10 Things Every Great Jazz Guitarist Knows

10 Things Every Great Jazz Guitarist Knows

10 Things Every Great Jazz Guitarist Knows

Be the next great jazz guitarist with these tips from guitar teacher Zachary A.

To quote the late Frank Zappa, “Jazz is not dead, it just smells funny”. Jazz may not be as big and popular as it once was but if you learn how to play jazz you will be set up to successfully play any genre of music. The great jazz musicians all have numerous things in common, things that set them apart from the crowd and make them legendary.

In this article, I will be going over ten of those most important things that anyone playing jazz guitar must know. Remember that as a jazz musician, and really any type of musician, you should be listening to as much music as possible. Listening to great performances really is vital for becoming a great performer yourself.

1. Timing is everything

Timing in music is imperative, and especially in jazz. Music itself is the manipulation of time. When you play music with people and you don’t have a good sense for time, the music you create will most likely be a jagged, clustered mess. The people you play with will not know what to play or when to play. Timing is everything.

2. Practice with an external time source

A good tip to obtain a little bit more of a jazzier feel to your music is to use a metronome or even a drum sequencer.  If  if the time signature fits, practice playing on the 2nd and 4th of the beat. The more you play with a metronome the better your time will be. It is that simple.

3. All jazz musicians have a great ear

The most common trait in every jazz musician is that they have an impeccable ear for music. Developing a musician’s ear, as it is referred to, takes time and lots of practice.

To help build a better ear for music there are numerous exercises that you can do. Training your ear can involve hearing intervals, lines, chord qualities and chord progressions, and learning all of this in every key, with the ability to decipher what change, what interval, what progression is in what key.

Jazz guitarists should also have a great ear while on the bandstand. It is imperative to listen to your band mates while on stage. The better your ear is on stage, the more people will want to play with you.

4. Take every opportunity for a session or gig

Take every opportunity for a session or a gig. Every time you play a session or gig it is a learning experience. Through these experiences be sure to take the opportunity to learn from other successful musicians. Always keep an open mind; I am sure that there is something you can learn from just about every musician out there.

At times it is easy to get stuck in a narcissistic mind set, trying to find your own solutions to your own problems. Having a handful of trustworthy musicians to go to when you get stuck can be very helpful when you’re studying music.

Another reason that it is important to take every session or gig you can is because you never know who you will run into at these events. It has been said that music is about being in the right place at the right time. For that luck to strike, you actually have to be out playing and engaging with other musicians. You never know which gig or session will be the one that could change your career.

5. Practice everyday

This is pretty self-explanatory. To be a great jazz guitarist, it takes practice – and lots of it. Practicing daily, even if it is just for an hour, is way more beneficial than practicing for 8 hours one day and not at all for the rest of the week.

6. Have an extensive amount of heads and changes memorized

All great jazz musicians have a back log of themes and heads memorized with the ability to recall them at any time. This knowledge of heads will be extremely beneficial when playing at a jam session or playing a gig.

When deciding on what to learn, I recommend start off by learning some of the more well known jazz standards. For example, “Autumn Leaves” is a well-known song which is played in the key of g minor.

Another well-known jazz standard that is essential to have in your repertoire is the song “Summertime”. A George Gershwin classic, the jazz version was made famous by John Coltrane and has since been covered by many other legendary musicians. Summertime utilizes the major and minor pentatonic scales. Learning this song will help you be a master at these scales.

A few more common jazz standards you should learn include “Cherokee“, “All the Things“, and “Stella by Starlight“. When learning these songs transpose them for all 12 keys for complete mastery.

7. Always go back to the fundamentals

Jazz is a complex genre, and it is always important to revert back to the fundamentals when learning jazz guitar.This means spending time reviewing the major and minor scales and practicing the pentatonic scales before breaking out in Frank Zappa’s solo in “Black Napkins“.

It is important to know a multitude of chord progressions and phrasings as well as the different forms these phrases can be arranged. Again, it is important to know all these phrases and chord progressions in all of the 12 keys. Another helpful way to learn and master the fundamentals for anyone playing jazz guitar is by learning and getting a general sense of the piano.

8. Talent is great but determination and perseverance win every time

Talent is great but perseverance and determination will triumph every time. Being naturally talented at anything is always a nice thing. The one thing that every jazz musician has in common is that they have spent many dedicated hours in the shed practicing and perfecting their trade. Remember the path to learning one hundred songs begins with learning one.

9. There is no set formula for becoming a jazz musician

There truly is no set formula for becoming a jazz guitarist and musician, but there are many different formulas out there that you can pick and choose from. In the end, use what works best for you.

With jazz there really is so much information out there. There is always room for improvement. You could always be brushing up on changes, learning old jazz standards, or perhaps learning new scales.

It is important to steer clear of the mind set of being overly confident in your abilities. This bottomless pit of a mindset can cause you to become complacent and lose that drive every dedicated jazz musician has. One common thing in jazz is that it will take you years to learn, a challenge that I just love.

10. Set goals and stick with them until completion

To avoid getting stuck in a rut, it helps to set goals. Both short and long term goals will help you grow as a musician. Your goal could be as simple as learning one new song a week.

There is something though, that is even more important than setting the goals, because in reality setting the goals is the easy part. The hard part, and the most important, is to finish the goals you set. Working with a guitar teacher is the best way to meet your goals and achieve your dreams!


Zachary AZachary A. is a guitar instructor in Katy, TX specializing in beginning and intermediate students. He is currently earning a degree in music theory. Learn more about Zachary here!




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