how to play jazz guitar
I’m a huge fan and student of jazz guitar, but I’m definitely not an expert. If you’ve ever tried to get into jazz guitar, you may have found it a daunting experience. To remedy this, we got together with Marc-Andre Seguin from who’s come up with 10 effective ways to learn, and more importantly, break us gently into the world of how to play jazz guitar.

1. Learn the basic harmonic vocabulary of the most commonly played jazz standards.
If you are coming from Rock and Pop music or even classical music, you may not know what to call the sounds associated with the jazzed up versions of Broadway repertoire and many of the original compositions associated with the period from around 1940 to 1965. You may have played a Cmaj7 chord when you learned “Something” by The Beatles, and all of those non functional dominant 7th chords in the chorus to “Day Tripper”. Or the Minor Major7th chord at the end of the James Bond Theme, but do you know why these chords have the sound they have? What parent scales generate these chords? If not, find a good book like The Jazz Piano Book by Mark Levine to investigate. Many standards are surprisingly consistent in their use of diatonic (i.e.: of the key) harmony while some swerve away (modulate) to little “keys of the moment”. A little of this knowledge will make remembering tunes much easier because you will have a context for the structure rather than just trying to remember where your hands go.

2. Learn some melodic vocabulary.
Jazz is a language, and there are different strategies for learning languages at different stages in life. Children learn holistically at home by absorbing what they hear from parents and siblings, but adults have less elastic brains and may have to learn differently. When traveling to a country for the first time, many people simply memorize some important phrases that may come in handy. While this short-term strategy does little to help you actually learn the language and how it works, it does familiarize your brain and body with what it feels like to speak the language, even if just phonetically. Learning some wrote jazz lines “phonetically” is no way to approach hitting the bandstand, but it will certainly give your brain a reference point to compare the lines you will be trying to write and improvise going forward as a jazz guitarist. Good resources for these lines are the 3 volumes of the David Baker books How To Play Bebop and Joe Pass’ Guitar Style. As you get more comfortable playing and absorbing these melodic phrases, you may find yourself altering them and manipulating them to suit your taste and to reflect other concepts you are learning. Eventually, you may start doing this in real time. (Wait! That’s improvising!)

3. Learn some rhythmic vocabulary.
This is a big one. It matters little whether you know all the cool chords and hip lines in the world if what you’re playing is rhythmically stunted. To quote Spinal Tap’s David St. Hubbins: “It’s such a fine line between clever and stupid.” A big thing that holds players back rhythmically is that their brains are so occupied looking for the “RIGHT NOTES” that they don’t have enough processing power left over to hear where they are placing those notes. One thing you can easily incorporate into your routine is the concept of Time/No changes. (Listen to recordings by the second Miles Davis Quintet with Ron Carter, Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter for some examples of this concept.) It’s simple enough to do. Just turn on a metronome and start playing melodically with your only concern being the rhythmic language you are using. Of course, be accurate and deliberate about finger placement and intonation, but leave any intentional ideas about chord changes by the wayside for now. If you happen to play a beautiful melodic line that outlines Fmin9 while doing this, then great! But try not to think at all about chords. Feel free to record yourself doing this. It will tell you a lot.

4. Start building a repertoire of standards you like.
Not songs you feel you should learn, necessarily, but songs that you love to hear other people play. You’ll be more motivated to learn a song you love than one you feel obligated to learn. To tie this back to #1, it is also recommended to learn some songs that have very clear diatonic progressions in order to apply some of your newfound knowledge about jazz harmony. Polkadots and Moonbeams, That’s All,  and I’ll Remember April would be perfect choices.

5. Learn a tricky Bebop “head”. The melodies to iconic Bebop songs contain a wealth of information about how jazz was phrased in the post war era. They also present technical challenges for guitarists because they were most often written by horn players. So, what may have fallen nicely under their fingers may be difficult on guitar. Solving these problems will make you a better player and illuminate certain aspects of the Bebop language. Improvising on these tunes is not really a short term goal for the beginning jazz guitarist, but there is no reason that learning the melodies shouldn’t be possible for a sufficiently motivated student given patience and time. Suggestions: Donna Lee, Anthropology, Segment, Dance of The Infidels, Scrapple From The Apple, Hot House, Oleo.

6. Try to start to see melody and harmony more interchangeably.
Where is the line between melody and harmony? For aspiring pianists, having two hands creates an obvious binary situation where the two can be clearly separate. Guitarists have to be a bit more deft. In the process of learning your chord voicings and inversions, why not also make a connection to the underlying melodic materials literally under your fingers? As an example, take a first position F13 chord spelled low to high Eb A D F from the 4th string to the 1st. Play each note individually. Now, omitting the Bb (an avoid note for our purposes) add the F (4th string), C (first fret 2nd string) and G (third fret 1st string). Low to high this spells Eb, F, A, C, D, F, G. You now have a melodic passage for F7 that avoids the 4th and doesn’t start on the root, as well as having some interesting intervallic content. It is visually nested within the chord shape for conceptual reinforcement. Do this all the way up the neck with your chord inversions and you have a great way to kill two musical birds with one stone. You’ve doubled your productivity!

7. Transcribe transcribe transcribe!
Besides being a great way to train your ears and open yourself to ideas you wouldn’t have thought of on your own (which can lead to ideas that maybe the person you are transcribing wouldn’t have thought of!), transcription can be a great way to get some work done on those days where you just don’t have the internal drive to do some of the more self-directed and pedagogical parts of your practice routine. You will learn something no matter how much or little you absorb of the solo’s conceptual elements. It’s still valuable and is time well spent.

8. Listen to jazz!
This is probably obvious, but many people seem to like the idea of playing jazz guitar more than they actually like jazz. So, get over that! You need to have this music in your head if you really want to play it, so get cracking and get collecting some music. There are a million articles on the web listing everyone’s favorite jazz albums. Pick 10 or 20 of them and listen to them a lot. Jazz guitar records should be a priority at first, but you also need to hear the way horn players and pianists play this music because they have historically been the standard bearers for the advancement of the music. Guitarists have always lagged a bit behind. 🙂

9. Take musical breaks.
That is to say, if you are a classical guitarist, set aside some time to play a little bit of repertoire to reconnect with what you know and how you relate to your instrument from a place of confidence. Or if you are a shredder, take a five minute shred break to blow off some steam. Learning jazz guitar can be humbling and our sense of self worth should not be tied to how fast you are progressing at blowing over changes or that first attempt at a
chord melody arrangement. Take the time to remind yourself that you are not a bad musician because you suck at jazz. It is just a new discipline, and someday your jazz prowess could be as strong as that killer version of the solo from Hotel California you worked so hard at.

10. Play with other people.
This isn’t last on the list as an afterthought, but rather because if you only remember the last thing you read, it might as well be this! Jazz is an oral/aural tradition (only fairly recently has it become entrenched in academia) and has historically been about community and mentorship. Find musicians to play with and apply the fruits of your labor as soon as possible in a real world situation. There are jazz jam sessions in most cities and even if you are not ready to sit in with the local heavies, there are always other musicians there in a similar situation to you. Talk to people, find out where they are at musically and see about setting up sessions on your own. Ask about other sessions you might not have heard about. Many University music programs offer jazz combo opportunities for non music majors and non professional enthusiasts. When you first get started playing jazz finding playing opportunities can be a real challenge, but it is essential that you jump in ASAP. Good luck!

About the Author
Marc-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.