building the 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 by working 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 challenge compared to working one note or phrase at a time with your instrument.
But, while it’s tough, it gets 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 players will naturally good ears, or that have learned a lot of tunes by ear, this pushes you in new directions in your studies.
Either way, take the challenge and learn melodies with these exercises.
You might curse a bit, but you’ll get there, and the effort is worth it in the end.
Checking Your Work
After you learn any melody by ear, either piece by piece or with the real-time exercises, you want to check your work.
You can do this by playing the melody along to the recording to check your accuracy.
The second approach is 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 ensures you play 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 learning standards by ear.
Hearing melodies is tough, but doable for most musicians.
But, learning chord changes by ear is another challenge altogether.
Though you 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 to where you can hear the chords to full tunes.
You will never regret spending time working on hearing chord changes in the woodshed.
Here are steps 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 often play simple, root-heavy basslines.
This makes it easier to hear the root of each chord that you’re transcribing.
Even if they play a busier bass line, the root is 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 standards by ear, start by getting the bassline.
You don’t have to memorize the bass line, or write it all out.
Instead, use it to pick out the root notes for each chord in the tune.
Then, once you have the root notes, 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 comes in handy.
If you already know the melody line, you can compare it to the bass notes you just transcribed.
By doing so, you can work out some, or most, of the chords in the tune.
Often times, the melody contains chord tones, or other diatonic notes that provide clues to the underlying chord qualities.
For example, if you have a G root, and the melody line is a Bb, you can try 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, then move on to the next step.
But, combining bass notes with the melody, and a little experimentation, will often give you the chords to any jazz standard.
Fill in the Blanks
If you have the melody and bass notes, but can’t figure out the chords, then you have to look for a few more clues to grab the changes by ear.
The first step is 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 provides clues, but sometimes not, or it may not be played over these chords.
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 can learn most chord progressions by ear.
Don’t Let Inversions Fool You
One thing that throws 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 theory, you 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’s more likely be these chords.
You 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, play with the recording, or check a lead sheet.
If you’re ears are more advanced, jamming over the recording tells you if your chords are correct or not.
If you’re just beginning to learn jazz standards by ear, checking a lead sheet is the better option.
This makes sure that your chords are correct, and prevents awkward moments in a jam session if you play wrong chords over a tune.
Lead sheets aren’t perfect, but they help you check your work when transcribing jazz chord progressions.
Backing Track Exercise
One of the best exercises when learning chord progressions by ear is to work with backing tracks.
Here are the steps to work on this exercise in your studies.
If you’ve transcribed a few chord progressions from recordings, you should be ready for the challenge.
At first it might seem almost impossible, but stick with it, over time it becomes 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 increases your ability to hear jazz harmony in real time.
This makes jam sessions that much easier, as you aren’t worried about playing a tune you don’t know.
You also won’t scramble for a lead sheet and hold up the band.
Instead, you ask for the key, maybe the first chord, then confidently comp the chords by ear from there.
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.
Learn one note by ear at first.
When that’s doable, learn two notes by ear.
Build up from there to full melodies and eventually chord progressions.
You never regret time spent building up your ear in the woodshed.