Learning Jazz

I get a lot of questions like, how did I start playing jazz guitar, what books should I get, etc.

There is no easy answer, but here I would like to share some of my views on that.

Just so you know, I am not a formally trained jazz educator. What I am telling you is from my own experience, so I am sure it is useful, but not the sole truth. There is much more to know than what I know, and what I teach, but I guess that's true for anyone; there's always more. Also, I have had classical guitar training for a number of years, which has given me a good basis in music theory and guitar technique, but in jazz I am basically a self-taught player. I found out the old-fashioned way, by listening, trying, and listening some more, etc, etc. Perhaps I 'understand' jazz differently from how a formally trained teacher would teach you, but for me it worked. Another advantage of learning by trial-and-error is that you have to listen listen, listen and then some. That means developing your ear until you hear and recognize what's going on instantly, and that is without doubt an essential part of becoming a jazz improviser: if you can't hear what's going on, improvisation is impossible, or, at best, mechanical. The disadvantage is, that it can take quite some time and effort to figure things out by yourself, and sometimes you get stuck.

As for books, I have never used many. It's not that they are no good, but there's only so much you can learn from a book. I'd say you can put all basic knowledge in a couple of books, but there are hundreds of them, all covering the same, or similar things. A lot of jazz improvisation is personal; you can learn and apply the theory, copy players you like, which is all good, but to become a really good player, you still need to find your own way of doing things. This is a process that is going to take time, there is no getting around it, and a lot of playing and listening!

I used some books from Warren Nunes in the past, and a book with Wes Montgomery solos. Most other books I bought didn't really show me anything new, or when they did, were too far removed from my personal preferences, so I never really used any other books to any significant extent. I bought plenty of books that I never used.....

Some books and series seems to be well known:

Jody Fisher's books I don't know, but I hear them mentioned a lot, so I expect they provide a good basis (like many other books). I have also heard good things about Steve Masakowski's book, that emphasizes listening. Now that's something I can relate to. Listening (and ear training) is one of the most important things in jazz, I believe. What you can't hear, you can't play, not convincingly anyway! Sure, you can play something you cannot hear, from theory or whatever knowledge you might have, but it will sound like a bad actor reading a part: it just doesn't convince anyone! You have to hear it in your mind before you play it, to give it right intonation, time, in fact to make it sound natural. You have to 'know' internally what you are playing. How do you know if you know? If you can sing along easily with what you play, then you know what you are playing (never mind the vocal quality, of course). If you cannot sing along at all, it means you don't have the notes in mind, so you are playing mechanically, based on knowledge or learnt licks; in that case, listen more to jazz, transcribe stuff, train your ears anyway you can.

So, listen to jazz every day, transcribe some solos that you like, that's very good ear training, and if you want to train your ears more systematically and efficiently, may be get some ear training software. When your ears are well trained, and you hear a standard type of tune that you didn't know already, you should be able to hear all the chords instantly, or at least 90%.

I believe that your knowledge of of theory and listening ability should develop together, at the same time, by starting with simple things, and really internalising that, i.e. being able to hear and play that, before going too deep into more theory. There are some that have studied hard, know all the scales, chords etc, but cannot play an interesting or convincing solo; there are some, or probably many, that can play a limited solo, using licks they know, but lack the knowledge to go beyond that. To me, working on your theoretical knowledge is useful, but playing comes first. Theoretical knowledge can certainly help you a lot, but is not a goal in itself. So, learn theory, but not much more than you can use at a time; learn to use what you know until it is part of your natural playing, and your ''internal ear'', then learn some more. This process will go on forever, so don't get too obsessed with the end goal, enjoy the journey. Great solos can be played with limited material, make sure you get the most out of what you know and can play.

So, there are 4 main aspects to learning to improvise: the knowledge side, the technique side, the hearing aspect, and the creative side. Knowledge of chords and scales is the easiest part, you just learn some, and there are so many resources available now that there is no excuse for not learning them. The technique side may be tough, but straightforward; make sure you learn good technique from someone who can play, then practice. The creative side is much more difficult to grasp. That's why the Jazz Exercises package just gives you some basic minimum knowledge that you need, and then focuses on the creative side, giving you exercises and techniques to become creative, and build your own phrases. The great thing is that once you understand those basic concepts, the sky is the limit!! Then it just takes continued practice, but you will know how, and you will probably enjoy it.

Of course, I also made my own lesson material, based on my own playing experience, and experience with guitar students. Check it out here.

If you want to discuss matters of technique, theory, playing approaches etc, with others, there are some forums and sites you can visit.


There are lots of people there that can and will answer questions, and of course you can exchange experiences, which can be very motivating.

