Learning Jazz songs is incredibly important, I am sure you have heard me and many others say that again and again. But it can also be unbelievably difficult in the beginning, I spent a long time isolated from the world, practicing for hours every day to learn the first two Jazz standards. And that was largely because I had chosen songs that were much too difficult for a beginner and I just didn’t know any better.
But it is actually hard to figure out exactly what songs will be the good for you to start with, so I thought it might be useful to compare 5 different songs that are all easy so that you have a better way to figure out what might be useful for you to learn, and even if you already know some songs then these could be great to add to your repertoire. As you will see, I actually left out some very common songs from this video, but I will explain why that is along the way, and there is another thing that is also surprising about this list.
Let’s start with one of the easiest songs to solo over.
Pent Up House
If you look at the sheet music for this Sonny Rollins classic then the theme and the chords in the theme might look incredibly complicated, but the solo form is actually very simple. You could look at the 16-bar form as an AABA,
but it doesn’t really feel like that to me, probably because it is a short form. It is really just a II V I in G major and the two other closely related II Vs.
So common progressions that you may already have practiced and otherwise you can actually start learning them on this song.
It is a great way to work on some basic Jazz progressions in a song, and I have seen a lot of students get more confident improvising over changes learning this song. What is great about the theme being a bit more complicated is that it also really teaches you some jazz melody and jazz rhythm which is very useful for your phrasing and vocabulary.
To compare the songs then I made this chart to have an overview of them. I am going to keep it simple with the grades so it is either good or bad, but don’t over-interpret that, it is also a bit of an experiment for this video.
For this song then the progression is good, it is pretty simple with the number of scales and keys you need. The melody is difficult, even if there is an advantage to that as well. It is not really a common form that will help you learn other songs, and the tempo is often a bit high, but you can of course play it slower.
Let’s see how it stacks up against the next song, one thing that I actually think is very important is that you work on songs that help you learn other songs, but I will explain that along the way as well!
This song is a great example of an AABA form,
and since it is a big band composition from the Ellington songbook then it is also a good melody for learning some phrasing and rhythm. If you are starting out playing Jazz then that aspect is maybe a bit overlooked since we tend to be very busy keeping track of the notes and the chords, but actually learning melodies like this is very useful for your soloing as well since you will learn to hear melodies with interesting rhythms, and also how to play simpler phrases and melodies with a strong rhythm.
The advantage to AABA forms is that you really only need to learn 16 bars to know the whole song: an 8-bar A-part and an 8-bar B-part.
In that respect, the amount of chords in this song is not higher than “Pent Up House.” The Bridge is a rhythm bridge, essentially just a dominant chain ending on the dominant of the key. This is also a common bridge and will help you learn rhythm changes which of course is stuff you need for a lot of other songs,
so in that way, this is also a very practical song to work on.
Perdido scores really well, maybe only the tempo is often a bit tricky since the theme doesn’t sound that great if it is too slow. That is going to be hard to beat.
How Not To Learn Songs
The way I learned the first few standards were not very smooth, and the first songs that I learned are not on this list. This was when I had just started playing Jazz, and I didn’t really know what songs to learn, but I had a realbook and a few Jazz CDs. One of the songs that I heard that I really liked was Stella By Starlight, which was a horrible choice for a song since it has an unclear form, very complicated harmony, and uses a LOT of scales. Everything you don’t want in the first song you set out to learn. The other song I worked on was There Is No Greater Love which was not as complicated but certainly also not easy.
The result was that I spent weeks and weeks practicing two songs for hours every day using brute force to learn them, I just kept on playing until they stuck, which is not the way to do this.
I am pretty sure this list would have been super useful, but at the same time, let me know if you have a suggestion for a good song that is not in this video!
I suspect you already know this one since there are quite a few great recordings of this by guitarists like Barney Kessel, Wes Montgomery, and Joe Pass, and it is one of the nicest medium swing tunes to play! It is also another Ellington song, though this time written by Billy Strayhorn.
This song is usually played medium, and the chord progressions are mostly II V’s with a few of them resolving to one chord.
