What Can I do to Improve My Jazz Guitar Playing? A Blog about jazz guitar and other styles.

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What Can I do to Improve My Jazz Guitar Playing? A Blog about jazz guitar and other styles.

August 17, 2012

I came across a question from a new reader in the contact section of this site: “What can I do to improve my jazz guitar playing”?

A good question. A very good question. One that I think every musician at any level has asked themselves at one time or another. The following post is my attempt to answer this question, with the hope that it will help you as much as it did me.

Let’s start by being clear about one thing. There is no single answer to this question. If there was, we would all be masters at our instrument and life would be great! But since this is not the case we have to dig deeper and see what we can learn from those who have traveled this road before us.

For some, learning to play jazz guitar is difficult and frustrating. It can be a long road of endless practicing, reading, studying and transcribing. At the same time, it can be an exciting journey that takes you to many new and wonderful places!

The answer to the question “What can I do to improve my jazz guitar playing?” is pretty much the same for any instrument or style of music. Of course there are a few things specific to the guitar that need to be addressed, but for the most part, improving your playing has very little to do with your instrument at all.

My biggest struggle when I was learning jazz was that I couldn’t hear what I was playing. It sounded terrible!

I would listen to other guitarists and it sounded so good. Why couldn’t I sound like that?

I realized that I needed a way to learn how to hear my mistakes so I could fix them and ultimately improve my jazz guitar playing.

I came up with a simple exercise that has helped me tremendously in learning how to hear my mistakes. All you need is a metronome and something to record your playing. The most important thing is to be patient, because this exercise will take some time to get used to.

I’m going to assume we’re all on the same page about one thing: You want to improve your jazz guitar playing. I imagine that you’ve been playing for a while or have at least started down the road of learning how to play jazz guitar. If not, I recommend checking out my previous blog post “How do I learn Jazz Guitar?”

As a professional musician and teacher, people ask me all the time: “What can I do to improve my jazz guitar playing?”. Well, there are obviously many things you can do but there is one thing that stands out above all others. In fact, it’s the first thing I ask students when they come in for a lesson. So what is it?

The answer is: Listen!! Listen to as much music as possible. Listen to great musicians, listen to records that inspire you, listen to music that challenges you, listen every day. And by listening, I mean really listening. It’s common knowledge that most guitarists/musicians are not great listeners. But if you want to improve your jazz guitar playing or any other aspect of your musicianship then you need to spend more time actively listening.

So how exactly do we do this? Well here are 5 ways in which you can start practicing active listening

I’ve been playing jazz guitar as a hobbyist for almost 20 years. I played in bands in school, went to university and studied music, played in bands during that time, continued to play in bands after . . . well, you get the picture.

But I’ve never been able to break into the scene as a pro. I have a job that pays the bills and lets me play at night. Music is great fun, but it’s not my primary source of income. Every now and then I get an offer to sub on a gig or sit in with a local band, but that’s about it.

I get asked all the time how to improve my jazz guitar playing, and I thought it would be useful to share some of my thoughts on what has made me better over the years. These are some of the things that have helped me improve as a player over time.

Play along with records, often

The best way to learn new music is by playing along with recordings. You hear how it’s supposed to sound (and feel), you try your hand at it and see what works for you and what doesn’t, then you try again and again until you can “nail” it.

The three most important elements to becoming a better jazz guitarist are:

1. Listening

2. Listening

3. Listening

You can read all the books and take all the lessons in the world but until you put in the hours of listening, transcribing and imitating, you will not be able to play like your favourite musicians.

Think about it for a moment, who is your favourite guitar player? What do they sound like? How did they get that sound? The answer is listening, transcribing and imitating!

Guitarists such as Grant Green, Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass and Pat Martino spent many hours listening to horn players and attempting to emulate what they heard on their guitars. I’m sure that when these great players first started out they didn’t sound much like their heroes but over time with careful listening and practice they slowly developed their own unique expression.

Well I am just going to be straight up with you, I have never been the biggest fan of scales. The main reason is they are boring, they are not the coolest thing in the world to practice and they don’t really seem to help me play music better.

So forget about scales for a minute and let’s try a different exercise: playing over changes. The great thing about playing over changes is that you can use your ear to help you find cool licks and phrases. You will also be practicing in a more musical context.

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