When I was struggling in college to play jazz guitar, my teacher told me not to worry. He said they just throw a ton of stuff at us and it will take years after college to fully absorb all the material. While it was comforting that my struggles were not unique, it also made me question the whole academic methodology.
I started investigating the jazz history and discovered that many of the greats learned from and imitated those that came before them. Charlie Christian studied horn players such as Lester Young, Wes Montgomery studied Charlie Christian, Joe Pass was influenced by Charlie Parker and Django Reinhardt, the list goes on and on.
There are two main paths to jazz improvisation currently espoused today. One is to learn scales, modes, arpeggios, triads, etc and then armed with this information you will eventually be able to improvise. The second is to imitate the masters and develop your own voice from there.
Imitation gets a bad rap these days for a variety of reasons. People, including many teachers, have this idea that if you copy someone’s playing you will become a clone. Another problem they say is that if you copy someone you will just be regurgitating their phrases in your own solos.
Some teachers might be wise enough to suggest a more balanced approach between the two paths but in many cases this is skewed towards scales and modes, or they don’t clearly explain how the two should be weighted or what improvisation actually is.
Imitation has many values beyond learning good melodic lines that the masters played and that reflect the jazz language and history. For one, you can gain a lot of technique through the lines since they might require alternate picking, sweep picking, chromaticism and other challenges. Two, you can build a good feel and sense of rhythm by imitating all the nuances of a player and the jazz feel. This includes swing feel, articulation, slides, bends, laying back and so on that you won’t get purely from learning scales and modes. Another benefit of imitation is that it gets you playing jazz right away with a bit of practice to learn the phrases and solos. Imitating is very inspiring as you hear something you want to play and you are motivated to learn how to play it.
When you imitate others you naturally develop your sense of phrasing but there’s also nothing wrong with understanding what you are doing as well. So you can spend some time on theory but this comes after you can already play the lines, and as a smaller percentage of the overall practice time. Some things you can focus on are how long are the phrases you play, where do they stop and start, are you ‘developing’ your lines (repeating, expanding upon, twisting, etc), how to connect the lines, what is the contour of the phrases and so on.
There’s a basic mindset out there, which I believe to be incorrect, which says that if you learn all the scales, modes, arpeggios and triads you will then be able to use this knowledge on the bandstand to improvise good melodic solos. After learning a lot of uptempo bebop lines I have realized that this is impossible because you can’t connect little melodic cells this fast on the fly unless you’ve practiced them beforehand in the woodshed.
Also, armed with the scales and arpeggios there’s an intermediate step that is required before you can improvise. That is inventing lines that work over the chords, getting them up to speed and internalized so they can come out without much conscious thought. I believe this is an immense challenge for most people, especially beginners. How can someone invent their own lines when they don’t even know how to play jazz?
Once you learn lines you have a natural ability to make them your own. You can show a bunch of people the same lick and it will come out sounding different. But you can also work to twist each line, change them up, add or subtract notes, change the rhythm, connect the line to another line and so on.
So you might be asking by now “What solos should I learn”? There are lots of different answers but the beauty of DVD products from Robert Conti and Pat Martino is that not only do they show you the lines but they have an overall concept of how they play over changes and visualize the fretboard. Robert Conti’s products have the added advantage of giving you plenty of entry level jazz guitar solos such as those in Ticket To Improv, not to mention chord melody arrangements and comping lessons.
The proof is in the playing as they say, so if you like to take a moment, check of some of my YouTube videos that demonstrate what I’ve been learning with this ‘play actual jazz guitar’ method.
So if you’re a beginning jazz guitarist or have been struggling with the typical jazz guitar lessons this blog post is for you. After struggling in college and with various jazz improvisation products, my aim is to save you a lot of wasted time and frustration. Go grab a jazz guitar cd and a transcription book and start learning to play like your favourite jazz guitarist.
