3 Important Skills You Need To Work On Every Day

It is complicated to figure out what to practice, there are so many options and you have to watch out that you don’t just waste your time by moving from topic to topic without getting anywhere. But if you split your practice into these 3 essential skills, it is easier to get the balance right and make sure that you are getting something out of your practice.

This is especially important if you are teaching yourself and trying to find the right material online, because going down the wrong path and spending years on scales or chord inversions without putting them to use is a death sentence to your progress.

#1 Technique

With all 3 core skills, I’ll show you different ways to practice and develop them. This is important because you want to make your practice something you enjoy, if it is fun it helps you stay motivated. It is as important to keep going as it is to work on the right things. The 1st rule is that you need to develop and maintain your technique.

The Classic Practice Session

This one you know: Practice scales and exercises, of course, you do this with a metronome. This is not the only thing you want to practice, but it is a valid and efficient way to work on technique. For me, it is always important to make sure you keep this open-ended in some way. What I mean with that is that you want to change things up so that you keep playing new things not just stuff that you can play without thinking about it, and make sure that you don’t play exercises that you can’t turn into music.

Working like this, it is easy to focus on specific things you want to improve in your playing. It is also easy to measure progress with speed and accuracy, and you can design your own exercises, but it can get boring and you can “just run” the exercise in an unfocused brainless way. Another thing that can be a challenge is to get lost in permutations and being unable to insert what you are practicing into music.

This might seem like I am telling you that you should not practice like this, and I am not saying that at all. I practice exercises and it works very well for a lot of people, but you do need to evaluate if it is working for you, and it can be a good idea to change things up with one of the other approaches in this video, like this next one.

The Classical Practice Session

If you learn to play an instrument following the classical tradition you will often be exposed to a vast repertoire of music written to help you develop technical skills. I am talking about Etudes, when I had classical guitar lessons back in the 14th century, then I played lots of Carcassi, Vila Lobos, and Tarrega etudes.

In Jazz, there is almost a tradition for doing the same kind of thing in two ways. You have Bach and Kreutzer etudes, which can be a lot of fun. Of course, you can also treat a Bebop theme like Donna Lee as an Etude or write your own.

And the most common one is learning solos by ear and playing them along with the recording, something I enjoy doing quite a lot. This is probably the strongest etude tradition in Jazz, and learning solos you are also working on ear-training, another core skill that will come up again.

One thing that makes etudes great is that it is music, at least if it is good enough, and you are combining a lot of different things when learning it, so it is not focused on a single thing. Of course, that can also be a problem because it becomes harder to isolate something and get it into your own solos. On the other hand, if you make it a habit to make your own etudes then you are working on writing music and developing other skills. It is also a great opportunity to borrow from other styles and get inspired, like Bach, Kreutzer or I’ve talked about Steve Morse and John Petrucci exercises. Etudes only have a few examples, so as opposed to drowning in scale exercises you can end up with not getting enough, or the right, variations out of an etude.

But there is another strategy as well that involves vocabulary and repertoire. Let’s look at that.

Vocabulary On A Song

A different approach is to take the exercises or the topic that you want to work on and then apply it to a song. There are several ways to do this. If you are familiar with Barry Harris then you have probably seen how he practices scales around a song and also turns other things into exercises on top of songs, eventually turning it into an etude.

This can be a very useful way to develop your technique while also linking it to music, but probably works the best if you are also practicing scales and arpeggios at the same time.

My friend Pritesh Walia also works with vocabulary on songs as his main approach to practicing. What he does is to take a line and then explore how he can first move it through the progression to make it fit the song, and then gradually transition into soloing using that vocabulary through the song.

What is great about working like this is that you are really connecting your practice to the songs you want to play, but it can be difficult do this without also practicing exercises, and you also do need some theory and analysis skills to work through both Pritesh and Barry’s strategies.

#2 Ear-Training

The 2nd rule for your practice routine is that you always want to develop your ears. We need to constantly improve the connection between what we hear inside with what comes out on the instrument. That is one of the main parts of improvising solos.

I have other videos where I talk about some of the illusions that this leads to with people hoping to ignore learning songs, technique and a lot of other things because they believe that they hear melodies inside that are as brilliant as Charlie Parker. That is not how it works, it is all connected and you need to develop your ears alongside your other skills, and those skills will help you develop your ears and develop what you hear. People with perfect pitch can’t magically play amazing solos or perform music without being able to play the instrument or know the style.

