Early jazz bands used the banjo as an accompaniment instrument because of its ability to be heard against brass and percussion. The guitar eventually replaced the banjo mainly due to its extended range and improvements in timbre and amplification. Pioneer jazz guitarists tended to play block chords to provide the rhythmic support that was once the role of the banjo. They had to adopt a very economical chordal style to match some of the fast tempos they were expected to play. This involved three or four note chords and the legacy of this is to be found in all jazz guitar styles. Here are three movable exercises illustrating the basic jazz chord vocabulary:
Exercise One: Four Note Jazz Chords In Root Position
Exercise Two: Four Note Jazz Chords In First Inversion
Exercise Three: Three Note Jazz Chords In Second Inversion
Jazz Forms Any student of jazz has to be familiar with the two main forms: the twelve bar blues and the thirty-two-bar ballad. A very famous thirty-two bar song is "Misty" by Errol Garner and many other jazz standards also use this form. Jazz musicians have also used the twelve-bar blues form extensively.
Fake Book Fake Books are collections of jazz standards (tunes that are in most musicians' repertoires) by the likes of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, etc. You should start by getting a Fake Book and recordings of the tunes. Listen to the songs and get a general feel for the jazz style.
Note that a fakebook is a good aid for learning tunes, but professional jazz musicians are expected to develop a large repertoire of memorized tunes. It is also helpful to learn tunes in every key, though the fakebook will usually present them in the most common key. This approach has two benefits: one, it forces you to consider the relationships between the chords rather than simply memorizing the chord names to play; and two, many singers perform tunes in keys other than the "book key."
Jazz Style Jazz rhythms are meant to swing. While not all jazz consists of swinging rhythms (some may have a straight eighth feel) it is important to become familiar with this style of playing. Swing is a difficult style to notate because it involves pulling and pushing against the beat; so students approach jazz by listening to the music first. If you are new to jazz then the song "My Favourite Things" from the musical The Sound Of Music is a good place to start. Listen to John Coltrane's jazz version and compare it against the original soundtrack version. You will notice that the original version swings less and that Coltrane's version lasts longer than the original. Jazz musicans are expected to be able to improvise around a melody and this is exactly what Coltrane does; extending the song and melody beyond its original form. The drums and piano on Coltrane's version definetly swing in comparison to the backing instruments of the original. Swing may be a difficult style to describe on paper but its very easy to hear.
The use of octaves is a common technique in jazz guitar. Once a jazz guitarist has learnt the notes to a melody, say "Summertime", they will then play the same melody using octaves. Audiences hear octaves as a single melodic line and therefore using octaves is a highly effective technique for re-inforcing the melody line. Jazz guitarists are also very adept at playing scales backwards. The jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell on the album Midnight Blue uses simple minor pentatonic scales to great effect starting on their highest note and descending through the scale to the lowest note. Kenny Burrell may also open a solo with a backwards minor pentatonic scale. Playing scales backwards is a technique that provides for surprise openings, unusual bridges and tension releasing.
Many famous early jazz guitarists cited horn players as a major influence. The rise of jazz coincided with the development of radio and the gramophone and early recordings of jazz played a major role in developing the main stylistic elements of the genre. Louis Armstrong's "West End Blues" (Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five - 1928) is considered one of the masterpieces of early jazz and cemented the role of the brass soloist forever in jazz. Jazz guitarists of the day took note and soon it became standard practice for guitarists to copy "horn riffs". Charlie Christian (Benny Goodman Band 1930s) is still considered by many as one of the great players of the instrument with many of his riffs displaying "horn-like" qualities. Christian also played a role in the development of Be-Bop participating in jams with Dizzy Gillespie and Theolonius Monk at Minton's Playhouse in New York (1941) which were recorded by a jazz fan. These recordings represent the transition from Swing to Be-Bop and offer a rare chance to hear the informal "after-hours" meetings of some of the greatest players in jazz. A good jazz guitarist will normally have a few "horn riffs" in his vocabulary. Try playing along to a Miles Davis or John Coltrane recordings; choose a slow tempo ballad. Brass instruments are melodic instruments and therefore, unlike the guitar, horn players cannot form chords. This means that horn players develop very strong melodic capabilties and focus and this provides an ideal opportuntiy for a guitarist to improve their lead guitar and melodic focus.
Essential Jazz Guitarists and Recordings
Here is a list of jazz guitarists every guitarist should know, in more-or-less chronological order.
- Charlie Christian was the first guitarist to popularize the electric guitar as a solo instrument in jazz. Listen to the recordings he made with Benny Goodman in the late 1930s, including "Solo Flight."
- Django Reinhardt was a gypsy jazz guitarist who played swinging single-note lines on the acoustic guitar. Listen to his recordings with the Hot Club of France from the late 1930s.
- Tal Farlow brought the harmonic and melodic innovations of the Bebop style of jazz to the guitar. His mid-1950s recordings are recommended listening.
- Jim Hall brought a motif-based style of improvisational development to the jazz guitar. His recordings with Bill Evans are an excellent starting point.
- Wes Montgomery is renowned for his horn-like single lines, innovative octaves, and 'impossible' chord solos. The three essential Wes Montgomery recordings, all from the early 1960s, are The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery, Full House, and Smokin' At The Half Note.
- George Benson is known for his improvisation as well as his more popular later works. Listen to his work with organists Jack McDuff and Dr. Lonnie Smith.
- Pat Martino is known for his fluid single-line improvisation. A good introduction to his playing is Live At Yoshi's, featuring organist Joey DeFrancesco and drummer Billy Hart.
- Joe Pass was a great improvisor, but he is known especially for his solo chord-melody arrangements of jazz standards. Essential listening includes the "Virtuoso" series of recordings which showcase his solo pieces.
- John McLaughlin is known as a pioneering jazz-rock guitarist. His work in the 1970s with the Mahavishnu Orchestra should be considered essential listening.
- John Scofield is known for his angular lines and use of dissonance. For new jazz listeners, his two recordings with Medeski Martin and Wood are probably the best introduction to his playing.
- Allan Holdsworth is a jazz-rock guitarist known for his peerless technique and his unique approach to harmony. "Believe It," a mid-1970s jazz-rock recording by the New Tony Williams Lifetime, and "None Too Soon," a more straight-ahead jazz recording under Holdsworth's name, are both essential listening.
- Pat Metheny is known for his small-group work as well as his work with the Pat Metheny Group. A good introduction to his playing is the record "Bright Size Life," which also features electric bassist Jaco Pastorius.
Jazz Movement Exercises
These three exercises lend themselves to the 12-bar blues form. They are designed to aid movement along the fretboard and to give the student the chance to practice applying one chord on each beat of a bar.
Jazz Movement Exercise One
Jazz Movement Exercise Two
Jazz Movement Exercise Three