How to play jazz for beginners

How To Play Jazz Guitar For Beginner

How to play jazz for beginnersGuest post by Marc-Andre Seguin

So, you've decided to try your hand at Jazz guitar. This article will assume a certain base level of proficiency in the general language of music apart from the specific vernacular that informs jazz music, guitarists specifically. Not because it's a theory article, but because if you hope to learn how to play this music (and any style, really) a little knowledge goes a long way. If you have no background in notated music, theory and harmony please pick up Barbara Wharram's Theory For Beginners. It will open the door.

The long view

The first thing I would suggest is to have a long term perspective on your progress. You probably won't absorb concepts nearly fast enough to satisfy your inner critic. If you listen to a lot of jazz (more on that later) you are starting to develop a set of aesthetic criteria for what you like and don't like. This is important. To paraphrase an internet meme I once saw, hating your own playing stems from being self aware and having good enough taste to realize that you sound terrible. Again, this is a good thing. It means you know what you like, and that's half the battle. (Or, maybe it's one third. I'm not sure of the exact percentages.)

So, be mindful of the fact that you are listening to players who have already put in many, many years of study and hard work and struggle to get where they are. If you are just starting out in jazz, you can't cram for the test. There is no test. It's just a thing you will do and at some point, you will have played a long time and you'll be able to say: Wow, how did I get here?

Listen To Jazz

Back to the listening thing. Get your hands on some jazz records/CDs/FLACs or whatever people listen to now. It doesn't have to be the entire history of jazz. Start with a good assortment of jazz guitar titles by players like Jim Hall, Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, Joe Pass, and Grant Green. Also, please do listen to the classic records by non guitarists like Bill Evans, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and Charlie Parker, among countless others. The important thing is that you listen actively and engage with the music. Listening to a solid collection of Dexter Gordonjazz records repeatedly over a period of time will do wonders for your ears and musical vocabulary. It also helps prevent the pitfall of getting mired in a terabyte of jazz records and feeling overwhelmed in the face of infinite choice

Try to listen to music without the distraction of other media or online activities. Sit in a comfy chair, use headphones and close your eyes. Try to imagine what the world was like when this music was recorded. Or if you like, read Miles Davis's autobiography while listening to Milestones. Read Chasing The Trane while absorbing Coltrane's Giant Steps. Immerse yourself in jazz. Just try to keep your listening time offline.

Depending on your musical background as a guitarist, you will relate to what you're hearing on recordings differently. If you come from blues, certain jazz guitar styles will already seem more familiar to you than the impressionistic piano style of Bill Evans. If you are a classical guitarist, the harmonies and fingerings required may be less alien, but you may not have the language to describe them in the same way a jazz player might. Long story short, start listening actively to jazz. A lot. You will be assimilating the music in ways that may not be apparent for a while, but rest assured, it's happening. Be patient and enjoy the ride. Listening to music is awesome. 

Learn Some Chords, Scales and Arpeggios

 Is it that simple? Not by a long shot. But you'd be amazed how many students I have seen who want to jump into a transcription of the latest mind bending solo by a NYC jazz star, but can't even play a two octave major scale. Are scales music? No. If I learn arpeggios, I can play jazz? No! Not even close! But scales, arpeggios and chords and their inversions serve as a practical means to overcoming logistical blind spots that plague guitarists. The instrument is unique in being rife with pitch redundancy and for having a bizarre (yet brilliant) tuning. Learning the fretboard in and out should be a goal for every guitarist. If you come from classical guitar, this may already be covered. If you are a folk guitarist, you may not have as much of this together. 

There are many resources available on the internet that lay out routines for mastering this material. Pick one and stick with it. Be systematic. And again, patient. Playing jazz guitar requires that you be able to play what you hear and be in the moment. Being familiar with the layout of the guitar is a hurdle you want far behind you while you are trying to absorb the broader language of jazz as it applies to all instruments.

Learn Some Tunes

This may seem obvious, but you'll need to know some songs if you want to play jazz with other human beings. Having a repertoire of songs at the ready for ad hoc sessions, jam sessions at local clubs or an academic setting is essential. After all the listening you've been doing maybe you have found some songs that have melodies and chord changes that appeal to you. Learn those! Learning a song because someone tells you to is fine, but it's great when you find a tune on a recording that you keep coming back to. Those are the ones you should try to learn because they resonate with you. (Of course, if you havGood bait - jazz lead sheete gone to a few sessions and notice that certain tunes keep getting called and you don't know them, that might be a good reason to learn some of those songs.) As a guitarist, you should learn the melody and try to find a fingering that sounds pleasing to you and feels good under the hand. Pay attention to how the timbre changes when the same pitch is played on different strings. Experiment with alternate string combinations. Learn the melody in two different parts of the neck and in two different octaves if you can.

Then learn the chords. Initially, concentrate on being able to play the harmonies as smoothly as possible and without drastic leaps. Connect the voice leading as much as possible to create what would sound like a supportive accompaniment for a singer or horn player. Then, try to voice the chords with the melody note on top. This is what will lead you to a more personal take on the chords. By placing priority on the melody note, you will be forced to find solutions that include different inversions, partial chords with notes omitted, ambiguous chords, and chords with open strings. You may find voicings that might never have discovered were it not for the arrangement of this particular melody.

Transcribe Some Jazz

Transcription is a major thing even for some players many years into a life playing jazz. Some do very little transcription. But we have all done it to some extent. Some players religiously transcribe long solos then immediately begin a new one. Others may have a solo by a great player that they revisit year after year to reconnect with something that they feel grounds them or affirms some essential musical truth. Others may obsessively grab small snippets or phrases that catch their fancy. Whichever method appeals to your sensibilities, it is all valuable. Transcription is ear training, rhythmic training, and vocabulary all rolled into one. If you've never done it, try to pick a short solo by a guitarist. (Other instruments are great too, but if you've never done it, choosing how to phrase can be a challenge.) A blues or a favourite ballad would be a good choice. You don't have to notate your transcription to benefit from it, but written transcription has the added bonus of developing calligraphy and awareness of score layout and clarity. It also helps you be a better reader!


To sum up, learning how to play jazz guitar requires a solid grounding in musicianship that will allow a lifetime of learning and growth. This foundation applies across any number of other musical styles, so look at it as an investment in your future musical endeavours. Just because you've developed an interest in jazz doesn't mean you'll play only jazz for the rest of your life. That would be weird! But it does mean you've opened your mind to musical self-sufficiency and a way of thinking that is open to creativity and in-the-moment problem solving. Embrace it.

About the author

Marc andre seguin 2017Marc-Andre Seguin is the webmaster, “brains behind” and teacher on, 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.

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