Another popular question: do I need to read music to learn jazz? Strictly speaking, no. Plenty of great jazz artists didn't read, and perhaps some still don't. Should you learn to read? I'd say yes, it will definitely help you, and open up a lot of possibilities. It's a bit like, 'should you learn to read English language, to be able to speak it?''. Strictly speaking, no, but not being able to read limits your options a lot. Having said that, there are always exceptions: some musicians have such an acute ear, they can pick up on almost anything in a second! Anyway, guitarists are notoriously poor sight-readers (including me), but at least learn the basics, that doesn't even take much effort. If there is one skill I would like to improve myself, it's sight reading, I read too slow.....

What about TABS and standard music notation? I have learned standard notation from the beginning, never TABS, so for me, standard notation is natural, TABS are not. I find TABS useful for chords and for 'static' or easy patterns. For more dynamic and complex things, TABS seem unpractical to me. Nevertheless, many guitarists use them, so I always include them in my lesson materials.

Do you need to learn all scales, which ones?: the bad news is, yes, you need to know all.

The good news is, you can start with a few, and there are not that many! The advantage of guitar is that it's so easy to transpose. If you can play the major scale of C, without open strings, you can also play many other scales by just moving position. From that point of view, there are basically just a few basic scales that are different in terms of intervals. So, you need to know:

Major scale, first and foremost. Minor natural is the same, starting starting on the 6th step of the major scale. All the modes are also just parts of the major scale, nothing new there. So, make sure you can play the major scale up and down the fretboard. Then you've got 80% of situations covered. Then if you know the altered, and dimished scales, you have enough for 99% of situations. So, then can you play jazz? No, but then you have the basic technical skill to start playing and understanding, and creating! 


Actually, I like the comparison with learning to speak, because it can explain a lot of aspects about learning music in a very natural way. People learn to speak, first by just hearing it and copying, and understanding grows naturally. You can learn to play and understand music without books or theory. With language, at some point,  you need to learn some theory (grammar and spelling) to get your language ability on a higher level. In the same way, you can learn music by listening and playing, and that's the most important thing, but learning the theory will help you get to a higher level of understanding, and playing. Also, if you can't read (language), you can still speak pretty good, most people can't tell the difference. But does it limit you in your options? Of course it does. So, learn to read music.


Another analogy: when you improvise music, do you think about scales and theory all the time? No. When you speak, do you think about grammar all the time? No, but that doesn't mean you didn't learn it at some point. It is just that applying the knowledge and grammar of language has become an automatic process, that you don't have to think about anymore, except perhaps when you have something difficult to say or write! On standard type of tunes, I improvise almost without thinking. On very unusual chord changes, I have to fall back on some theorical knowledge, until the changes have 'settled' in my head.


One more analogy: when you improvise, do you use preconceived licks or do you really create out of the blue? It's both: when you speak, you definitely build new sentences, but you also use expressions and typical phrases you like to use.

The main difference between learning language and learning music is that we start much earlier with language. But, when you play music long enough, the music becomes a second language. When it is said that some great jazz musicians, especially in the past, didn't know any theory, that's not really true. They knew the theory in practice, but just didn't know the formal names for it; if you hear a B-flat chord and automatically use the B-flat major scale, it means that you know the scale and when to apply it, even if you don't know that it's called B-flat, or major.


Did I mention ear training? I cannot stress this enough: to become a good improviser, it's essential that you can recognize melodies, intervals and harmonies very fast. Intervals are extremely important, because they are the basis for all melodies and harmonies. There are particular practice materials and tools for it, but you can also train your ear by transcribing. I used to transcribe Charlie Parker solos at half speed, to pick out the notes.Other tools you can easily use nowadays: there are many free audio editing tools, where you can load a segment of music and cut it, loop it etc. If you loop a very difficult chord, that may last only a fraction of a second, then by looping it you can hear it almost continuously, and you can just pick out the notes one by one, by listening until you recognize a note, and then listening again until you recognize another one.


Sometimes people ask: is musical ability the result of practice or sheer talent? I think nobody knows for sure, but here's my view. First of all, there is no doubt that, talent or no talent, you need a lot of practice. People with talent and little practice don't get very far, especially in a discipline like jazz, that does require highly developed and trained skills. But, there is also an element of talent involved. I don't believe that everyone can become equally good with enough practice. I think that talent is a combination of physical conditions, like have good hearing and perhaps even a certain 'wiring' in your brain, and of motivation. Just having a strong desire to play music is a big part of your talent, it will drive you to listen a lot, play a lot, in fact to do those things that you need to become a good musician. More and more I realize that my ability to play jazz is to a large extent the result of endless listening. I got interested in jazz quite young and just listened to everything I could get my hands on, for years and years. So, the fact that I really liked it, made me listen, and made me understand. If you hear French all day long for years, you'll understand it.

So, it's talent and practice. If you have less talent, you need more practice....

In the end, music is there to be enjoyed, by the audience as well as the player. A very talented person may go very far, while a less talented person may have just as much satisfaction and pleasure from playing (or even more, without the stress of professionalism). So, if you feel the desire to play, do it, regardless of your level. If you are able to put your creative energy into it, then enjoy it!!