One of the first things every aspiring jazz guitarist quickly realizes is that jazz is hard. Really hard. And once they realize what they’ve gotten themselves into they inevitably start looking for ‘The Secret’. That one scale, arpeggio or II-V-I that will make them a seasoned jazz man or jazz girl overnight. Well, I’m afraid it’s my duty to inform you that doesn’t exist. There are countless factors that contribute to someone learning how to play jazz. The good news is you can totally do it, and with some time and practice you too can be hitting the jazz clubs as a pro.
I think that above all, learning to play jazz means that you need to listen to as much jazz as you can. Musical styles all come with typical sounds and feels, and jazz is no different. There’s no alternative to listening in depth to a style to become familiar with its sound and feel so you can start to replicate it yourself.
Just listening to jazz won’t make you a seasoned pro by itself though. The next most important thing to do is learn songs. As many as you can. The first 10 are going to be really hard but just start with easier songs like The Autumn Leaves and Blue Bossa, and don’t get discouraged. By learning songs you’re giving yourself something to work with and a direction, which will help a lot.
Now learning your first jazz tune is definitely easier said than done. So where does one start learning all the missing pieces so that you can play a song? Well, here’s a loose guide to help the beginning guitarist get through the first few songs. Keep in mind, none of these steps will help if you are not listening to jazz and trying to learn songs. Just start by learning one song to start and remember: there’s no rush! Don’t stress if even after a couple months you’re still working on the first couple songs. In time, it will all come together.
Step 1 – Practice
First off, if you don’t practice right nothing else you do will really matter. You should always use a metronome and I recommend keeping a practice journal. A good practice session should always be working towards a goal. (Check out my website for some more in-depth practice guides.)
Step 2 – Learn what you need for the song
You’re going to have to learn all your scales, arpeggios, and chords eventually. But you don’t need to learn them all immediately. Learning to play jazz takes years, and you’ll have lots of time to sit down and learn all the theory, scales, and chord inversions. For the first couple songs at least, just learn the chords to the song and the melody, and see if any scales you already know can work. The goal is to start getting something practical down that you can work with and expand on as you learn more. Once you start to get a bit more comfortable with learning songs you should definitely start working on expanding your knowledge and learning new scales and licks, but remember: a good practice session works towards a specific goal. In this case, as a beginner that goal should be learning to play your first couple songs.
Step 3: Transcribe and write out your solos
So now you can play the melody and chords of your first song and it still doesn’t sound anything like jazz. Don’t worry – it’s normal! You’ve done important work already and now we can build off of it. Transcribing will let you play along with a true master. You’ll learn their time feel, be able to steal some II-V-I licks, and start to hear and feel what it’s like to play a great jazz guitar solo. You should pick an easier solo and transcribe it by ear, listening to it over and over until you can pick out the notes, and then learn to play it exactly along with the record. The first few transcriptions are hard, but nothing will help you more. At the same time, take some ideas from the solo you pick and some of your own ideas and write yourself your first guitar solo. You should learn it with a metronome and then try it over backing tracks. This will teach you shapes and ideas you can use for the next step.
Step 4: Play!!!!
Another truly important part of learning to play jazz guitar is to just go and play. Play along with backing tracks and then find some people to play with. Eventually you should also go out to jam sessions and feel what it’s like to play with the pros. But don’t get discouraged. At first it’s going to be hard and nothing will seem to work. Just keep at it and you’ll see that things come together.
Step 5 – Work on fundamentals
Eventually, you’ll find that you can get through that first and second song. Don’t stop. Keep learning new songs and working on all the previous steps. But what you’ll also need to do is start working on some fundamentals. What are fundamentals you ask? Things like ear training, music theory, chord voicings, scales, and arpeggios. Just don’t get overwhelmed though! Pick one thing at a time to work on. One of the best ways to know where to start is hidden in step 2. When you’re trying to learn to play a song and hitting a wall, find out what you’re missing. If the chords are giving you troubles then it’s now time to sit down and learn your voicings. Do you find you’re missing all your notes? Maybe working on some technique is a good idea.
While these are some loose tips to get you started, jazz guitar is hard and I could never pack everything into one short article! On my website you’ll find tips, guides, and full lessons which can help you realize your dream of being a jazz guitarist.
About the Author
Marc-Andre Seguin is the webmaster, “brains behind” and teacher on JazzGuitarLessons.net, the #1 online resource for learning how to play jazz guitar. He draws from his experience both as a professional jazz guitarist and professional jazz teacher to help thousands of people from all around the world learn the craft of jazz guitar.