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Learning to Play Jazz Guitar From the Beginning

Updated on May 16, 2020
Guitar Wizard profile image

Music School Owner, Recording Artist, Guitarist, Composer, Performer & Educator. My goal is to make good music, make and keep good friends.

ll-V-l Chords

The Wonders and Mysteries of Jazz Guitar

I remember as a kid loving the sound of jazz and especially jazz guitar. I decided to attempt to learn on my own by learning some chords from a Micky Baker jazz method book and trying to copy some of the licks I heard on records or the radio. I even went as far as learning a few measures from a Joe Pass jazz solo guitar record called Virtuoso. This got me some cool sounds under my fingers and impressed a couple of friends, but the problem was that I had no clue as to what jazz (especially jazz guitar) really was and no real steps to take to help attain my goal. I probably should have found a good jazz guitar teacher and taken some lessons. Eventually I started studying with Ted Greene the jazz chord melody master and that really helped put things in perspective.

Two Simultaneous Approaches

  • The "Big picture" which is ongoing. That is to keep learning chords, tunes, scales, patterns, technique, phrases, licks etc. This never stops no matter how long you've been playing.
  • The on a "need to know basis". This is where you'll spend a lot of time applying the pertinent parts of your overall knowledge, to a specific song you are working on. Or acquiring the expertise you need to pull off certain techniques.

These two approaches feed off of each other because learning a tune will be the catalyst to furthering your skills in a practical application; and newly learned techniques will find a home in any number of songs you are learning. As your knowledge advances you'll revisit your repertoire again and again and apply new cool stuff you've been working out.

Learn A Song

This was the major component I was missing. As simple as it sounds now, no one told me that jazz was a specific song, usually 32 measures long (12 and 16 are pretty common too), with a specific set of chord changes, that simply repeated over and over. It was all so mysterious and wonderful but I had no idea.

The typical approach to a tune:

  • short introduction,
  • play the melody (head) once through,
  • each instrumentalist solos (improvises) through the chord changes
  • play the head once more
  • ending


The improvisation section is referred to soloing through the form or soloing through a chorus, which means solo through the entire chord progression one or more times. The musicians take turns and there is no particular order of soloists, except the last two are most often the bassist then the drummer. Sometimes instead of an unaccompanied drum solo there will be "trading fours" where the drummer trades/alternates four measure solos with the other instrumentalists. After the drum solo it is usual to go back to the head, then end.

Learn The Chords

There are so many types of chords used in jazz. A starting place is to learn the 7th chords and then learn the variations that create 9ths, 11ths and 13ths which sound even jazzier.

Learn CAGED 7th shape forms of the following but not necessarily all at once. Remember need to know.

  • Major 7th ex. Cmaj7
  • Dominant 7th ex. C7
  • Minor 7th ex. Cmi7
  • Minor 7th flat 5 ex Cmi7b5
  • Diminished 7th ex. Cdim7

Learn the chords that are necessary for the song. After you get that memorized, gradually incorporate other shapes and positions. Once you get some anchor chords in place you can modify them to become the 9ths, 11ths and 13ths when appropriate.

Learn The Melody

This is crucial to improvisation because in the beginning, soloing will be variations of the melody.

Learn The Scales

Learn your major scale patterns. There are five basic areas from which to play your scale forms out of based on what is known as the CAGED system of chords for the guitar. The "on a need to know" concept applies would be to determine which of the five areas are conducive to playing the melody and use that as an excuse to get that part of the neck learned. Scale Formulas

Scales are particularly important in jazz because unlike most blues and rock based music, jazz tends to have more than one key change within a song. A tune with four key changes would not be considered unusual.

Scales Most Often Used In Jazz

  • Major Scale (Ionian Mode)
  • Natural Minor (Aeolian Mode)
  • Dorian Mode
  • Mixolydian Mode
  • Harmonic Minor
  • Melodic Minor (ascending form)
  • Diminished Scale
  • Whole Tone Scale

Learn these scales and the modes associated with them. This is a simplified overview. Learn how the modes relate to the major scale. Modes in Music Article

I believe it important to study with a good teacher. At least check in for an occasional lesson to make sure you are on the right track. Can You Learn To Play Guitar From The Internet?

