Approaching Jazz Guitar

The following post is a sample chapter from my book “Grow, Teach, Repeat: The Art of Learning & Teaching Guitar.”

“Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn”. ~ Charlie Parker

I am treating jazz here as a style with it’s own separate chapter because it is challenging for guitarists in a variety of ways that other styles are not. So much of jazz is based on improvisation that it requires a very different mindset than rock, pop or even blues does. Studying jazz is valuable to a guitarist because, even if you don’t intend to become a jazz player, hidden within it’s structure are precious gems of music theory that can be applied to any style. The same is true to some extent of blues, but to a much higher degree in jazz.

I was never much of a jazz player until college when I studied it formally. It was actually well past college however until I felt I had any kind of understanding of it at all. Since I had chosen to teach guitar for a living I decided that I had better work on my “jazz chops.” After struggling for quite a while I came up with a method for approaching this amazing art form that I would like to share with you. I am not saying that this is the only way or the best way to learn jazz. I am only saying it has worked for me and perhaps, if you are just getting started or struggling, it will work for you.

I learned early on that the “Fake Book” was the bible of all jazz musicians. They were originally called “Fake Books” because they were “illegal” collections of crude sketches of standard jazz tunes. (Now they are called “Real Books” because the publishers cracked down on the fake ones and most books are now licensed properly and provided by reputable music publishing companies.) Early jazz players would transcribe the “head” or melody of someone’s recorded version of a tune, and write it down along with the chord changes. They would then copy and pass these books along to each other. The players then would have a reference tool they could use when getting together at a session. A standard session went like this: a song was chosen, if it was not memorized by all the players, the players who needed it would open their fake books and find the head, the chord changes, and the structure (ABACA for example) of the tune. The drummer counted in and they would play the tune, taking turns playing the head, comping the chords, and improvising solos.

Mastering those three objectives: playing the head (main melody), comping (to “accompany” rhythmically) chords, and soloing over the changes will make you a competent jazz player. So I set out to tackle these three things. Here is how I approached the job.

Playing The Head

This is nothing more than being able to sight read a simple melody. What makes it tricky in jazz playing is that your goal is to be able to truly sight read. That is, you want to be able to play the melody competently the very first time you see the tune on paper. Sure, if you are in a jazz band and you know what songs are going to be played you can go ahead and rehearse and memorize like you would for any rock song. In the unwritten culture of jazz however you are expected to be able to play any tune that is “called” by the leader of the band. This means having excellent sight reading skills.

The important thing to note is that the melodies are written one octave lower than they should be played on the guitar. This is due to the fact that the publishers didn’t want to have the majority of the notes appear on ledger lines. Since it’s jazz, you could actually play the melody in any register you want, but I just thought I should point this out…

I approached the task of sight reading the head by opening up the Real Book randomly and just trying to read whatever tune appeared. This was a challenge but I was making some progress when I decided that, although I was doing ok, the feeling or “swing” just wasn’t there. To make further progress I began practicing the melodies of certain songs rather than just sight reading them. I would pick a tune randomly, attempt to sight read the whole tune, then go back and attempt it again, but the second time I was practicing one phrase at a time, reading it, then repeating it over and over until I got the feel I wanted. I found that over time this approach enabled my first time, or “true” sight reading greatly. This is not a substitute for true sight-reading practice, but in combination with it, I think it works wonders.

Comping Chords

When it came to jazz chord voicings, I had a lot to learn so I went out and bought a massively thick chord reference book. Then I sat down with the Real Book on the music stand and the chord reference book on a desk by my side. Again I opened the Real Book randomly and tried to play each of the chords in the tune sequentially. I was not actually attempting to play the song at this point. I was in effect just using the tunes to quiz myself on the chords. There were many chords that I did not know how to play at that time and I wanted to be sure I could play any chord I encountered instantly. When I came across a chord that I didn’t know, or if I knew it but wanted a more convenient voicing, I looked it up in the book and then played it over and over, each time removing my hand from the strings completely and playing it again and again. I made sure to always find a moveable chord voicing (one with no open strings) so that when I learned any one chord I had actually learned approximately 12 chords. By knowing where the root of the chord was in the shape, all you need to do is move it to the proper fret on the guitar. This may sound simple enough and it is easy, but only after you have learned all of the many chord shapes and extensions.