The progression does move around quite a lot with the II V’s covering quite a few keys and not always moving as predictable II V I progressions.
The form is AABA,
and the bridge is (again) a common progression, namely what is often referred to as an Ellington bridge,
which you will find in a LOT of songs like Honeysuckle Rose, Just Squeeze me or So Danco Samba, so clearly learning this song will give you an advantage with a LOT of other songs.
For the score, the chord progression is good, but there are a bit many scales involved. The melody is easy and the form is not only easy but will also help you learn other songs.
Also a pretty good score! The next song is actually a Bebop theme, but I guess you could also call Pent Up House a Bebop theme?
Start with the Major Key
First I should probably talk about why I am leaving out very common songs like Autumn Leaves, Blue Bossa, and So What, since they are obviously very common and very famous songs.
This is pretty important because you want to learn songs that help you learn other songs and gradually build skills, and you also don’t want to get stuck just worrying about scales.
In my experience, when teaching beginning students then internalizing a lot of different scales is pretty difficult, maybe that is also personal experience? So sticking to major scales can be very practical. This also fits with how long I had to spend learning Stella By Starlight and There Is No Greater Love. That doesn’t mean that you can’t use songs in minor keys like these, but it does introduce some complexity, already with the basic minor II V I cadence you end up using 2 or 3 different types of scales which is quite a lot.
Another factor with this is also what songs you are already familiar with, and if the student already knows and has listened to Autumn Leaves or maybe learned the theme, then a song like that can be fine, but if you are figuring this out for yourself then it is worth keeping in mind how complicated the harmony is in the beginning and trying to keep it simple. I guess I could make a follow-up video at some point including minor songs?
When it comes to modal songs like So What or Cantaloupe Island then they are more difficult to hear, and working on those there are a lot of things you are not developing because the chord progressions don’t flow like the other Jazz standards and you are not learning to deal with chord progressions that you will encounter in other songs. Again, there can be exceptions for a choice like that as well, but if you want to get better at playing bop-inspired solos then the modal stuff is not where you want to begin, even if I do think you need to know some of those as well of course.
Afternoon In Paris
This may be the least famous song on the list, but this song is great for working on your II V I progressionsin different keys.
It was written by John Lewis who is probably most known for being a part of the Modern Jazz Quartet. The motivic melody moves through a few keys and it is much slower than most other bop themes, so it can also be a good way to start with that type of melody.
Again the form is an AABA, probably because these are often a little simpler than a lot of the ABAC songs think of There Will Never Be Another You or Donna Lee.
The chords are all II V Is, though there are quite a few keys involved in this one and even some chromatic II V movement.
For this song, pretty much all the chord progressions are II V Is, but there are quite a few scales, and the theme is maybe a bit more complicated than the rest.
So this is not the highest score, but keep in mind that this is still a very easy song.
Take The A-train
When I first wrote down the songs on this list, I chose them because I have used them in lessons. I never realized that they were in fact all compositions by Jazz artists, and I was also surprised that so many of them were associated with Ellington, but in a way that makes sense since it is really using Jazz music to teach Jazz.
The last song on the list is the song that I also use in my course: Take The A-train, so yet another Ellington-related song, but one that I have tested on several thousand students in the roadmap and in real lessons, and it is pretty solid first song!
Check it out here: Get an invitation for the Jazz Guitar Roadmap
Take The A-train is again an AABA form,
and here the A-part is a common progression that you will find in a lot of other songs, especially a lot of Bossanova tunes like So Danco Samba and Girl From Ipanema.
The progressions in the song are basic but strong, there are not a lot of scales needed to play it, and it works well at a slower tempo. The only thing that is maybe a bit tricky sometimes is the melody.
Of course, any of these 5 songs will serve well as a first song, or be easy to add to your repertoire if you are looking to find some easy songs. A few songs that I considered for this video but that didn’t make it were:
- Tune Up
- Lady Bird
- So Danco Samba.
I guess it is mostly about having the right balance between a useful melody and an easy chord progression, but I am, of course, curious if you would want to put other songs on this list, let me know about that in the comments!
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