Tag Archives: jazz vocabulary guitar

The Real Reason You Are Not Getting Better At Jazz

You don’t want to only play other people’s licks in your solos. You want to improvise, that is the point of Jazz!

But at the same time, maybe your solos don’t sound right, maybe they don’t even sound like Jazz.

If are you already practicing scales and arpeggios, then this video is about the next thing you need to learn, which was probably also how people like Joe Pass and Wes learned to play Jazz.

Learning solos by ear is a part of this, but it’s not the only thing. For a really long time, when I was studying then I felt that I didn’t learn a lot from transcribing solos, and that made me think that it should not be a big priority for my study, but in hindsight, that was completely wrong and not even how I was actually studying, but I’ll get back to that.

The Answer Is Not A Scale!

Let’s start with something that is so often presented wrong in lessons and probably also the reason you are watching this video.

Try to imagine that you are listening to your favorite part of one of your favorite solos. I am sure you can see how the answer to understanding why that phrase in a solo sounds great is not just a scale name.

You can’t listen to a Wes Montgomery solo, stop somewhere in the middle and go “Dorian” and then your solos start sounding amazing.

That’s obviously not how it works, and that is because when you are playing music then you are not thinking about a scale or an arpeggio. When I am playing solo then I am thinking about phrases that fit the music, the other stuff is too many steps from being something I can play. So you want to learn phrases and be able to play phrases, not just notes and scales.

And this is where the food analogy is a good description of a Jazz phrase:

A Jazz phrase is like a recipe for something that tastes great.

The scale and arpeggios, chromatic phrases are all ingredients, but it is as important that you know how to turn them into the dish.

I am sure you can imagine that even if you have all the ingredients for a burger then mixing the stuff up in random order is not likely to yield a delicious meal.

Jazz phrases are the same, it is only a part of the picture to know what the ingredients are, and only studying that won’t really get you very far, because it is like just knowing a lot of stuff that can be ingredients in food but clearly, that doesn’t mean you can cook something great.

So you have to not only memorize the ingredients but also learn how you put them together, that is the core of the recipe.

Where Do You Learn The Recipe

And there are some skills needed to understand the recipe for a jazz lick.

As I mentioned, then for a very long time I felt like I wasn’t really learning anything from transcribing entire solos. In the beginning, I was doing that really a lot, because that was what people around me suggested that should do, and especially when I did not have a teacher that was the only thing I could do to learn something new. But I sort of stopped when that didn’t seem as useful as a lot of the other things that I was working on, stuff I had picked up from Barry Harris and the material I was given by my teachers. But maybe that was more how I saw it at the time and not really what was going on, because next to this I was also starting to build other skills that would help me get so much more out of what I transcribed.

In the beginning when I was learning solos then I could at most just repeat what I had transcribed and hopefully connect it to my own vocabulary. That already makes it useful, but it is also far from taking the material to the level where you can use it freely in your own playing. Let’s say that I transcribed this part of a phrase from Grant Green:

One thing is learning the solo by ear and playing it along with Grant. That is incredibly valuable for phrasing and timing and a lot of other things, but now I want to use it to become better at making my own Jazz lines. And I took this phrase because, as you will see, it is an example of something that you want to understand and recognize and learn how to use in your own lines. Grant Green is also a very clear example of someone who checked out Charlie Parker, which is also important, but I will return to that later.

You can look at this phrase at different levels.

#1 The Notes

On the surface: If I look at the notes being used over Gm7 then I have the G, in the bass, and then 5 more notes: Bb C D F, and A.

So if I have to attach a scale to it then it could be G Natural minor, or Aeolian, or it could be a Gm7 chord in F major.  In this case, the Gm7 is a part of a II V I in F major so it makes sense to go with that. Music is about context.

But just knowing the scale would NEVER help you play a line like this, there is a lot more going on.

#2 The Harmony and Arpeggios

It is a Gm7 chord, you can see a Dm triad here (highlight),

even if that isn’t really the best way to understand that. You can also see that he is playing the 5th on the 4& so as an anticipated beat 1,

and the Bb is on beat 3 so he is really connecting to the chord tones on the heavy beats.

The two notes before Bb are an enclosure, so he is playing towards the note on beat 3, making that a target note.


This is already getting you closer to being able to create something that will sound right and not just throw random notes at the chords, because there is a direction and some notes need to go in certain places.

You can probably also tell that this takes some experience with both analyzing and listening to the music, but that is definitely something you want to learn.

I said that it wasn’t really a Dm triad, so let’s look at that because that is really important here.

#3 Melody

I already pointed out that it is not enough to just look at what notes are being played, you need to understand how they work in the line to understand what is going on.

An example of this could be this excerpt of a George Benson line which is also on a Gm7 chord in a II V I in F major:

If you don’t realize that the C# and the F# are chromatic leading notes

then you are going to end up thinking that this is a very weird scale, probably with 9 or more notes. And you realize that by noticing where the C# and F# are going. (show resolutions in sheet music))

This is also happening in the Grant Green example:

The A and C are an enclosure pulling towards the Bb on beat 3.

