Don’t Start With The Realbook
This is NOT how you learn a new jazz standard. Not if you really want it to be a part of your repertoire so that you don’t have to re-learn or read every time you are asked to play it.
In this video, I’ll show you how to internalize a song and also cover 3 mistakes that so many of us are guilty of, and that ALWAYS come back to haunt us later.
Step #1: Technology Is Your Enemy (And Also Your Friend)
It is in fact technology that is getting in the way, and when you hear that you are probably looking at your phone or iPad and thinking “These things are terrible!” But actually, this was a problem before the internet as well, and the technology that got in the way was printing (b-roll printing books). Of course, I don’t want to sound like some sort of religious cult leader who wants to ban books, but you are trying to learn a song and that is a piece of music that people listen to, so maybe you want to start with listening to the song. You shouldn’t immediately try to transcribe it or figure out the chords, just listen to it. And ironically, here the fact that you have access to the internet is a HUGE advantage because you can go on Spotify or YouTube to find 100s of versions of the song and then find a few that you like and focus on them.
Listen to the songs a lot, it is fairly low effort and it will make it 100x easier once you try to actually play the song. Just be patient and keep listening so that you get it into your ear and into your system. You don’t want to start by trying to listen with your eyes. It is also important that you don’t use backing tracks, Lazy ears are a real problem, but I will explain why later
A short side note here is, choosing songs. Finding a standard that is easy to learn can be difficult, and you don’t go from a 12-bar blues to Autumn Leaves to Giant Steps. There is a way to be more strategic and make it easier to build a repertoire so make sure that you don’t start with very difficult songs!
and you can better learn 3 easy songs than break your neck on one impossible song, I am sure that is obvious, maybe suggest good songs to start with in the comments, we can never have enough good songs to learn!
Mistake #1 Listen to the song (and listen some more)
So the first big mistake is..not listening to the song to learn it, but there are a few other mistakes and bad habits to get rid of!
Step #2: A Song Is Not A Bunch Of Chords
To me, iReal is quickly becoming the worst way to see a song. On a very basic level: If you think of Happy Birthday then you hear the melody (play) you are not thinking of this:
and the same should be true for Autumn Leaves,
and I am saying this even if I think it is a very useful app on gigs and for a lot of other things.
So my point is that once you have listened to recordings of the song, then you want to start by learning the melody, and mainly that is because the melody is the strongest part of the song. The chords are there to support the melody, not the other way around, and you will also see how people use different chords for the songs, but they don’t mess with the melody.
Another thing that the melody is great for is as a guide to the form. When you are improvising then you hear the melody internally, you are not counting bars like a robot … or have some sort of internal Google Maps navigation. Instead, you are using the melody as a way of knowing where you are.
Learning By Ear – Part 1
Jazz Standards are usually in a key, and you can use the last note of the melody to figure out what the key is.
That makes it easier to learn the melody because you can rely on a position on the neck for that scale and use that while figuring out the melody. If you already listened a lot to the melody then it won’t be too difficult to figure it out going phrase by phrase.
Of course, Jazz standards are often interpreted by the artist, so it can be useful to check it out from people who are not changing the melody too much.
If you take the song “The Way You Look Tonight” then you have a clear version from Frank Sinatra here:
And learning the melody from Sonny Rollins is a lot further away from the original melody:
Don’t think that I am saying Rollins is doing something wrong, he is supposed to interpret the melody, my point is that when you are learning the song it is practical to learn a version that is close to how it was written, not something that is almost a different song. When I had lessons with Peter Nieuwerf, he always suggested checking out songs from Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and Ella Fitzgerald,
which is really good advice, and their take on the song is always great to check out simply because they are amazing artists!
Step #3: But You Do Need Chords
Now that you know the melody then it makes sense to start adding the harmony. For now, you can use sheet music for the chords, iReal, Realbook, or just Google them. I will talk a bit about figuring chords out by ear later. If you are new to learning songs then start by just playing through the progression with chords on the heavy beats and when the chords change. You can even sing the melody to get an idea about how that sounds against the chords. The main thing is just to start hearing the harmony in time, don’t use a backing track for this, I will explain why later in the video.
Mistake #2 Don’t Memorize Rows of Chords!
The difficult part of this is probably to memorize the chords, and this is where the #2 mistake becomes important: You Need to think in blocks of chords.
Any Jazz standard will use a lot of the same progressions and you want to be able to think about groups of chords, not single chords. Think about it in terms of language. If you have to memorize a random sentence like: “Dutch Bread Truly Sucks“, then that is pretty easy compared to memorizing all the letters in that sentence: dutchbreadtrulysucks without thinking of the words that they form. And this is much more powerful than you might think. If you know a few songs and think like this then I can teach you the progression of Jobim’s So Danco Samba in one sentence: It’s an AABA song with an A-train A-part and an Ellington Bridge.
If you know what that means then you can play the song. Of course, we don’t have descriptions for all 8-bar progressions, but chunking together the chords makes it a lot easier, and if you ever wondered why it makes sense to learn understand the form, and learn theory and analysis then here’s your proof.
Learning By Ear – Part 2
I get asked about figuring chords by ear fairly often, but very often it also sounds like people expect to get some trick so that they can hear changes without any effort. Which is not really how it works, certainly not for me. I sometimes get the impression that people are listening to the song for the first time and say:
“I am already in the 2nd A and I didn’t figure out any chords yet!”
Don’t get me wrong, it does get a lot easier the more you do it and the more songs you have done and you know, but the way to start is probably to have the two outer layers that are the easiest to figure out: The Melody, which you already know, and then the bassline.
I used to always write out the melody and then transcribe the bassline under it as you see here.
From there you can use that to figure out what chord is being played, and again theory helps you narrow it down and then you listen for what sounds right. As I already mentioned, then there are a lot of common building blocks and you get more and more used to hearing those and then you can hear several chords at the same time because you have heard them 1000s of times before, but the first time it takes more effort. And even if you do this and have some holes in there, then don’t worry about that. You have to start somewhere.
The Bonus with Chords (Which Is Sometimes A Bit Overrated)
If you have the chord vocabulary and fretboard overview then it can be very useful to also try to play the song as a chord melody arrangement. it is a great way to really connect the harmony and the melody and it will also often reveal if you have places where the two don’t really work together. Of course, doing this is also quite demanding technically, and if you are not used to it then don’t worry about it. Sometimes chord melody is made more important than it should be, especially by beginners who can better develop other skills first.
Step #4 Start Soloing
You are pretty much there with learning the song now, you know the melody and the chords by heart, so now you can start working on improvising. You are ready to improvise if you can do these two things: Play the melody in time by heart, and play the chords in time by heart. That is what you want to aim for.
Mistake #3 Lazy Ears!
In the beginning, you just want to ease into it, so turn on a metronome and first play the melody, maybe also a chorus of chords. This is just to hear the song and help you keep track of where you are internally. At this stage, it is incredibly important that you don’t use a backing track because you want to get the song into your system and be forced to hear the melody and the harmony inside. With a backing track, then that is too easy and you get lazy with all the important things like REALLY hearing the harmony, and feeling the time and the form. When you are practicing a song, you want to work on it so that you are building a strong foundation to lean on once you play with others, and a backing track is too easy it makes your inner ear lazy because the track will tell you where you are and what the chord sounds like. You can test this by playing a new song only with a backing track and then solo with just a metronome, then take another new song and switch those two around, it will quickly be very clear.
Getting The Right Start With Jazz Guitar
There are some things I wish I could do better in learning Jazz if I had to do it again!
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