After seeing so many people in jazz guitar forums struggling with learning jazz guitar, talking about jazz but not being able to play, or worse yet thinking that what they are playing is actually good, I am imploring you to ‘start playing jazz guitar now’!!!
As a global community, we’ve reached a really bizarre point in terms of jazz guitar education, so I thought I’d take a few moments to talk about what’s been happening out there.
There are a few popular jazz guitar lesson websites out there that purport to show you ‘how to play jazz guitar’. For aspiring jazz guitarists this can seem like you’ve hit the jackpot. All sorts of seemingly useful information including scales, arpeggios, and music theory. You start practicing the suggested scales and other exercises and feel like you are really making progress. You even post comments on those sites expressing your happiness. If you’re really brave, you’ve uploaded a video or two to YouTube.
So thousands of jazz guitar students, when they think about jazz guitar, now think ‘scales and modes’. Jazz guitar teachers are trying to provide helpful lessons but instead are just confusing the subject, not to mention that these people can rarely play jazz guitar to any appreciable level or quality. And the sad thing is, these are the among the most popular websites.
But there is a problem that you may or may not have realized. You struggle to improvise over a jazz standard, trying as best you can in the moment to make music out of the scales and arpeggios you’ve practiced. You’re getting discouraged and wonder if you have the ability to actually play jazz guitar. Or worse yet, you actually think your solos are good because no one has the nerve to tell you how bad your soloing is!
I can hear the naysayers now, “But Will, aren’t scales and arpeggios the way you learn jazz? Aren’t they part of a balanced practice routine?”. The short answer is ‘Hell no!’. I will try and go in great detail about what improvisation actually is below.
Imagine you only have an hour or so to practice each day. The vast majority of this time should be spent actually playing jazz guitar! You need to internalize many lines so that you can play them without much conscious thought or effort. This should be the first phase of your jazz development, in other words imitate, imitate, imitate! You can get all the technique you need from the solos themselves including arpeggios, scalar passage, chromaticism, sweep and alternate picking, etc.
Students will say ‘I don’t want to imitate I want to be an original.” All the previous masters imitated their predecessors. Charlie Christian imitated horn players. Wes learned from Christian, etc. Each person naturally brought their own voice to the style after imitating and experimenting. Even Pat Martino and Robert Conti mentions he gives no thought to modes or scales whatsoever. Carl Verheyen mentions he only practices lines.
The way many people mistakenly think improvisation works is: “I learn scales, modes, triads and arpeggios in every key and then when I go on stage to improvise, amazing music will flow in a spontaneous fashion”. There is a huge misconception out there which students have also bought into. It’s that you can choose a scale for each chord that flies by and play the appropriate scale. Somehow, by knowing the correct scale you’ll be able to instantly create amazing solos on the fly if you’ve learned these scales. This is total hogwash!
If you like to play bebop for example, you will often be playing long flowing lines over various chords. It is impossible to play anything musical and that reflects the jazz idiom if you haven’t practiced it and internalized it (in your fingers and brain).
Scales are nothing but a pool of available notes. They are not the actual lines that you could play in a solo. Imagine right now that you could play all sorts of scales at high speeds. Do you think you could do a good jazz solo with this? Would you be able to connect each scale on the fly when you have 2 chords per bar? And even if you could would you want to play a scalar solo?
Go check out a fast bebop line or solo you like, say Impressions by Pat Martino. Do you think you could play these lines if you hadn’t practiced them beforehand and gotten them up to speed?
I speak a lot from personal experience. After 25 years of playing instrumental guitar, most of which is pretty technical stuff from Joe Satriani and Yngwie Malmsteen (a style often called shred), I went to jazz college. I learned and practiced all sorts of scales. But when it came time to improvise I was like a deer in the headlights. I had put in a ton of practice and was at the top of the class. But I questioned my ability, my age (36 at the time), and felt intimidated and depressed about the situation. Nobody wanted to imitate the masters like Charlie Parker because they didn’t want to become a clone.