You also want to notice that the melody moves down from D to Bb but the enclosure is placed so that it skips down to A and then moves up to C, so it is in the opposite direction.

In fact, Benson does the same thing, the melody is moving up from D to G, but the enclosure is moving down from A to F# (highlight)

So that is something to keep in mind if you are making lines with chromatic enclosures: If the melody moves up then try to let the enclosure move down and vice versa.

The Triad That Isn’t A Triad

Let’s demystify The Dm triad that isnt a Dm triad. You want to see this as a part of another melody: A Bbmaj7 Pivot Arpeggio.

So, a Pivot arpeggio is an arpeggio where instead of playing the ascending arpeggio like this:

then you play the first note and move the rest down an octave to create this beautiful melody with a large interval skip:

And this can be hard to recognize until you have transcribed a few solos and seen this happen often, but that is why you keep learning solos by ear and get more familiar with the language.

Analyzing Solos For Recipes

I never did an analysis like this on an entire solo, but I did do it every time I had a spot that I thought was really good, so that I could not only learn the lick but also learn the concept or the recipe. In many ways that is also what Barry Harris teaches, it is not only what to play but also how to put it together, how to turn it into music. That is why he invented concepts like pivot arpeggios and why he is such a valuable resource when you are trying to learn.

This also brings me back to my story about how I wasn’t transcribing complete solos a lot for some time because what I was still doing was figuring out all the “good bits” so I would have solos that I listened to and they would have parts that I liked and that I didn’t understand, but I wanted to have in my playing, those I kept going for, and that still makes me figure things out. Later I realized that my phrasing and swing feel really benefitted from learning solos by ear and then I got back into working on entire solos, which I still do regularly.

Learn Like The Masters = Learn From The Masters

Of course, learning the solos is only a part of it, another activity is as important when it comes to getting this into your playing, but first, I already mentioned how I hear Grant Green (and actually also George Benson) as coming straight from Charlie Parker when it comes to vocabulary. This is really just about recognizing parts of phrases and melodic techniques that are similar to Parker. You can also find examples here and there of Wes playing Parker licks.

To give you an example then check out this phrase from Wes Montgomery’s Solo on, The Parker F-Blues, Au Privave:

This sounded very familiar to me, and Wes probably got that from this part of  Parkers solo on Now’s The Time, which is essentially the same phrase at the same place in the form since both songs are 12-bar blues progressions in F.

Connecting all of this across songs and artists is really about listening to a lot of music, and listening more than once. Something that is often worthwhile is listening together with other people and talking about the music you are listening to. Hanging out can be as useful as a lesson!


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7 Guitar Skills That Pay Off Forever

Some skills are more difficult than just learning a new lick:

or a chord voicing,

and you want to keep working on and developing these skills because THEY will benefit your playing and progress forever. They are sort of the opposite of a quick win., but probably also a lot more important. In this video, I will go over 7 of those skills including one that I really suck at, but there is still hope. Some of these may also be unpopular opinions, but I am sure you guys will let me know in the comment section.

#1 Learning By Ear

When I started learning Jazz, I was told to learn songs by ear and transcribe solos pretty early on, and in hindsight, that was some of the best advice I ever had, even if it had a few funny side effects which I will get back to later.

Right now it is easy to get any information, everything is available as a PDF transcription and you can ask “got tabs for that” on any post on Instagram, Facebook or YouTube, but learning by ear is incredibly important for how well you play guitar.

When you learn songs by ear then you reinforce the connection between what you hear in your brain and what comes out on the instrument and while this is a pretty obvious advantage for learning to improvise and compose music then that connection is just as crucial if you are playing composed music.

If you are just reading the notes then that is what we call “typing” and you are not really making music just making sounds from a piece of paper.

The odd side-effect that I had by learning songs by ear was that I wasn’t really jamming with other people at the time and just learned songs that I liked from the albums I listened to, and It turned out that “I Heard You Cried Last Night”, “This Is No Laughing Matter” and “She’s Funny That Way” was not really songs that I ever got to play with anyone.

If you are completely new to learning by ear then it can seem difficult to get started, but don’t be afraid to ease into it and go learn songs that you know but never played, and it really is perfectly fine to start with the riffs from Sunshine Of You Love or Seven Nation Army and build from there instead of giving up on a 10 Coltrane solo.

#2 Analyze Your Own Playing And Progress

In my experience, the biggest problem with self-teaching, and this is true for students of any level, is ear training. Not only being able to hear notes and chords but really being able to hear how something is supposed to sound when it comes to all of the important aspects of music.

Keep in mind that Stevie Ray Vaughan uses pentatonic scales, but so does a lot of African folk music and a ton of heavy metal, and they all sound pretty different!

So there is a lot more to music than what notes or scale is used because you need:




to all come together and none of those are described by a scale.

If you are teaching yourself then you need to train yourself to hear what is wrong and figure out a way to improve on that. I am sure you can see how this is difficult to get right.

The way you do that is by recording yourself because It is impossible to listen and catch it all while you are also playing. Then you start analyzing what and how you play so that you can figure out how to get better. and This is something that no YouTube video, blog post or podcast can do for you, but it is an essential part of learning, and it will help you improve your playing forever. The fact that giving yourself feedback is almost impossible is actually also why I have included a community in my course to give students feedback on their playing, in a way that is to let them borrow my ears, get some feedback and help focus their work while going through the course.

