Why You Suck at Jazz Guitar

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?

About the Author wkriski

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