It is pretty obvious to me by now that in order to play long lines with a combination of scalar, arpeggiated and chromatic passages, that you have to have practiced these beforehand and internalized them. It has to flow effortlessly from your fingers without much thought.
My point about scales is that there is another step involved before you can improvise. It is learning or inventing melodic phrases which are derived from the scales. So it is my belief that beginners are not able to invent good melodic jazz lines because they don’t know the language yet. So I believe any type of innovation would be a secondary stage after imitation. Clark Terry said ‘Imitation, assimilation, then innovation.”
I also found that players tend to have one central concept in their playing. If you’ve checked out any of Pat Martino or Robert Conti’s DVDs you will see that they have vastly simplified the approach to improvising.
I am not talking about just learning lines, but that is a large part of it. I’m talking about a way to deal with the various chord changes that you will encounter by using one simplified framework and concept. Within this framework there is a lot of freedom to choose what to play. I also find that this mental concept gives me something to focus on rather than being clueless and frozen when it comes time to improvise.
I found that when I learn a long flowing line that traverses the entire neck, I can start new lines and phrases anywhere within this larger line. And there are different pathways to take as you start to play and I also tend to vary the lines rhythmically and melodically with different notes in the area I’m currently playing in. This comes naturally once you have the lines under your fingers without much conscious thought.
I studied all the jazz theory and exercises in jazz college but still couldn’t improvise. This is because a critical phase wasn’t been practiced – internalizing actual jazz lines in my brain and fingers. Working on a variety of exercises didn’t translate to improvising. You basically work things out in the practice room that sound good and then during performance these discoveries will come out in various fashion. The improvisation is making choices about where to go and recalling those things that work when your on the bandstand.
You might come across a really talented player who advocates an approach such as scales and modes. This can be for a few reasons. They honestly believe that this is how they learned, forgetting the true value of imitating the previous masters. In other words they allocate more success from the scales than from imitating those that came before them. A lot of players like to make out like jazz is extremely difficult and requires a massive amount of study before you can sound good because they like to show people how difficult their craft is. So there is a lot of ego involved in certain situations.
Also jazz entered the academic arena and so there is a large incentive to create a lot of courses and degrees that you have to pay for.
So to summarize, the most effective method is to imitate the masters. Learn a simplifying approach such as Robert Conti and Pat Martino espouse so that you have an overall thought process when approaching chord progressions. By imitate I mean learn the lines and get them up to speed. Practice connecting the lines that you’ve already internalized. Practice tweaking the lines that you have learned. Experiment!
The reason I wrote this post is to save you years of frustration when learning jazz guitar and prevent you from quitting jazz guitar altogether. Every other style of music is learned by imitation – learning songs. Some styles have exercises for technique but the vast majority of their time is spent learning songs such as classical, gypsy jazz, rock, blues, metal, folk and so on. Why should jazz be any different, just because there are some extra key changes?
I’m number 27 🙂
An infographic by the team at CouponAudit
I recently received my Tapo and thought I would write a blog post about it. If you’re not familiar with the Tapo by Editors Keys it’s a guitar capo with built in tuner. This is a picture of it on my Ibanez Artcore jazz guitar.
The Tapo came with a small watch-type battery so after inserting it I was good to go.
The spring loaded capo makes it a breeze to put on and off. I have one of those other capos that you have to manually put on and then clamp down and it’s a pain in the butt to take on and off.
Having the tuner built in is a nice feature. Once you put the capo on it’s right there for you to tune each string. You can set it to chromatic tuner and tune bass guitars as well. You can alter the A4 frequency from 440Hz if you want. The tuner detects shows the string name when you pluck the string and goes green when you’re in tune and red when you’re not.
When I’m not using the capo I have it clamped on the headstock of my guitar where I can access it for easy tuning. I actually practice most of the time without plugging in, so having this tuner available is a big plus. I normally would plug my guitar into my PodXT and turn it on, or other tuners I have. So I have to be near my desk and grab a guitar cable, turn on the PodXT, etc.
