The world of jazz guitar is sophisticated, exciting, and often appears wildly complex for any guitarist looking from the outside. Learning how to play jazz guitar standards can feel like a daunting task, especially without a trustworthy method to keep you on the right track.

Whether you want to master melodies, perfect progressions, or skillfully solo over the changes – we’ve got you covered!

In this article, you’ll learn these key techniques for conquering those scary jazz standards:

  • Active listening
  • Memorizing melodies
  • Walking bass lines
  • Comping

After this, you’ll be a smooth-sailing jazz guitarist who can hang with the heaviest of cats!

Step #1 – Active listening

Listening to new and exciting music is one of the best ways to spend your free time, but as musicians, it’s crucial to pay close attention to what we hear.

If you’re learning a new jazz standard, it’s vital to familiarize yourself with the song itself before you attempt to play it. Your ears need to learn it before your hands!

  • Find as many ways as possible to internalize the song – study individual elements each time you listen.
  • Listening to different renditions is an excellent way to hear fresh perspectives on the same song – a saxophone player may show you a whole new approach to a melody.
  • Try to be aware of every rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic element that make up the song – this is active listening.

Step #2 – Commit the melody to memory

The melody is key! Jazz standards are beautiful compositions that often have a strong melody that you’ll want to commit to memory. The stronger your connection to the melody, the better your musical decisions will be when it comes time to shed the changes!

  • How are those vocal chops? Singing is one of the most effective ways to internalize a catchy melody. If you can sing it, you can play it!

  • Once you can sing the melody, grab a guitar and figure out how to play it on different areas of the neck.
  • Jazz guitar players need to be comfortable playing the melody anywhere on the fretboard – the caged system will help you develop this skill.

Top tip: In jazz guitar, infusing the melody into your solo is a shortcut to sounding like a pro! Make your improvisation sound aware, and intentional by throwing in little “quotes” from the main melody.

Step #3 – Learn the chord progression

You might have heard terms like “ii-V-I” being thrown around, especially in the jazz guitar world.

This notation system breaks down chord progressions into simple roman numerals which describe a chord's position within the key, and its quality.

  • Learning a jazz standard using this system is much quicker than remembering all the individual chords that make up a progression.
  • The jazz standard All The Things You Are by Jerome Kern, initially appears to be a very complex chord progression but is mostly just a ii-V-I moving through different keys.
  • ii-V-I and iii-vi-ii-V-I are examples of chord progressions that appear regularly in jazz music.

Jazz standards are much easier to learn once you’ve got to grips with the roman numerals system – check out our Jazz Learning Pathway for more.

Step #4 – Memorizing the form

Unfortunately, these forms aren’t yoga poses! Nevertheless, they could reduce your stress levels when learning jazz standards!

The form describes the structure of a song, kind of like a road map for musicians! Jazz musicians learn standards by memorizing the number of bars in the song and how many sections the song is cut up into.

  • AABA, ABAC, or ABCD may sound like cheat codes, but to jazz musicians, they’re a way to remember the structure of a song.
  • In jazz we often repeat the same 8 or 16 bars, so it makes sense to label them in a simple way.

Most standards follow a 32 bar form, Autumn Leaves is a great example and follows the AABA structure

  • Two 8 bar A sections (16 bars)
  • One 8 bar B section
  • One 8 bar A section
  • 16 + 8 + 8 = 32 bars

Step #5 – Highlight the guide tones

The guide tones are the 3rd and 7th of a chord. These notes are vital in jazz as they give a chord its character or ‘quality’. Using guide tones in a melody or solo ensures a consonant and harmonically satisfying sound.

  • Practicing a jazz standard using only guide tones allows you to highlight the most important notes in each chord.
  • Guide tones are useful for outlining the movement of a progression – an essential skill for building a solo that follows the changes.
  • Learning where your guide tones in different positions on the neck will help with fretboard visualization.
  • Work on one song until you know it inside out and can confidently locate the guide tones for any chord.

Step #6 – Using root notes and arpeggios

This is one of the most important tools for jazz players. If you learn how to highlight root notes and arpeggios, you’ll always have a solid foundation for improvising over jazz standards.

  • Developing the ability to hear the root notes throughout the song will keep you locked into the progression.
  • Arpeggios are at the heart of every great jazz solo – knowing how to outline every chord in the progression will skyrocket your jazz chops!
  • Another great reason to practice root notes and arpeggios as a jazz guitarist is that it helps to create muscle memory when comping or soloing through the tune.
  • A good connection to the root notes is vital for walking bass lines too!

Step #7 – Play a walking bass line

This has to be one of the coolest features of jazz guitar. Besides sounding and feeling great, a walking bass line can also add some much-needed stability and support when playing unaccompanied.

Walking bass lines add a strong sense of rhythm to whatever you’re playing and allows you to experiment with the time feel of a tune.

Transcribing walking bass lines from your favorite jazz recordings is probably one of the best ways to build this skill. Spend some time focusing on bass lines in general and you’ll better understand

  • Smooth voice leading
  • Different rhythmic motifs
  • Finding the backbone of a song
  • The inner workings of a bass player's mind (proceed with caution)

Step #8 – Comp along with records

Now you’ve got some tools in your belt, it’s time to use them!

Accompanying or “comping” to the jazz standard you’re studying can be hugely beneficial. We may never get a chance to play live with the all-time greats, but playing along to their recordings is the next best thing.

  • Comping over classic jazz records exposes us to specific details we might miss if we were just learning through music notation.
  • If you’re looking to expand some of your comping ideas, listen to what other instruments are doing –  copy the piano player's rhythm or chordal work.
  • The jazz heavyweights of the bebop era wrote the book on playing the standards, sometimes the best education is trying to keep up with them!

Alongside active listening, learning to comp with legendary recordings can give you a brand new appreciation for the song itself, and give you fresh ideas for your next jam session.

Step #9 – 12 key the song

This is the final boss level for all jazz musicians! 12 keying a tune is a worthwhile exercise that strengthens your memorization skills of a song.

Knowing how a song works in all 12 keys is crucial if you want to feel free and comfortable playing with other jazz musicians.

  • Learning songs in various keys helps you understand the fundamental patterns in the chord progression, internalize the melody, and forces you to get comfortable all over the fretboard.
  • Singers will love you! Vocal ranges vary, and some struggle in certain keys – being able to transcribe on the fly will make you very popular!
  • Some songs suit specific keys, especially on guitar – certain jazz standards are nicer to play in more ‘guitar-friendly’ keys!

Step #10 – Go hang with the cats!

This last step is a major piece of advice and echoed by jazz masters across the world. Playing with other people is a guaranteed way of getting better and testing how well you’ve learned a tune.

Hearing how others interpret the same song will open your ears and challenge you to respond in new and interesting ways.

  • Playing with musicians that are better than you can feel daunting, but everyone is there for the same reason – to make music and have fun.
  • Being around talented musicians will teach you an incredible amount and motivate you to keep improving.
  • Some players highlight particular details of the song that you might’ve missed, taking your latest study piece down to the jam will help you to understand the tune from lots of different perspectives!

Conclusion

Jazz standards offer a world of beautiful compositions that you can explore as a soloist or accompanist. Learning your first jazz standard might be hard going, but it definitely gets easier after your first one!

Learn it thoroughly, try to enjoy the experience, and it’ll stay with you forever!

Author: Jack Handyside