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8 Steps to Learn Any Jazz Standard

Guest Post By Jack Handyside at pickupmusic.com

Jazz standards are some of the most beautiful and interesting pieces of music ever written, but learning these complex songs and committing them to memory can feel overwhelming if you don’t know where to start.

Luckily for you, we’re here to help! This article will introduce you to a tried and true, eight-step method that you can use to learn any jazz standard. Our focus today will be on the classic jazz standard Autumn Leaves written by Joseph Kosma.

1 - Getting The Bass Notes Down

Think of the bass notes as the foundations of a house. If they’re rock solid in your mind, you can build anything that you like on top of it. The bass notes help to outline the order of chords that build the entire progression. 

As is mostly the case with jazz standards, you’re likely to hear the bass moving in 4th intervals – through the II-V-I progression. If you can identify each of the chords as you’re building the bass line below them, you’re a step ahead of the game!

Our first exercise runs through the ‘A section’ of Autumn Leaves:

Autumn leaves chords

Developing the ability to hear how the bass notes are moving will answer a lot of questions later on about how to use and find the appropriate chords.

2 - Understanding The Chords

As we graduate from the school of bass notes to the university of chords, this is a good time to think about the good old days. Chords are one of the fundamentals that every jazz standard is built on. 

Knowing the bass notes will allow you to build the chords on top, and choose which types of minor, major, or dominant chords you’d like to use. Using shell voicings instead of large, five- or six-note bar chords is usually easier on the hands and allows you to add color tones later on.

Let’s continue to work through the Autumn Leaves progression. Fortunately, this song uses two types of chord progressions:

  • major II-V-I
  • minor II-V-I

Want to learn how to swap out your big, clunky jazz chords for sleek and easy-to-play shell voicings? Look no further than this article on shell voicings.

3 - Memorizing The Melody

The melody is the most important thing to reference whenever you’re improvising. Each melody in a jazz standard is unique in its own way.  Learning the melody in different parts of the fretboard will help you to feel more comfortable moving around. 

This is super useful whenever you decide to include chords or harmonize the melody with 3rds or 6ths. Sing sing sing! Singing the melody is a bonafide way of helping you internalize the song and all of the crucial details necessary for improvisation.

For some, learning the words to the jazz standards can unlock a whole new level of familiarity with the song. 

It’s also helpful to understand what the song is about so that you can decide to include small features and nuances in your performance that accentuate some of the themes heard in the lyrics. 

Fun fact! Autumn Leaves features a falling melody in sequences. Sequences are like melodies that continually descend or ascend through the scale. Like ‘falling leaves’, the melody has been designed to ‘paint’ the words that are being sung. 

Clever, huh?

4 - Building Scales

Scales can seem very daunting at first, but they’re a necessary evil that jazz guitarists need to overcome. Mastering them will allow you to build great melodies and solos across the fretboard.

Luckily, jazz guitarists like to recycle the same kinds of scales. It’s very likely that you’ll have used some of these scales before - even by accident! The major scale is the most useful and important scale that you could know – many of the modes discussed in Cecil’s video stem from the major scale.

It might take some time, but learning your scales in all positions and shapes is immeasurably useful when improvising and exploring new ideas. C Ionian (the major scale), D Dorian, and G Mixolydian are three of the most commonly used scales to play over a major II-V-I progression. 

B Locrian, E Phrygian dominant, and the E altered scale are the scales most commonly used when dealing with minor II-V-I chord progressions. 

Want to know more about jazz scales? This must-know jazz scales article is a useful tool to help you get started. 

5 - Constructing Arpeggios

Arpeggios are a neat way of getting through a song’s chord progression without having to play every scale related to each chord. Think of them as concise, time-saving tools that you can use to outline the chords.

Arpeggios involve playing the root, 3rd, 5th, and 7th of a chord one at a time. Arpeggiating a chord or triad is known as playing a ‘broken chord’. Arpeggios can be used to highlight more interesting chords like 9th, 11th, and 13th chords.