So I recommend you go pick up a Tapo!
I transcribed a nice jazz blues melody by Ralf Buschmeyer my former jazz guitar teacher. You can listen to it here and check the attached transcription Tragic Chromatic
I’m offering live, private one-on-one webcam guitar lessons via Skype, Google Hangout or other technology. These are fun, learn at your own pace lessons – no intimidating guitar teacher here, just a nice guy that can help you learn more efficiently!
I’ve always loved the sound of saxophone solos since I was turned onto jazz. I think it’s because they are so melodic, between the note choices and the phrasing. To be a little more technical, the phrases have a variety of intervals whereas a lot of guitar solos involve similar intervals (half/whole steps or pentatonic patterns). The guitar has so much more potential than that.
I just picked up Greg Fishman’s Hip Licks for Saxophone and highly recommend it not just for jazz but also jazz fusion (eg Greg Howe). Not because you will learn melodic and tasty licks over all chord types but from the work you will do to get them into your playing. This involves playing the phrases in all 12 keys, recalling the phrases from your mind/ear, trying to connect and develop the phrases in a logical manner.
Having technique helps you get these licks up to speed but it still takes practice as many ‘moves’ are unfamiliar so you wouldn’t be able to play them if you haven’t practiced them beforehand, especially at faster tempos. Drilling down even further, many of the licks are made up of smaller, repeatable cells that are combined in different ways, so these cells could be extracted and practiced as well.
The beauty of learning something new is it puts you back into the mindset of a student or ‘newbie’. I’ve spent the last few years learning jazz after (now) 30 years of playing so I got to see what worked and what didn’t. Many professionals and teachers are not actually good at teaching beginners (for say jazz) because they can’t remember or relate to the issues of beginners. Another problem is that teachers tend to teach the same thing that everyone else does, which may not be that effective. One of the interesting thoughts I have is that most teachers don’t actually think about how effective a particular method is. To be fair it is pretty difficult to measure in many cases, but we can use logic to figure some things out.
My passion over the past few years has been improvisation, specifically in jazz and jazz fusion. Due to the tendency for songs to have many chord and key changes, many of us have gotten stuck as to what to do. I’ve practiced a ton of things over the last few years, so I’d like to mention a few things that haven’t worked for me, why I think they haven’t, and how to tweak them to be more effective.
1. Scales, Modes and Arpeggios
Some teachers say scales are great for technique, which is true but we should dig a bit deeper. You need to be able to have the technique to play melodic content over chord changes. So since you won’t be playing scales in your solos, you won’t be automatically able to play fast lines unless you’ve practiced them beforehand (take it from me).
When I say scales and arpeggios I mean practicing them up and down as exercises rather than applying to tunes.
Solution – use 1-3 note scale fragments and arpeggios to approach a target chord tone on beats 1 and 3 (for 4/4 time). Alternatively, practice melodic phrases that contain these things.
2. Learning solos and etudes
Again, this is great for technique and the solos are actual melodic content so we’re getting much closer to our goal. But when we play a rehearsed solo we’re not really thinking of the chords
Solution – take phrases or small melodic cells (3-4 notes) and use them over different chord types (major, minor, dominant, etc). Use them in different tunes, learn them in all 12 keys. Be able to connect them.
3. Transcribing tunes
When I say transcribing tunes, I mean the act of transcribing a solo and writing it down. While that has many benefits, such as ear training, if not done methodically it will not have as beneficial effect as it could have.
Solution – transcribe a small phrase and use these such as in item 2.
Let’s say the ideal scenario is that you hear melodic ideas in your head over various tunes and are able to play them on your instrument. How does this occur? I believe it is by working out ideas that sound good to you beforehand, ie during practice and remembering those things. It doesn’t come from strictly listening to existing tunes. Most of my discussion of improvisation is around fairly challenging styles such as bebop. Some famous musicians have said that ‘improvisation is the combining of things previously practiced’. I think this comes closest to what I am trying to say.
