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’!!!