Want a more interesting ‘color’ over your dominant or minor chord? Try superimposing some tasty arpeggios over them. This is a more advanced technique to be tried only when you’re comfortable with the basic 7th arpeggios.

Here’s how the arpeggios for Autumn Leaves look:

Guitar arpeggios

Arpeggios come in all shapes and sizes. The guitar fretboard can be home to lots of different arpeggio shapes that outline the same chords. It’s important to practice different shapes and find out which ones feel most natural to you.

6 - Crafting Licks

Whenever you’re improvising your way through a jazz standard, it’s useful to have a collection of licks to copy and paste over chord changes without having to think up new melodic material every single time. 

Even the jazz guitar greats had a series of recycled licks that they would use every now and then to help them out of a tight jam… literally! Making sure that you have a set of major and minor II-V licks can be a practical tool to that you use to move between different ideas.

Licks can be pre-designed melodies that you can ‘plan’ into the chord progression. Grant Green was a big fan of this and often had a set of bluesy II-V licks that he would add variations to.

Learning other players’ licks can give insight into their style, and teach you new, interesting concepts. Cecil has prepared some tasty licks to expand your bag of tricks, check it out :

Jazz guitar licks

Having fun? There are plenty more awesome licks and jazz guitar content available over in Pickup Music’s Jazz Learning Pathway.

7 - Learning An Etude

No need to hit the books. Cecil has an excellent solo for you to study that uses all the previous fundamentals. This is where all your time spent with bass notes, licks, chords, and scales comes together.

An etude is a short ‘study’ of a written solo or concept. Etudes can teach you how to ‘think’ like a more advanced player – it’s like taking a walk in a pair of Joe Pass’ shoes!

The etude that Cecil has prepared for you will test your knowledge and your information recall of the previous six skills. Take your time with this one:


Jazz guitar etude 1
Jazz guitar etude 2

8 - Improvising Over The Song

Improvisation is an important part of mastering jazz standards. When you can freely improvise over a standard, you’re utilizing all of the previous seven skills at once. Pretty neat, huh?

Don’t beat yourself up if you’re finding it difficult to juggle all seven skills at once. 

Improvising fluidly takes patience and practice. Over time, you’ll notice you can let go of the mental juggling and focus more on creating a good melody. This is when you’ll know things are really starting to sink in. 

Bonus Tips

Now that you’ve been through all eight steps, you might feel that there’s nothing left to learn – which is where these special bonus tips come in!

Once you’ve applied the 8-step method, most professional jazz musicians would advise that you continue digging into the same jazz standard and apply the following tips:

  • Listen to different versions of the same jazz standard to help you hear how other musicians have approached it – you also might even find performances that you prefer.
  • Play with people! The only way to truly test if you’ve committed the song to memory is to play it with other musicians.
  • Transcribe other guitarists to learn how they’ve approached the song and how they formed their improvisational ideas over the same chord progression.
  • Find musicians who are better than you. This can feel daunting at first, but at one point, all the jazz guitar legends of the past had to learn by jamming with more advanced players.
  • Sing everything you play to help you internalize the melody, bass movements, and ideas that you could use for soloing over the chord progression.

Although these bonus tips are a lot more conceptual, they’re excellent pieces of advice for any guitarists looking to test their skills at a jam session or form a band of their own. 


Congratulations on getting through all the steps – the method is now yours! There is a common saying in the jazz world when you learn your first few standards: 

“The hardest jazz standard that you’ll learn is the first one. The second hardest is the one after that”. 

The idea is that the more time you spend practicing the same methods, the quicker your skillset will develop. Over time, you’ll become more confident in identifying how the chords work, where the melody lives, and the appropriate scales to use over the progression. 

Playing jazz guitar is very much a way of life – even the best jazz musicians are always sharpening their skills, learning new songs, and perfecting the fundamentals.

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