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10 Steps to help improve your jazz guitar playing

Guitarist playing in a jazz band

Step 1: Listen to great jazz music

In order to become a competent jazz guitarist, you will need to listen to a lot of excellent jazz music.

It is simply essential to get the sound of jazz in your ear!

Listening to a lot of jazz music will help you internalise the sound of swing!

In addition to listening, you should also attend regular performances of live jazz.

By attending live jazz performances, you will become more and more acquainted with the vocabulary of jazz music.

You will also witness first hand how jazz musicians take turns to solo and support each other!

Understanding the language of jazz, as well as the subtle and intricate swing rhythms will help you on your journey to become a competent jazz guitarist.

Here’s a list of high quality jazz artists that you should listen to:

  • Wes Montgomery
  • Charles Mingus
  • Charlie Parker
  • Dave Brubeck
  • Louis Armstrong
  • Herbie Hancock
  • Jan Garbarek
  • Keith Jarrett
  • John Coltrane
  • Pat Metheny
  • Miles Davis
  • Thelonious Monk
  • Billie Holiday
  • Bill Evans
  • Wynton Marsalis
  • Emily Remler
  • Larry Carlton
  • Pat Martino
  • John Abercrombie
  • Bill Frisell
  • Mike Stern
  • Joe Pass
  • Barney Kessell
  • John McLaughlin
Jazz cycles

Step 2: Become a master of jazz cycles

Jazz moves in cycles.

Becoming a master of jazz cycles is an absolute must, if you want to become exceptional at playing jazz guitar.

A classic jazz harmonic cycle that occurs over and over in jazz is the: “I IV VIII III VI II V I cycle”.

I require all my jazz guitar students to memorise this particular cycle throughout the cycle of 5ths.

It takes lots of time, and is an arduous task to say the least…

But the result is an excellent understanding of harmony, and a good working foundation of chords and arpeggios.

As the guitar is a transposing instrument and we often rely on patterns, it is also important to get to know each and every key.

Simply moving a chord up and down with no understanding of the context of the key is just not good enough.

You need to develop a feel for the key that you are in.

For example, if we play in the key of Ab major, you should (immediately) know that the relative minor is F Minor.

I would recommend for budding jazz guitarists to also learn chords on the piano in order to get a deeper grasp of jazz harmony.

Remember, we can only play six notes at the same time on the guitar.

On the piano we can play an endless amount (if we use the sustain pedal!).

So spend a good amount of time practising cycles and harmony.

Get to know the “II V I” and “II V I VI” chord progressions inside out.

You will find that harmony in jazz generally moves in fourths.

The “II” chord moves up a fourth to the “V” chord.

The “V” chord then moves up a fourth to the “I” or tonic chord.

Become familiar with how jazz cycles work.

Study, study and study more, and you will eventually understand the inner workings of jazz!

Puzzle

Step 3: Get an understanding of jazz harmony

Harmonically speaking jazz is complex.

In Western music, we harmonise chords in thirds.

Western classical music generally consists of triads and seventh chords.

In jazz, we take this one step further.

Harmonisation will often extend to ninth, eleventh and thirteenth chords.

You therefore, need a solid understanding of harmony in order to excel at playing jazz guitar.

It is also important to understand arranging as well as the range of your instrument.

If you play in a jazz band, you have to take great care not to step on the toes of the pianist.

You have to play complementary chords on the guitar that will make the entire band sound great!

To do this properly, you will need a great working understanding of harmony as well as arranging.

A good exercise on the guitar is to play through the four main seventh chords.

Play through the Major 7th, Minor 7th, Dominant 7th and Minor 7b5 chords.

You should know several voicings for each chord.

This is why great jazz guitar tuition is worth its salt.

With a great teacher, you can get to know these voicings inside out and understand how they work on the instrument.

This is, however, only the tip of the iceberg.

You will need to study harmony in relation to key and context.

Once you understand the beauty and language of harmony, you will then be able to improvise on a much more proficient level as well as provide accompaniment along with the rest of the band.