There’s an APP now!

For me, sight singing was probably the strongest way to help me develop my ears in the beginning since it is a good way to hear something internally and then turn that into sound.


That is still useful to work on and you can rely on your sense of tonality to help you train it. The other way I’d suggest working on ear training would be apps that train your ability to hear notes and chords in a tonal context, because most Jazz music is tonal. Functional ear-trainer is a great free app to work with.

But I would not only work on ear-training like this, and the next bit might contain a few hot takes.

Not just exercises

Ear-training should not be like theory, it should be connected to the music you want to play. Just like it can be a problem to connect technical exercises to your actual playing then the ear-training should also connect to how you play.

There are 3 ways you should be using your ears when you practice:

  1. Repertoire, Learning Songs by ear. We need to get used to how chords and melody is actually being played in Jazz, and those habits are a huge part of the ear-training and something no app will teach you.
  2. Solos, learning solos by ear: because that is how you will learn to hear melodies and lines but also how you will learn to hear how they are phrased and how they sit in the groove, again something that isn’t in any apps.
  3. Hearing the harmony and the groove inside with no reference. Practicing with a metronome and no reference teaches you to hear the harmony inside, it teaches you to feel the form, and much more deeply connect with the music compared to putting on iReal and leaning on that.

Let me know what you think and how you practice!

Evaluate Your Practice

There is a massive mistake that most of us are making with practice, and it is fairly easy to fix, but I am also curious if you are planning to change something in your practice because of this video, so leave a comment on that! And of course, also if you think I missed something in this video!

It is important that you evaluate your progress and your playing, and one thing you absolutely have to do for that is to record yourself playing. You can’t tell how it sounds while you are playing, you need to only be listening. I use my phone for this and just make a video because that is super easy., it takes a bit of getting used to but it will boost your progress to get into that habit! That is also what I encourage students to do in my course “The Jazz Guitar Roadmap”,

and if they post videos in the community they also get the benefit of getting feedback from me. My ears are more experienced and I can help them figure out what to improve and I notice things they don’t.

If you want to learn how to play Jazz there is one thing that should be at the center of your practice, and it is shocking how often it isn’t

#3 Making Music

Would you expect to become good at tennis if you are only doing warm-ups, or become an amazing chef by only reading cookbooks. I don’t think you would.

That is why you should NEVER have a practice routine that is only exercises and theoretical activities. If you want to play Jazz then you should practice playing Jazz. I remember hearing a Scofield interview where he talked about how he practices and his wife would remark that he wasn’t really practicing he was just sitting there playing songs with a metronome.

But obviously, that is what works.

Why is this so important? The two other core skills are isolated, they are focused on specific parts of your playing but not about your playing as a whole. Being able to play Jazz means that you have to get all the skills to work together, your timing, technique, phrasing, creativity, and ears should all work together when you solo, but the only way to learn to do that is to play songs, play real music and put them to use. The looping II V I’s or single chords don’t teach you to tell a story in a solo or deal with a form. That is why you need real songs!

But what should you practice? A lot of this is just about playing the song, so put on a metronome, play the melody, and start soloing. And don’ forget, the same is true for comping so you also want to work on playing through songs comping and spending time practicing comping. As Peter Bernstein says:

That is how you develop some real strategies and get to the next level with what you can do with chords.

The Strategy

When you are learning songs then start with the melody, then learn the chords and when you  have that down then start soloing. That way you are building a foundation to lean on when you start improvising. If you have never gone through a song before and really learned it then the Roadmap is my take on how to help you through that process while teaching you how to make lines that really sound like Jazz. I have worked with more than 4000 students by now and it is a lot of fun to see people grow as they move through it.

But, of course, you also want to develop your comping and learn how to take the chord symbols and turn them into music that is where it gets really fun and starts to open up so that you are creating music not just trying to keep up with a list of chords. I talk about how to level up your skills with chords and comping in this video. It covers 3 exercises that you want to explore and that can develop your skills both with rhythm and chords! Check it out!

Learn Jazz Make Music

3 Basic Jazz Chord Exercises That Will Change Your Playing in 2024


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