It’s the ability to recall this information during improvisation that is most important, and must be the main emphasis of one’s practice.
I’m open to taking some new guitar students over webcam for private lessons. I just finished a long contract and have more time for teaching students now. I’d love to have you as one of my students. For more info check out this link.
My goal in this post (and others) is to teach you how to learn for yourself. So instead of just teaching you specific things I aim to teach you how to go about the process of learning. This will allow you to develop a learning system. Here we are talking about learning the language of jazz through the music itself.
Transcribing music is the most direct path to learning a style, such as jazz improvisation. Imagine trying to learn French from a book rather than imitating real French people. But if you’ve already transcribed an entire solo and even learned it note for note you might be wondering how this will help you improvise your own solos. I’ve been able to play amazing solos at high speeds but that didn’t translate to improvising my own solos. While transcribing a whole solo will develop your ear, the trick is to take one phrase and work with it for a while until it is fully absorbed into your playing. We often bounce around to different topics and so nothing new gets into our playing.
The basic steps I follow for transcribing are:
-find a solo I like for a song I am working on (eg. Roland Kirk’s version of Blues for Alice)
-transcribe a phrase (one you like or one over a trouble spot in the tune). I highly recommend and own Transcribe! software (affiliate link)
-sing (even if you’re a bad singer like me) and learn how to play the phrase on your instrument. Sing at a slower tempo if it’s really fast.
-understand how the phrase works (more on this below)
-take the idea and use it in different songs and over different chords
-twist the idea and make it your own (more on this below)
Here’s Blues for Alice by Roland Kirk. The first 2 measures of the solo at roughly 0:40-0:43 will be analyzed.
Here’s the phrase transcribed:
Understanding How the Phrase Works
When I analyze a phrase I look at the chord(s) and for starters what notes are on the strong beats (beats 1 and 3). Sometimes these are anticipated (on the previous ‘and’ beat, eg ‘and of 4’). Sometimes there are no notes on the strong beat. In this case we have no note on beat 1, but the next 3 notes are a descending scale fragment that targets C on beat 3 (the fifth of F6). This is a perfect example of Forward Motion by Hal Galper. I have that book and highly recommend it (affiliate link).
Next we have another 3 note fragment starting on ‘and of 2’ and approaching the E of Em7(b5) on beat 1 of measure 2. From E we play D (minor 7th) and then the C# over the A7 (major 3rd). This is another common device and strong harmonic movement – a ii V moving from the min7 of ii to maj3 of V which is a half step movement.
Then instead of descending from C# down to Bb (b9) Roland Kirk transposes it up an octave to the Bb then descends to G (min7) then up chromatically to the A, at which point we’re on the Dm7 on beat 1 of measure 3. Hopefully you’ve followed me during this analysis as it’s pretty straightforward.
How to Make it Your Own
There are a variety of things you can do to use these ideas in your own soloing. You might come up with some of your own:
-target other chord tones besides the 5th (C) over F6 using a 3 note descending approach
-try ascending to the chord tone C (and others) instead of descending as Rolank Kirk did
-Use the E, D, C# (root, min7 over ii and major 3rd over V) idea over other ii V ‘s
-anticipate the chord tones (play one eighth note earlier than strong beats)
Transcribing has other values as well, as you learn to imitate your idols even every nuance, develop technique, develop your ear and so on. When you find yourself frustrated with your progress, try to remember to get back to the basics – imitating the master’s and twisting the ideas for your own purposes.
Transcribing is a much more direct path to learning than many other methods (scales, arpeggios, etc) and is incredibly inspiring. Looking for shortcuts to learn guitar can be a sign that you’re not willing to put in the required work, or it can be a logical desire to seek the most efficient path.