6 Steps to Learning Jazz Guitar Improvisation

Learning to improvise well on the guitar is the holy grail for most guitarists. Here, Zac Green from popular music blog ZingInstruments.com introduces us to his 6 steps to learning jazz guitar improvisation. Enjoy!

Anyone familiar with the dulcet tones of Wes Montgomery or Pat Metheny will know that jazz guitar is a law (and sound) unto itself. You can be an accomplished rock or blues guitarist, but still not have a clue how to maneuver around jazz.

The biggest challenge of jazz guitar is improvisation. Most guitar styles include improvisation to a greater or lesser extent, but jazz is the genre that requires improvisation as a prerequisite. You can’t play jazz guitar without improvisation. But there’s the rub: improvisation is hard. It’s less tangible than, say, chord theory, and as a result, it’s as slippery as an eel to learn. Or so it seems.

Yes, improvisation at a Wes Montgomery, Pat Metheny, or Django Reinhardt level (the master of them all, in my opinion) cannot really be taught. But like most things, there are plenty of signposts along the way to help you learn to improvise, even if the “guts” of the craft comes from the heart, not the hands.

So what are the basic steps to learning jazz guitar improvisation? Let’s take a look.

1. Learning the Blues

The foundation of jazz guitar improvisation is, surprisingly, the blues!

The first step is to learn to play a 12-bar blues using harmonised jazz chords. Once you’ve got that down, you should practice playing minor pentatonic scales over the blues sequence. Add some some easy licks to get you started, and you’ve just created a nice basis for improvisation. At this stage, it’s useful to learn rhythm patterns, melodic patterns, and how to choose the right notes to play over both.

2. Understanding Triads​

Triads are the building blocks of chords, so in our second step you should focus on understanding triads.

Study major triads in root, first, second, and octave inversions, and then take a look at the classic I-IV-V jazz chord progression​. Once you’re done with major triads, then move on to minor triads in root, first, second, and octave inversions. If you’re feeling brave, take a look at Im-IVm-V7 in different keys and different positions!

3. Learning II-V-I formations

Now it’s time to look at classic jazz progressions – namely the ubiquitous II-V-I progression. Like the I-IV-V progression in blues, the II-V-I is everywhere in jazz. Learn the progression in the seven major keys – jazz standard “Satin Doll” is a wonderful tune to help you practice these progressions:

Then, study II-V-I progressions in the seven minor keys. “Alone Together” is a great standard for practicing minor II-V-I.

4. Mastering Guide Tones

To absorb the sound of a chord progression, it’s a good idea to learn what are called “guide tones”. Guide tones are the 3rd and 7th scale degrees of a chord (because this is what determines a major, minor, or dominant chord).

Understanding guide tones will therefore allow you to hear the quality of chords being played, helping you make sense of progressions.

For your next step, learn guide tones over the I-IV-V and II-V-I progressions you’ve just learned.

5. Triad and Four-chord Arpeggios

Ok, by this step we’re cooking on gas!

Now we fix our gaze on arpeggios, specifically triad and four chord arpeggios. Learning arpeggios equips you with a wonderful vocabulary – the gypsy jazz genre (to name one) uses arpeggios to amazing effect.

As well as major and minor arpeggios​, we should learn Dm7, G7 and Cmaj7 chords showed with triads, plus Dm7-G7-Cmaj7 improvisation examples using triads​​.

6. Learning Licks and Pattern​s

Arpegiatted guitar chord being playedBy the time you’ve reached this step, you’ve learned triads, guide tones, and arpeggios. This will already give you a lot of improvisation gumption.

What’s our final step then? Well, it’s to listen and absorb the great jazz guitarists and learn their licks and patterns!

Having equipped yourself with the basics of jazz guitar improvisation, you will appreciate how these licks and patterns were formed. Greats to listen to include Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, Joe Pass, Jim Hall, Barney Kessel, Lenny Breau, Ted Green, Pat Metheny, John Scofield and many others…

The Road to Jazz Mastery

So there we have it: 6 steps to learning jazz guitar improvisation. If you’re serious about learning this skill, sign up for the free 11 Day Jazz Guitar Improvisation Bootcamp online course which covers all the above and more. The course instructor is Scandinavian guitar sensation Mikko Karhula who walks you through all the above points. You’ll be improvising like the best of them in no time!

Though improvisation is initially challenging, it’s the foundation on which jazz is built, lending the genre its fun and playful quality. Take the time to master the basics, and you’ll be freely improvising fresh new melodies in no time!

Zac Green is a guitar fanatic and teacher who does double duty as the editor-in-chief of Zing Instruments‘s blog, writing about everything from the best guitar songs for beginners, to music industry news and advice for those looking to go pro.

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