One of the first things every aspiring jazz guitarist quickly realizes is jazz is hard. Really hard. 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. With some time and practice, you too can be hitting the jazz clubs as a pro. There are places in NYC where you can take up guitar lessons from some really good experienced teachers.
Above all, learning to play jazz means you need to listen to jazz, as much as you can. Musical styles come with typical sounds and feels, and jazz is no different. There’s no alternative to listening in depth to a style. Try 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 important thing to do is learn songs. As many as you can. The first 10 are going to be really hard. 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. This will help a lot.
Learning your first jazz tune is definitely easier said than done. Where does one start learning all the missing pieces so 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 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 correctly nothing else you do will really matter. I recommend always using a metronome and keeping a practice journal. A good practice session should be working towards a goal. (Check out my website for more in-depth practice guides.)
Step 2 – Learn what you need for the song
You’re going to have to learn 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 the theory, scales, and chord inversions. For the first couple songs at least, just learn the chords and the melody. See if scales you already know can work. The goal is to get something practical down you can work with and expand on as you learn. Once you get more comfortable learning songs, you should definitely expand on your knowledge by learning new scales and licks. 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
Now you can play the melody and chords of your first song but it still doesn’t sound anything like jazz. Don’t worry – that’s normal! You’ve done important work already and now we can build from that. Transcribing will help you understand the timing, 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 start with an easier solo and transcribe it by ear. Listen to it over and over until you can pick out the notes, then learn to play it 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, use 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 play. Play along with backing tracks and find some people to play with. Eventually you should go to jam sessions and feel what it’s like to play with the pros. 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
Before you know it, you’ll find that you can get through that first couple songs. Don’t stop. Keep learning new songs and using on all the previous steps. However, 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. Don’t get overwhelmed though! Pick one subject at a time. One of the best ways to know where to start is hidden in step 2. When you’re learning to play a song but hitting a wall, find out what you’re missing. If the chords are giving you trouble, then it’s time to sit down and learn your voicings. Do you find you’re missing all your notes? Maybe working on 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.