10 Effective Steps to Learn How to Play Jazz Guitar

10 Effective Steps to Learn How to Play Jazz Guitar

Recently Marc-Andre Seguin got in touch with me to ask if I would host an article around learning to play Jazz Guitar. Of course I said yes! Here is his article and it includes a range of interesting chord voicings for you to pour over. Enjoy. Over to Marc…

“Learning to play jazz guitar can be a tough task. There are many out there who claim to have the quintessential “tried and true” method. I will not make any such claims, but I will give you ten steps, or perhaps tips, that you can use to improve and be on your way. This article does assume that you have at least a little bit of guitar experience. If that does not sound like you, don’t worry, you can still get something out of this. Here, we will discuss concepts such as music theory, time feel, transcribing, improvisation, and more. `

Learn the Theory

Being what is known as a “street instrument”, guitar players often overlook this aspect of the experience. Then, when the moment comes where they have explain or even understand something in a theoretical sense, even the most basic concept leaves them like a deer in the headlights. Don’t let this be you. Learn the theory, learn the names of the notes on the fretboard, and learn how everything is laid out on the guitar.

Work On Your Time Feel

In jazz, we typically play using what is known as swung 8th notes. The idea here is to play 8th notes as if it were an 8th note triplet where the first two beats are tied.

If you listen to almost any jazz record of the last 50 years, you will undoubtedly hear this in many of the tunes.

Further, accents are typically placed on beats 2 and 4 in a straight-ahead jazz setting. This is usually marked by the drummer’s hi-hat pedal. A great way to practice this is to set your metronome to half of the desired tempo and “feel” each click as if it were beat 2 or 4.

Develop Chord Vocabulary

Unless you’re playing with a pianist or keyboardist, chances are, you will be accompanying other players 90% of the time. For this reason, it is a good idea to develop your chord vocabulary, or you might be stuck playing the same old voicings the whole night. Here are a few basic ones to get you started. These chords are known as “shell voicings” because they only include the more important notes of the chord: root, 3rd, and 7th.

You might have noticed that some of these shapes are the same. That is because the note differentiating them is the 5th and it is left out in these voicings.

Learn Your Scales and Modes

Learn your scales and modes. I don’t only mean your basic “church” modes like Ionian, Dorian, etc., but also the modes of melodic minor, half-whole diminished, etc. Learning these will open up your palette of sounds while you improvise.

Learn to Play Using Guide Tones

The guide tones themselves are what we call the 3rd and 7th of the chords. These notes serve to clearly indicate the harmony of the tune. Most players don’t simply play the notes as the chords come by, but make lines based on hitting those chord tones on strong beats. Here are a few examples for you.

Note how the important chord tones are landing on strong beats.

Learn to Sing What You Play

This is a big one, in my opinion. As guitarists, we tend to rely on shapes a lot. This is normal due to the nature of the instrument. However, this can also hurt us when it comes to improvisation. If we let our fingers do the playing, our phrasing can suffer. Singing what you play means you have to phrase like a horn player would: using your breath.

A good way to practice this is to first learn how all of the intervals sound. You should be able to spot them immediately as they go by. Once you can do that, learn the shapes for the intervals and how they lay out on the fretboard. When you can do these two things, it will strengthen the connection between the music in your head and your fingers.


Transcribing is sometimes the subject of some controversy. Some players seem to believe that you are ripping off other players when you transcribe, but I disagree. Learning vocabulary from players who have done it before you is much like learning phrases in everyday speech. The best way to learn language is listen and imitate. Then, when you feel comfortable with the phrase, you can put your own twist to it and make it something unique.

Play with Others

Playing with others will teach you how to communicate in a musical/improvisational context. Playing with others will also show you things you might have overlooked in your own study. Go out to jam sessions and meet people. It’s a great way to network and connect.

Listen to Jazz

Hard to believe we have to mention this one so often as teachers, but it’s true. So many students want to learn jazz but don’t listen to it. Listening is the most important thing about learning any genre of music. It’s how you develop and understanding of the nuance of the music.

Learn the Tunes

Develop your repertoire. Learning tunes is incredibly important. Some players might say that there are about 12 tunes you can learn to encounter almost every challenge. This might be a fair point, but I also think it’s a bit oversimplified. I know players that know about 2000 standards. I personally would not go that far either, but definitely build your repertoire. Each tune has a different challenge or obstacle to overcome and that will help you grow as a musician.


I do believe these 10 guidelines are a good way learn how to play jazz guitar. Developing good fundamentals is the only way you will ever learn the more complicated stuff, so be patient with yourself. Take your time and learn things correctly. It is better to develop good habits early on than to try correcting bad ones years later. Anyway, that’s all for now. Happy practicing!”

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.

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