By having a greater understanding of jazz harmony, you will also be able to create beautiful chord melodies on the guitar and harmonise jazz standards (an important tool in your toolkit as a jazz guitarist).

Jazz guitar player

Step 4: Develop a repertoire of lines and licks

Developing a repertoire of lines and licks is absolutely essential if you want to succeed at playing jazz guitar.

Knowing a good amount of quality major and minor “II V I” licks will definitely help you in the heat of the battle when improvising!

A lot of new jazz guitar players are scared of memorising licks.

They fear that it will make them ‘method’ players.

There is certainly a (small) danger of becoming a method player if you approach learning licks in a ‘squared’ manner.

However, if you learn your jazz guitar licks inside out, and then you learn how to manipulate those licks in REAL-TIME, you can actually change/amend the licks on the spot. (You should aim to become the Swiss army knife of jazz lines!)

You will then definitely not become a ‘method’ player!

The licks will merely be a part of your improvisation toolkit and will be helpful both in developing your ears and helping you play throughout various chord changes.

Therefore I recommend learning a selection of high quality major and minor “II V I” licks all five positions of the guitar neck.

My all-time favourite book for learning jazz lines is Pat Martino’s “Linear Expressions”.

You can buy Pat Martino’s book on Amazon here.

Louis Armstrong

Step 5:  It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing!

“It don’t mean a thing (if it ain’t got that swing)!” – the immortal words by Irving Mills.

The fact of the matter is that you simply cannot neglect the swing feel.

Jazz music is all about swing.

You absolutely need to develop a wonderful jazz swing to speak the language of jazz.

I recommend listening to great jazz players to get this wonderful feel.

Emily Remler was a fantastic jazz guitarist (she was renowned for her swing feel!).

Listen to her play “Blues for Herb” on YouTube below:

You will notice that she’s got an outstanding swing feel.

You need to develop that “feel” and work on your swing.

Jazz guitar is all about making your guitar sing and swing!

Listening to great jazz is the first step.

The second step would be practising slowly, and working meticulously on playing in a very relaxed fashion with that cool sound that swings!

Clocks time and calendar

Step 6: Have a structured practice routine

Having a structured practice routine is really the key to getting great at playing jazz.

We all have limited time, and how we use our time is the key to achieving our goals.

When you practice, you should have a goal.

Ideally, you will have a short plan for each and every practice session.

By focusing to get the absolute best out of the time that is available, you will become a success.

You should ideally include multiple areas of discipline in your structured routine.

We should practice technique, lines and licks, chords, rhythm, and also include time for jazz repertoire as well as jamming!

It is also wise to mix your practice up between a strict regiment type session and a more free session.

Also include time to listen to great jazz players.

By listening to great jazz players, you will develop your ear and become a better jazz musician yourself!

Having a plan will set you apart and help you achieve your goals!

saxophone and jazz guitarist performing

Step 7: Learn jazz form and structure

Jazz is all about form and structure.

Playing through a jazz standard and not losing your place in the score is paramount to your jazz guitar playing success!

Great jazz players have a cognitive encyclopaedia of jazz forms and structures.

Learning famous jazz structures such as the blues, and classic jazz standards are an absolute must.

Here is a list of 20 jazz standards that every jazz guitarist ought to know:

1. All The Things You Are
2. Autumn Leaves
3. Cherokee
4. Fly Me To The Moon
5. Have You Met Miss Jones
6. How High The Moon
7. I Love You
8. I’m Old Fashioned
9. Just Friends
10. Misty
11. My Funny Valentine
12. On Green Dolphin Street
13. Stella By Starlight
14. So What
15. Take The A Train
16. The Girl From Ipanema
17. There Will Never Be Another You
18. Giant Steps
19. Blue in Green
20. Lush Life

Learning how to play jazz standards will take lots of time.

As a jazz guitarist, you should analyse the chord progressions and understand the harmonies. Try to understand the harmonic progressions and why one particular chord moves to another etc…

Analyse the form of the standard in question.

Memorise the standard throughout multiple keys.

I would also recommend getting to know the lyrics in order to understand the meaning of the song more intimately.

So to give yourself the edge, do not neglect this all-important area of form and structure.