Your First Songs

Most tunes used in jazz improvisation are either blues based, or are what are known as standards. Many standards are actually pop tunes from the earlier to the mid part of the 20th century. I'm going to discuss two main styles associated with jazz which are Swing and Latin and use Autumn Leaves (swing) and Blue Bossa (Latin) as examples. There are many other styles associated with jazz such as rock, fusion and funk for starters, but that's another article.

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Chords for Autumn Leaves Jazz Guitar Lesson

Due to copyright restrictions only the chords can be shown.
Due to copyright restrictions only the chords can be shown. | Source

Two-Five-One Jazz Chord Progressions

The most common chord progression within a jazz song is what is known as the two-five-one. To describe this chord sequence it is common to use Roman numerals: ii-V-I in the major key and the iimi7b5-V-i in the minor key.

Many songs actually contain ii-V-I in more than key. Autumn leaves however, centers around the G major and E minor scale which have the sames notes since the two are relative to each other.

Examples from Autumn Leaves would be Ami7-D7-Gmaj7 in G major and F#mi7b5-B7-Emi7 in E minor. A useful thing to do is to memorize ii-V-I chord patterns on the guitar. The ones shown above are a good place to start and will constantly come in handy in most jazz songs. You will have to shift them around to change keys.

For the melody and improvisation, the G major scale (with a slight modification in a couple of spots), fits over the entire song. The G major scale also functions as the E minor scale.

Later on you will learn that there are opportunities to use some modal scales as well as diminished, altered dominant, melodic and harmonic minor. The cool thing is that you can get your feet wet soloing over the basic G major/E minor and sound great!

Jazz Guitar Scale Lesson For Autumn Leaves


Blue Bossa Lesson For Jazz Guitar

Blue Bossa is a 16 measure progression with two keys to solo over, C minor and Db major.

Soloing Over The Form

  • 8 measures - C minor - Cmi7-Fmi7-Dmi7b5-G7-Cmi7
  • 4 measures - Db major - Ebmi7-Ab7-Dbmaj7
  • 4 measures - C minor - Dmi7b5-G7-Cmi7-Dmi7b5-G7

The Two-Five-One

ii-V-I in C minor = Dmi7b5-G7-Cmi7

ii-V-I in Db = Ebmi7-Ab7-Dbmaj7

This song is great to get used to having to change keys during a solo which happens more often than not in jazz. Later other modal scales as well as diminished, altered dominant, melodic and harmonic minor can be incorporated.

Chords for Blue Bossa Jazz Guitar Lesson

Due to Copywrite restrictions only the chords can be shown.
Due to Copywrite restrictions only the chords can be shown. | Source

Scales for Blue Bossa Jazz Guitar Lesson


Suggested Songs

Classic Beginning Jazz Tunes

  • Tune Up (swing)
  • Tenor Madness (swing) jazz blues in the key of Bb.
  • Black Orpheus) (Latin)
  • Misty (Slow swing ballad)
  • On Green Dolphin Street (Latin and swing)
  • Take The A Train (swing)
  • Night and Day (swing)
  • Days of Wine and Roses (swing)
  • Cantaloupe Island (Latin)
  • Song For My Father (Latin)
  • I've Got Rhythm/Oleo (Swing)
  • Little Sunflower (Latin)

About Legendary Bebop Jazz Saxophonist Charlie Parker

About Legendary Bebop Jazz Pianist Bud Powell

© 2012 Mark Edward Fitchett


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    Post Comment
    • Guitar Wizard profile imageAUTHOR

      Mark Edward Fitchett 

      7 years ago from Long Beach

      Thanks Tony. I hope you find this useful.

    • tonymead60 profile image

      Tony Mead 

      7 years ago from Yorkshire


      Thanks for sharing, this I am sure is a bit limited interest here on hubs as most people seem only interested in how to make money on hubs not the value of good writing.

      I enjoyed reading your hub and I shall certainly have a try at some of your ideas.



      voted up and so on


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