Step 1: Listen to Jazz
This may seem like an obvious first step, but it honestly took me several years to realize that one of the reasons I didn’t understand the Jazz language was that I wasn’t listening to Jazz. Jazz is an improvisatory art form at it’s core, and unlike the rock and roll records I grew up with that are recorded in pieces over several weeks or months and each part is carefully crafted and orchestrated in the studio, Jazz recordings are usually live or one or two takes per song each in order to capture the live moment of improvisation.
In order to understand jazz phrasing, style, and harmonic and melodic languages, we need to listen to Jazz, rather than just try to study it. Here are 5 great jazz guitar records to get you started, listen and study these records to understand the sound and role of the guitar in Jazz so you’ll have a strong foundation to get started with.
Wes Montgomery - Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery (1960) Pat Metheny -Bright Size Life (1976)
Charlie Christian -Genius of the Electric Guitar (1939-1941)
Joe Pass -Virtuoso Vol.1 (1973)
Jim Hall- Live! (1975)
It’s ok if you have no idea what’s going on musically at this point. You just want to get the sound of jazz in your ears enough to understand its basic characteristics. Jazz will first sound like nothing you’ve ever heard before because of the rich harmonic vocabulary, but with some time it will start to make more and more sense.
Step 2 - Learn Your 7th Chords (and Arpeggios)
One of the biggest differences between the Jazz harmonic vocabulary and that of rock and pop music, is that a lot of jazz music tends to shift quickly between key centers, while rock and roll and pop music tends to be mostly diatonic (all the notes and chords belong to the same key). Therefore it is very important to pay attention to the chord type you are playing over. Most guitar players’ approach to improvisation in pop and rock music is to find a scale that “works" over a series of chords (usually a 7 note major or minor scale or 5 note pentatonic scale) and use that across the entire progression. This sadly does not work well in Jazz because of this frequent harmonic movement. It is vital therefore to creating the sound of each chord played in your solos, and to do that we need to understand how to create an Arpeggio, or the sound of each note of the chord played successively rather than together. (Think of arpeggios as “melted chords” where the notes are played separately and chords as “frozen arpeggios”)
Most Jazz harmony comes from 7th chords (Root, 3rd, 5th and 7th) rather than three note triads (Root, 3rd, 5th). there are five types of 7th chords you want to start learning how to play and what notes belong to each chord.
Major 7 (Ma7) - R, 3rd, 5th 7th
Dominant 7th (7) - R, 3rd, 5th, b7th
Minor 7th (Mi7) - R, b3rd, 5th, b7th
Half-Diminished 7th (Mi7b5) - R, b3rd, b5th, b7th
Diminished 7th (o7) - R, b3rd, b5th, bb7
A Few Practice Tips...
Practice these arpeggios until you can hear the differences between each of the chords. It’s also very important to move these into other keys and play each arpeggio in all 12 keys. Once you have mastered these first arpeggio shapes, we are ready to start improvising using these new sounds, which we will discuss in the next lesson. Remember that learning jazz is a long but rewarding process, so keep at it and with each step you will better understand how to play and improvise in this incredible style of music!