Advice for Jazz Beginners

"I'm already a competent player and I want to learn jazz" is a common position for people to find themselves in, at least if online forums are any indication. Here's my compendium of advice I wish someone had given me when I was starting out.

  • Listen to jazz. This seems obvious, but often people aren't doing it. How can you play in a style you don't know as a listener? Get to grips with the historical outline of jazz and some classic recordings. You don't have to listen in chronological order; listen broadly and focus on the things you enjoy the most.
  • Don't only listen to guitarists -- the guitar has always been a bit of a marginal instrument in jazz. We don't have to be apologetic about our instrument, and we have some great precursors (Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, to name a few). But you should also be listening to trumpet, sax and piano players, at least. Pay attention to the bass and drums, too!
  • Build a repertoire of standard tunes. That means you're aiming to have several hundred standards in your immediate memory, changes and melody. Make a list of tunes; you might find this analysis helpful, but lean towards tunes you like. That said, be sure you're learning the core "Great American Songbook" repertoire -- yes, learn "Juju" at some point, but not before you know "Satin Doll" or "Stella by Starlight". There are many secrets hidden in those tunes.
  • To get familiar with standards, listen to vocal versions by real jazz singers (e.g. Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Anita O'Day, Carmen McRea, Sheila Jordan). The lyrics will help you remember them. Make a YouTube playlist and listen to it over & over. Sing along!
  • The easiest way is to make your own chord-melody arrangement of each tune you want to learn. Chord melodies are satisfying to play on their own and they enable you to hear the melody line in its harmonic context. At first this is really hard and takes a long time, but it gets easier as you can re-use solutions to the same problem in different songs. Don't know any voicings for m7 chords with the 11 on top? Don't worry, you soon will, and you'll use them again and again.
  • A small number of chord grips will get you a long way if you know the CAGED system or something equivalent that allows you to build extensions on them on the fly. This list will see you through most tunes.
  • You need to be able to read a simple melody line. If you can't, work on it. It's another thing that starts off hard but gets easy quickly. Guitarists who can't read are not given a free pass in the jazz world: it's a basic, expected skill.
  • Transcribing isn't supposed to be a punishment and doesn't have to mean writing out 12 choruses of Coltrane. If you can grab one lick off a Lester Young solo, you're transcribing. You don't have to write anything down unless you want to; the value is in the process, notthe end result.
  • Jazz is rhythmically subtle music. Swing takes time and immersion in the music to acquire. Don't neglect just jamming along with really good recordings trying to dig into the feel of them.
  • Comping is harder than soloing. Learn to walk a bassline. Learn the difference between supporting a singer with big full chords and using shell voicings with a pianist. These are tough things to practice, but you need to practice them anyway.
  • When working on soloing, remember there are only 12 notes. Start by just playing chord tones and getting through the changes; that's enough of a challenge. Adding a few chromatic notes can then make things a lot more interesting -- transcribing will teach you how. Don't try to learn lots of exotic scales in search of hip sounds. I realise most of the content on this blog is the opposite of this, but there it is.
  • TAKE ALL OF THIS SLOWLY. You shouldn't expect to be anywhere in less than three years. Isn't that a relaxing thought?

This advice works regardless of what kind of jazz you want to play. Do you see yourself as a fusion player, a free improvisor, or cranking out funky, danceable music influenced by hip-hop and R&B? Great; but you'll benefit hugely from learning "All The Things You Are" and the other stuff listed above, more maybe than you think.