I remember as a kid loving the sound of jazz and especially jazz guitar. I decided to attempt to learn on my own by learning some chords from a Micky Baker jazz method book and trying to copy some of the licks I heard on records or the radio. I even went as far as learning a few measures from a Joe Pass jazz solo guitar record called Virtuoso. This got me some cool sounds under my fingers and impressed a couple of friends, but the problem was that I had no clue as to what jazz (especially jazz guitar) really was and no real steps to take to help attain my goal. I probably should have found a good jazz guitar teacher and taken some lessons. Eventually I started studying with Ted Greene the jazz chord melody master and that really helped put things in perspective.
Two Simultaneous Approaches
- The "Big picture" which is ongoing. That is to keep learning chords, tunes, scales, patterns, technique, phrases, licks etc. This never stops no matter how long you've been playing.
- The on a "need to know basis". This is where you'll spend a lot of time applying the pertinent parts of your overall knowledge, to a specific song you are working on. Or acquiring the expertise you need to pull off certain techniques.
These two approaches feed off of each other because learning a tune will be the catalyst to furthering your skills in a practical application; and newly learned techniques will find a home in any number of songs you are learning. As your knowledge advances you'll revisit your repertoire again and again and apply new cool stuff you've been working out.
Learn A Song
This was the major component I was missing. As simple as it sounds now, no one told me that jazz was a specific song, usually 32 measures long (12 and 16 are pretty common too), with a specific set of chord changes, that simply repeated over and over. It was all so mysterious and wonderful but I had no idea.
The typical approach to a tune:
- short introduction,
- play the melody (head) once through,
- each instrumentalist solos (improvises) through the chord changes
- play the head once more
The improvisation section is referred to soloing through the form or soloing through a chorus, which means solo through the entire chord progression one or more times. The musicians take turns and there is no particular order of soloists, except the last two are most often the bassist then the drummer. Sometimes instead of an unaccompanied drum solo there will be "trading fours" where the drummer trades/alternates four measure solos with the other instrumentalists. After the drum solo it is usual to go back to the head, then end.
Learn The Chords
There are so many types of chords used in jazz. A starting place is to learn the 7th chords and then learn the variations that create 9ths, 11ths and 13ths which sound even jazzier.
Learn CAGED 7th shape forms of the following but not necessarily all at once. Remember need to know.
- Major 7th ex. Cmaj7
- Dominant 7th ex. C7
- Minor 7th ex. Cmi7
- Minor 7th flat 5 ex Cmi7b5
- Diminished 7th ex. Cdim7
Learn the chords that are necessary for the song. After you get that memorized, gradually incorporate other shapes and positions. Once you get some anchor chords in place you can modify them to become the 9ths, 11ths and 13ths when appropriate.
Learn The Melody
This is crucial to improvisation because in the beginning, soloing will be variations of the melody.
Learn The Scales
Learn your major scale patterns. There are five basic areas from which to play your scale forms out of based on what is known as the CAGED system of chords for the guitar. The "on a need to know" concept applies would be to determine which of the five areas are conducive to playing the melody and use that as an excuse to get that part of the neck learned. Scale Formulas
Scales are particularly important in jazz because unlike most blues and rock based music, jazz tends to have more than one key change within a song. A tune with four key changes would not be considered unusual.
Scales Most Often Used In Jazz
- Major Scale (Ionian Mode)
- Natural Minor (Aeolian Mode)
- Dorian Mode
- Mixolydian Mode
- Harmonic Minor
- Melodic Minor (ascending form)
- Diminished Scale
- Whole Tone Scale
Your First Songs
Most tunes used in jazz improvisation are either blues based, or are what are known as standards. Many standards are actually pop tunes from the earlier to the mid part of the 20th century. I'm going to discuss two main styles associated with jazz which are Swing and Latin and use Autumn Leaves (swing) and Blue Bossa (Latin) as examples. There are many other styles associated with jazz such as rock, fusion and funk for starters, but that's another article.
Two-Five-One Jazz Chord Progressions
The most common chord progression within a jazz song is what is known as the two-five-one. To describe this chord sequence it is common to use Roman numerals: ii-V-I in the major key and the iimi7b5-V-i in the minor key.
Many songs actually contain ii-V-I in more than key. Autumn leaves however, centers around the G major and E minor scale which have the sames notes since the two are relative to each other.
Examples from Autumn Leaves would be Ami7-D7-Gmaj7 in G major and F#mi7b5-B7-Emi7 in E minor. A useful thing to do is to memorize ii-V-I chord patterns on the guitar. The ones shown above are a good place to start and will constantly come in handy in most jazz songs. You will have to shift them around to change keys.
For the melody and improvisation, the G major scale (with a slight modification in a couple of spots), fits over the entire song. The G major scale also functions as the E minor scale.
Later on you will learn that there are opportunities to use some modal scales as well as diminished, altered dominant, melodic and harmonic minor. The cool thing is that you can get your feet wet soloing over the basic G major/E minor and sound great!
Blue Bossa Lesson For Jazz Guitar
Blue Bossa is a 16 measure progression with two keys to solo over, C minor and Db major.
Soloing Over The Form
- 8 measures - C minor - Cmi7-Fmi7-Dmi7b5-G7-Cmi7
- 4 measures - Db major - Ebmi7-Ab7-Dbmaj7
- 4 measures - C minor - Dmi7b5-G7-Cmi7-Dmi7b5-G7
ii-V-I in C minor = Dmi7b5-G7-Cmi7
ii-V-I in Db = Ebmi7-Ab7-Dbmaj7
This song is great to get used to having to change keys during a solo which happens more often than not in jazz. Later other modal scales as well as diminished, altered dominant, melodic and harmonic minor can be incorporated.
Classic Beginning Jazz Tunes
- Tune Up (swing)
- Tenor Madness (swing) jazz blues in the key of Bb.
- Black Orpheus) (Latin)
- Misty (Slow swing ballad)
- On Green Dolphin Street (Latin and swing)
- Take The A Train (swing)
- Night and Day (swing)
- Days of Wine and Roses (swing)
- Cantaloupe Island (Latin)
- Song For My Father (Latin)
- I've Got Rhythm/Oleo (Swing)