Why Getting Started Into Jazz is Easier Than You Think

For many players, getting into jazz guitar seems much like opening Pandora’s box, and in some ways, it is. Personally, this is one of the things I find most appealing about it. However, simply getting started and being able to play effectively within the context of jazz is not nearly as “impossible” as you might think. With a basic understanding of rudimentary principles, some listening, and some practice, you will be well on your way. Today, we will focus on rhythm, harmony, melody, and improvisation. I will approach these topics with an easy-to-follow guideline. Before moving on, I would like to point out that this is geared toward players with a basic understanding of guitar technique and theory. If you would like to brush up on your theory, I recommend www.musictheory.net. Let’s get started!

Rhythm

Rhythm is often what defines genres. In jazz, this is a little bit different. You see, jazz is often described as being as much an attitude as it is a style. In other words, much of what defines it is how it is approached. We will leave that there so as to not get too esoteric. In what we know as “straight-ahead” jazz, there are a few characteristics that define the style as such. For one, the accents in straight-ahead jazz are always on beats 2 and 4. This is often marked by the hihat. The other characteristic is that 8th notes are often swung. Listen to popular jazz recordings, and you will hear that 8th notes are often swung as in the diagram below.

Harmony

Harmonically, jazz is often rather expansive. If you have got experience with some of the basic theory, you know the following rules for triad construction:

Major = 1 3 5 / Ex. C E G
Minor = 1 b3 5 / Ex. C Eb G
Diminished = 1 b3 b5 / Ex. C Eb Gb
Augmented = 1 3 #5 / Ex. C E G#

Jazzers really run the gamut when it comes to harmonic approaches and devices, but since we are just getting started here, let’s stick to the basics. Below, I have listed basic 7th chord construction as well as some key shapes that I find very helpful for beginners.

Major 7th = 1 3 5 7 / Ex. C E G B
Dominant 7th = 1 3 5 b7 / Ex. C E G Bb
Minor 7th = 1 b3 5 b7 / Ex. C Eb G Bb
Minor 7b5 (half dim) = 1 b3 b5 b7 / Ex. C Eb Gb Bb
Diminished 7th = 1 b3 b5 bb7 / Ex. C Eb Gb A (actually Bbb)

For this lesson, we will stick to chord shapes from the 6th string, just to get you started.
You will want to explore this further later, but these are good for now.

Maj 7 –    

Maj 6 –  

Dom 7 –  

Min 7 –  

Min 7b5 –  

Min 6 –  

Dim 7 –  

These shapes are called “shell voicings”, as they stick to the important notes that define the chord: 1, 3, and 7, omitting the 5.

Melody and Improvisation

There is a plethora of techniques and approaches to this topic, but for the purposes of this lesson, we will go over some of the basics as well as suggest some things for future study.
The most important thing about improvisation, in my opinion, is that you are making melodies from small fragments. Fast licks and parlor tricks are fun and all, but the melodic content is very important. Before you get there, you might find it useful to have a framework from which you can build. Let’s talk about some important modes to use over specific chords.

The most common progression in jazz music, is the ii V I progression. This also exists in a minor key. Each chord tends to have modes that fit that chord. Let’s go over some of the options that can be used here.

Dorian (ii)

E :—————-|
B :—————-|
G :————5-7-|
D :——5-7-9—–|
A :5-7-8———–|
E :—————-|

Mixolydian (V)

E :—————-|
B :—————-|
G :—————-|
D :————3-5-|
A :——3-5-7—–|
E :3-5-7———–|

Ionian (I)

E :—————-|
B :—————-|
G :————4-5-|
D :——3-5-7—–|
A :3-5-7———–|
E :—————-|

Or Lydian for the #11

E :—————-|
B :—————-|
G :————4-5-|
D :——4-5-7—–|
A :3-5-7———–|
E :—————-|

When it comes to this progression in a minor key, this changes a bit.

Locrian (ii-7b5)

E :—————-|
B :—————-|
G :————5-7-|
D :——5-6-9—–|
A :5-6-8———–|
E :—————-|

Mixolydian (V)

E :—————-|
B :—————-|
G :—————-|
D :————3-5-|
A :——3-5-7—–|
E :3-5-7———–|

For the i (minor) chord, you can use a few things. Many often use dorian or natural/melodic/harmonic minor. The raised 7th of the last two mentioned tends to be played as a passing tone of sorts, so it works.

Melodic Minor (raised 6th and 7th)

E :—————-|
B :—————-|
G :————6-7-|
D :——5-7-9—–|
A :5-7-8———–|
E :—————-|

Harmonic Minor (raised 7th)

E :—————-|
B :—————-|
G :————6-7-|
D :——5-7-8—–|
A :5-7-8———–|
E :—————-|

It’s also worth noting that you can get away with playing ideas only utilizing the I-major scale or, in the case of minor keys, i-natural, melodic, or harmonic minor, over the entire ii-V-I progression.

As for some concepts to study as you progress, look into playing guide-tone lines as well as improvisation using triad pairs.

Tunes

Before closing up shop, I feel it’s important to go over some tunes that you can play over to get started. Go ahead and try to use some of the concepts we have discussed here. That is really the best way to really get an idea or musical device under your belt. We are purposely choosing tunes here that don’t require too many key changes within the form of the tune for the sake of practice.

-So What
-Little Sunflower
-Mr. PC
-Freddie Freeloader
-Softly As In the Morning Sunrise

You can find backing tracks for all of these and many more on YouTube. They also often provide chord charts right on the screen for you.

About the Author
Marc-Andre Seguin is the webmaster, “brains behind” and teacher on JazzGuitarLessons.net, the #1 online resource for learning how to play jazz guitar. He draws from his experience both as a professional jazz guitarist and professional jazz teacher to help thousands of people from all around the world learn the craft of jazz guitar.