In this video, I will go over 5 things that were game-changing for how I learned Jazz so that you can use those as well.
When you are in the process of learning something, like playing Jazz, then there is a part that is just hard work for a long time, and then there are moments that really change the way you think about something and help you progress a lot faster by practicing in the right way.
#1 Think Ahead
When I started playing Jazz, I spent months practicing before I finally could play a solo on 2 Jazz Standards. I chose to start with Stella By Starlight and There Is No Greater Love, and both of those are pretty horrible choices for a beginner with way too many chords and complicated progressions, but luckily I was pretty stubborn so I just kept going until I could make my way through the song.
This was years before mobile phones when Grunge was still hip, so there are no videos, you will have to settle for a dramatic re-enactment
At this point in time, I was barely able to improvise over the chords, and I had to work hard to find something to play on each of the chords which is what I focused on, and that had a very bad effect on how the solos sounded.
Phrases didn’t really connect or have a longer story to it.
This actually remained a problem for quite a long time. I did not find a way to fix it until more than a year later when I was taught to play changes so that you were thinking of where you need to go, what target note to play towards. This way of thinking made the solos have a much more natural flow and made the melodies a lot stronger.
And that is something that is very important with most things in music: Think Ahead, make sure you are ahead of what you are playing. So play towards target notes, see the voice-leading taking you to the next chord, or learn to read ahead if you are sight-reading.
It will make your life easier and make you sound better, especially in terms of soloing if you combine it with the next tip.
I have a video on how I apply this to playing chord changes that you can check out here:
#2 Arpeggios and Scales – The Right Way
While I was studying in Copenhagen and playing Jazz Standards in the streets, I also had the luck to go to a week-long Barry Harris workshop in The Hague, and one of the things that I took away from that is also a cornerstone in how I teach and one thing that is really overlooked in learning Jazz on the guitar.
Usually, when we think about arpeggios, these position boxes show all the notes of a m7 arpeggio in a given position. This way of learning them is good for being able to see the notes on the fretboard, but it almost completely fails at helping you learn how to incorporate them into your playing, and there is a much better way to practice them.
The exercise that Barry told me to practice, was to play all the arpeggios in the scale, not as separate boxes that don’t naturally connect to the rest of what you use when you play.
Most of the time, the chords will change, but the scale stays the same and when you make lines, you are not only using arpeggios all the time, so having the arpeggio placed in the context of the scale will make a lot more sense.
Working on this exercise also gives you something that is much closer to the way arpeggios are used typically used in Bop-inspired lines, which is not often using several octaves of one arpeggio, but mostly just one-octave melodies in the middle of a line.
My most viewed video on the channel digs into this and how you use it to make some great bebop-inspired lines, and last tip in this video is probably the advice that I give the most as an answer online.
You can check out the video on practicing arpeggios and making lines here:
#3 Keep it Simple
— Play a solo then stop and start talking?
It is actually pretty simple, and you don’t want to make it too complicated. In a way, I was lucky that I could read sheet music because of my classical lessons, because it helped me figure out some things from reading transcriptions that I would have had a much harder time learning by ear.
One of the things that really fascinated me when I first started to listen to Charlie Parker was how the solo would sound different from moment to moment. This was very different from what I was used to with most of the blues and rock solos that I was listening to where most of the time everything stayed in one scale across the chords not really playing melodies that were following the changes that closely.
That sounds complicated, but if you check out jazz solos then most of the time the way the phrases follow the changes is actually pretty simple. It is just about hitting the chord tones on the important notes of the melody and usually also somehow connected to the heavy beats, give or take a suspension or rhythmic variation.
In the beginning, playing simple and clear solos will help you really get that connection. And that may seem different from how you think about “complicated Jazz” with extensions, alterations, and upper-structure triads, but you want to hit those 3rds and 5ths and get that to make sense so that you later can choose to be vague and clear and use that in your solos.
So keep it simple and make sure you can hear the chords in your solo.
#4 Jazz Chords Done The Wrong Way
The people I checked out before getting into Jazz probably offered me a shortcut when it came to this. When you first start out learning chords on the guitar then everything is based on grips which is a practical and visual way to learn chords, but when it comes to playing Jazz harmony then that approach is not that useful. In Jazz, connecting the chords across the bar line with both melody and voice-leading is much more important. And you will realize that the chord voicings are something that you can change and mess around with. Something you can use creatively and get to fit together, turning them into beautiful music. This will open up your comping and your fretboard to a sea of possibilities and not just a few grips.
Before I got into Jazz I was checking out a lot of Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan and both of these have more of an open way to work with chords which include improvising with them and not playing the same voicings all the time, and in that respect, I already thought of chords as something you could change and move around which in hindsight made the transition to Jazz comping a lot easier since that works exactly the same.
The last tip is probably the advice I give the most as an answer online and also the most effective way to learn Jazz.
What Was A Shortcut That Helped You?
Maybe you have another tip that really changed things for your playing or you don’t agree with any of this? then let me know about that in the comments
#5 The Thing That Ties It All Together
At the beginning of the video, I talked about how I spent a long time learning two songs that were actually a bit too difficult and that in hindsight being stubborn and powering through to get those two songs down, even if it sounded pretty badly was very useful. The same can certainly be said for building a repertoire while playing in the streets of Copenhagen. One thing that I see very often, especially now that there is so more jazz educational material available, is that it stays too superficial, you practice some licks and exercises but it does not become a part of your playing and maybe you don’t even really focus on learning songs. That is a huge mistake.
Think of it like this:
if you only learn a few new things but make sure to be able to use them on all the songs you know then you will sound better and play great solos on all those songs, which is pretty much everything you can play.
If you learn something that you can’t put to use on any songs then what are you really spending time on?
For me, learning those two songs and later spending a lot of time playing songs in the streets of Copenhagen was a huge help in getting to use everything and in that way really getting better, so that first song is worth really pushing through. Of course, if you want some help in getting through that then you can check out the Jazz Guitar Roadmap which is about exactly that process of really getting a song down.
Bonus Tip: A Bit Of Healthy Realism
With all the exercises that you are told to do and ways of learning very specific things then it can mean that you get a little detached from the actual music.
Just like playing songs is the way to learn to use what you practice then often it is a very good idea to also find the things to start practicing in the music that already exists.
And of course, the way you do that is by transcribing solos, that way you get insight into what arpeggios go where, how they sound and how to use them.
This also helps you not going down strange rabbit holes like using all the diatonic arpeggio on each chord and other strange time-consuming unrealistic goals that I have seen people waste time on.
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