Spend time getting to know the most important jazz standards inside out!

Master the rules

Step 8: You first have to master the rules to break the rules!

To become great at playing jazz, you first need to master the rules of jazz.

That means you have to take the time to learn chords across the entire neck of the guitar, all the major modes, all the harmonic minor modes and all the melodic minor modes.

You should also have a firm grasp of a large variety of pentatonic scales.

In addition to all this, you need a really good repertoire of lines and licks, and a solid understanding of how to use them over a variety of jazz standards.

You also need to know how to swing and play through structure and form!

As you can see, there is a lot of ground work to do!

Once you have completed the important foundations of playing jazz, then you can look forward to freedom.

Then you can look forward to breaking the rules!

Then you can look forward to playing just ‘using your ears’.

You cannot be a master of the instrument without first being an excellent student.

You need to be willing to do whatever it takes to learn the tools of the trade in order to obtain freedom!

Once you are free and your knowledge of the instrument and jazz is intuitive, then you can let go and just improvise.

Then you can break the rules and make your jazz guitar dreams come true!

Never give up

Step 9: Success comes to those who do not give up!

Becoming successful has a lot more to do with resilience than pure talent.

Those who (eventually) achieve greatness, are those who do not give up.

If you really want learn how to play jazz guitar to a high standard, then you need to follow the recommendations in this article and put it into practice (over an extended period of time).

Most people are able to follow a solid practice schedule for a year or two.

Practising for a long period of time such as 3 to 7 years is however, outside of most people’s domain (because human nature usually gives up!).

Breakthroughs come to those who persevere for the long term!

In order to understand the art of playing jazz, you need to give things lots of time and be prepared to have plenty of failures along the way.

The greatest jazz musicians were once failures.

In fact, Charlie Parker had a symbol thrown at him during his teens by Jo Jones for messing up on stage.

He responded with confidence and vigour and said “I’ll be back!” as he left the club.

Charlie Parker then practiced and practiced and practiced some more.

He practised and persevered until he mastered the art of jazz improvisation!

The pattern is quite evident for everyone to see.

First you fail at playing jazz, by trying to play without being truly ready (this is actually an important step!).

Then you return back to your practice room and practice a heck of a lot.

Eventually, you succeed and become successful!

That ladies and gentlemen, is the path to becoming a successful jazz guitarist!

Believe in yourself like Superman

Step 10: Believe you can and you will succeed!

If you really want to succeed at playing jazz guitar, you need to believe in yourself.

By believing that you can achieve your musical dreams, you call the things that are not as if they were.

In other words, you make your future success a reality today.

The future is generally unknown, but you can influence the future.

If you believe that you can learn and master jazz guitar, then you will make much more effort during your private practice time!

Remember that faith and action goes hand-in-hand.

If you believe in your jazz guitar future, then you will practice your II V I licks.

If you believe in your jazz guitar success, then you will memorise a large library of chords that you can call upon at will when needed!

If you truly believe, then you will devour Pat Martino’s Linear Expressions and get to know the lines inside out!

Basically, you will do whatever it takes to make it happen!

I leave you with an important thought:

If you struggle to believe in yourself, and you feel that you cannot succeed get someone to believe in you!

A great guitar coach can help you achieve your goals!

Believing in yourself and your abilities is not a natural process for everyone.

You may think that you are not talented.

I guarantee you that you are!

All you need is excellent jazz guitar education and a willingness to put in the time and effort required to become a success.

So, if you need help in the “psychology-of-playing-department”, get in touch and we will do our best to help you succeed!

Remember you are a success busy happening!

Go and make your boldest dreams a reality!

Stefan Joubert
Master guitar teacher and player Stefan Joubert is currently the head guitar teacher of the London Guitar Institute. He cordially invites all guitar lovers from absolute beginner to advanced to come and learn how to play the guitar with him!
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Stefan Joubert
Master guitar teacher and player Stefan Joubert is currently the head guitar teacher of the London Guitar Institute. He cordially invites all guitar lovers from absolute beginner to advanced to come and learn how to play the guitar with him!

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