So record yourself and listen for what needs work and focus on improving that, and train your ears to hear good rhythm and good phrasing as well as notes and chords.

#3 Fretboard Knowledge

Building an overview of the fretboard so that you are free to move around like Joe Pass does here and play lines over any chord on any part of the neck is of course the goal,

but it is something that you want to build over time. In fact, I found that it works better to start with one place of the neck and make sure that you can make music there and then expand that.

This may be a controversial opinion, but I don’t think I have seen anyone really get a lot out of trying to work on fretboard knowledge without also using this in music. When I see students improve this aspect of their playing then it seems to be mostly by learning a song in one position and then gradually adding the surrounding positions to have an overview of that part of the neck.

The types of exercises that work beyond that seem to be exercises that help you find things in a context on the guitar, so playing diatonic triads or arpeggios across the neck or on a string set, but you need to pair it with using this material to really integrate it into how you already play and actually learn something.

#4 Knowing Music Theory

This is possibly a hot take when it comes to guitar skills, but in general, most people get a lot out of learning some theory so that they can understand the music that they play and what they are doing when they improvise. It really does tend to make them better musicians in the long run.

The trick with theory is that you need to get it away from being just theory for it to be useful, so if you want to understand harmony then you want to know songs that use that harmony, if you want to use the altered scale then know how solos sound that uses the altered scale.

For a lot of us, certainly, for me, it is pretty easy to learn the theory part, but it takes a lot more work to also connect it to your ear and in that way get it to the point where you can actually use it, but that is worth working on and can open of for amazing things in your playing.

#5 Reading Music

Not sure if this is another unpopular opinion, but reading music is really good for learning to play an instrument, and maybe the most important part of that is something that nobody ever talks about.

On guitar then most internet stuff will include tabs and diagrams which are ways of writing down what to play in a very direct and easy-digestible way. They do however leave a lot of information out and some of the advantages to reading sheet music that are not included in tabs and diagrams are:

The Rhythm, a bunch of numbers doesn’t give you the rhythm and that is at least 50% of the music most of the time.

How it sounds in the context and where the notes are going, the number describing the root of the key looks just like the number that is the most dissonant chromatic note over a chord.

Music Notation is more general so if you can read, then you have access to great music that is written for violin, saxophone, piano etc.

Most of this is obvious, but just to give you a superficial example of hearing things in the context, here are the tabs of a II V I lick. From looking at this then it is not immediately obvious that the V chord is going to be sounding out of the key, but if you add the sheet music you can see how suddenly there are a lot of notes in there that are not in the key so you expect those to sound further away.

In fact, if you train reading and especially singing from sheet music, then you are working on hearing what is written, and THAT helps you hear music and know what it is you hear, which is a great shortcut to playing what you hear.

Let’s talk about a skill that I do NOT master….

#6 Setting Up A Guitar

I actually tried to learn how to set up a guitar and become less dependent on others, but I ran into a problem that needed help solving.

The reason that I suck at this is that I am lucky and unlucky to be surrounded by people who are incredible at doing setups and I was always more interested in playing a guitar than setting it up. I actually bought my Yamaha SG1000 as a project to practice setting up guitars.

Most guitars are made of wood, which sort of means that they are still alive and change over time. So the instrument changes with temperature and humidity and you need to set them up so that they play well and stay in tune. This becomes especially relevant when you start traveling with a guitar.

With my SG1000 project, the problem that I ran into was that the bridge had bowed inwards over time and needed to be replaced, That was more than I could figure out myself, see the part of the video on self-teaching, so I just kept trying to get the guitar in tune, with the right action but kept running into problems because the bridge and the neck don’t curve the same way.

This is something that I do plan to pick up again though since it sucks to be stuck in a city in another country with a guitar that doesn’t play as easily as it did at home, maybe I will keep you up to date along the way on that.

#7 Playing With Other People

The only reason that I managed to start playing Jazz at 23 and get into a conservatory two years later is that I focused on playing with other people. I love making music with others, that is by far what I find the most important about making music and what I enjoy doing the most. Spending hours every day during the summer playing Jazz standards in the street really made that all come together and got me to the level I needed to get into music school.

Playing music with others often boosts progress massively when you are learning an instrument for 3 main reasons:




The skill you want to develop here is to be able to communicate, which really means that while you are playing, you need to be able to listen to the rest of the ensemble and decide if you want to follow or lead something in the music and know how to get that across while you are playing. If you just start playing and close your ears to what is happening around you then you will not be called again.

The reason that this will pay off forever is pretty simple, playing with other people is fun and incredibly motivating for you to keep practicing and explore new things, and if you want to be able to use what you practice then you need to internalize it so that you can play like that and still pay attention to the band. In the end, you can jam a standard with a band 100s of times more than what you can practice it, and that will make a huge difference to your development.

So try to work on becoming great to play with by being flexible when you play with others and listening to what they are doing, regardless of how your level of ear training is you will only hear something if your ears are open in the first place.

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