I went through this procedure tune after tune and it eventually helped me gain confidence that I could never be stumped by a chord symbol again.

The next step was to try and actually comp a tune. For me, the best way was to put on a metronome and set it to a very slow rate. I started by playing on the first beat of the measure only, then the first and third beats of each measure, and finally on every downbeat. Only then did I attempt any fancy syncopation. When I had gained some competency, I tried to play along with recorded versions of the songs. This of course is the next best thing to playing with an actual group of musicians. It may be even better because, nobody cringes when you blow the changes!

Soloing Over the Changes

The subject of jazz soloing fills entire, very thick books that are written by much smarter musicians than myself. I am in no way attempting to claim my methods as anything other than just that – my methods. That said, here is a brief summary of how I learned to approach jazz soloing.

In the earliest stages of my jazz studies I was completely confused by all the various scales and mode names that people seemed to throw around like crazy in person and in method books. I resigned to using the major minor and pentatonic scales that I was familiar with in rock soloing and hoped that would fit the key I was soloing in. The problem was that the key was changing all the time, as it does in jazz, and I was having to use my ear to try and fish for the key I was looking for. This is not an ideal way to solo in a jazz context.

In the next stage I began attempting to “play the changes”. This means that you follow the tune in the Real Book (or in your head if you have the chords memorized) and attempt to play a note or scale that harmonizes nicely with each chord as it is being played. This was a revelation. I suppose a traditional jazz student has this burned into their lessons from day one, but at this point I was a jazz newbie teaching himself by trial and error. The excitement of this discovery was tempered by the fact that it is not an easy thing to do, especially when the chords are flying by at 240 beats per minute.

To gain facility with soloing over complex chord changes I returned again to the Real Book. Again picking a random tune, I would look at the first chord and try to play a phrase that contained all the notes in that specific chord. If it was one measure of D7 for example, I would play a one measure phrase, if it was two measures I would play a two measure phrase etc… I wasn’t interested at this point in playing the tune at any tempo, I was simply exploring what it really sounded like to play “to the chords”. For example, over a D7 I might play the root (d) the major third (f#) the root again (d) and then the fifth (a) and the flat seven (c). These are the notes contained in the chord D7, hence they are called “chord tones”. Using these notes I would construct a phrase or lick. I moved through the changes this way building little licks that I would later subconsciously remember for each chord I encountered. This greatly increased my knowledge of chord notation and harmony.

The above method familiarized me with playing chord tones and helped me practice following complex changes during a solo. There is much more to jazz soloing than this however. By just playing chord tones you would succeed in playing to the changes but it might sound a bit stale after a while. At this point it was time to consider what scale would work across each chord or series of chords.

While you could conceivably choose notes from a corresponding scale for every chord, the idea in choosing scales to solo with is to recognize key centers and choose a scale that works over the span of measures that relates to a given key. This requires not just looking at they key signature of a song but again, because jazz tunes change keys so frequently, you would examine a sequence of chords, determine the key center of that sequence and choose a scale that harmonizes well with those chords. An in depth discussion of this in a book like this is really pushing it. So, I will only say that this is another effective way to approach soloing over a jazz tune. It is often referred to as playing “horizontally” because the scale stretches along a certain span of chords, whereas the chord tone approach is often referred to as playing “vertically” because the chosen notes are coming from each and every chord as they appear sequentially.

In summary, you can see that there is much experimentation involved in teaching yourself jazz guitar. I have only scratched the surface in this discussion, but I hope it has given you some ideas on how to go about teaching or self teaching this wonderful style of music. As I mentioned in the opening of this chapter, even if you have no intention of being a jazz guitarist. I recommend you dig into it for the knowledge you will gain, then go apply it to your other styles of playing.


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