Prior to the introduction of Elvis Presley and the pop culture shift to rock and roll music, if you wanted to play guitar, you bought an archtop and learned the songs you heard on the radio. You played your 33 RPM records over and over again on your phonograph. These pop songs and show tunes were the vehicles jazz guitarists used for improvisation. Basically, from 1930 to 1950, if you were playing guitar, it was all about the archtop and applying the improvisation techniques of big band and jazz music, which was, in effect, the pop music of the time. Those players had one important advantage: they grew up listening to the style of music that they then performed.
But that all changed following the advent of rock music and the subsequent invention of the (loud!) solid body electric guitar of the early 50’s. Consequently, young players today face an entirely different situation. We all grew up listening to rock, pop, metal, etc. This put an entirely different set of chord sounds and rhythmic styles in our ears. For a guitarist of today to decide that he or she wants to move in the direction of jazz guitar - or at least incorporate many of the techniques and scales of jazz guitar into his/her playing - can be daunting. Where does one start? As an instructor of jazz guitar at several colleges, it quickly became apparent to me that 9 out of 10 students entering the music major for jazz guitar had no experience of any kind with jazz! They only had an understanding of the style they had been surrounded with while growing up: rock music.
In that earlier era, jazz was “on the street”: you heard it to some degree everywhere, and improvising musicians could perform in the many venues, clubs, and bars housed by every city. Today, there are far fewer venues on the street, and serious study of the music has largely moved into the universities. As a result, jazz has now become a kind of classical art music. Yet even in academic circles, jazz is sometimes met with reluctant acceptance, as if it were the red-headed step child that forever struggles with finding the right home.
This cultural shift away from jazz and toward a different style of pop music (simpler harmonies, a rock beat, a repetitive verse/chorus form, and uncomplicated melodies [some have no melody at all in the case of rap music]), means that if a player wants to put the music of jazz in his ears it will only be through intentional listening and intentional learning.
Where to Start
Daily listening is probably the single most important element. If we consider that learning a new music style is like learning a new language, we realize the need for daily contact with it in order to become fluent. Without spending a dime we can explore jazz and listen all day long thanks to the internet. YouTube.com now has more classical jazz than you could ever sort through. Start with traditional players such as Wes Montgomery, early Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Cannonball Adderley, Dexter Gordon, et al.
Study Theory, Technique, and Aural Skills
Acquiring an understanding of scale and chord construction, and being able to apply these to the fretboard, will help in your ability to advance in improvisation. Many resources are available on-line, usually free, for advancing your chord and scale vocabulary. Serious practitioners advocate slow repetitive practice in order to develop effective technique. Ear training (aural skills) can be advanced through learning by ear solos of the masters, singing everything that is practiced, singing intervals and learning where they all fall on the neck, and singing transcribed artist solos. Being able to play by ear is course the heart of jazz.
Learn to Read Music
It is a fact: guitarists are the planet’s worst readers of the black dots! Most serious players can read music and acknowledge the importance of it. If you are a non-reader who also wants to delve more into jazz, take the plunge now and do the painful work of learning to read. Even a few minutes a day will change your life!
Pick several standard tunes for which you can learn both the melody and chord progressions. For many decades, “The Real Book” has remained the jazz player’s bible for a standard repertoire collection. As a practice method over many years, I still record myself playing the chord progression and then practice both the melody and improvising over the chord changes. This is a tried and true method for getting the sound of the chord progression in your ears. Jamey Aebersold and Music Minus One made fortunes in promoting this play-along approach, but recording your own rhythm tracks accomplishes the same thing!
Get a Teacher
In many cases, heavier results can be obtained when working with a seasoned jazz educator. A serious teacher can have a large impact and get you reading and improvising in no time.
It’s fun to research gear. Get lost on ebay and work on a collection. But too many players spend all their time doing this without doing the hard [even spiritual] work of playing and advancing on the instrument. Make practicing the top priority.
Daily practice – even for 15 minutes – is more productive than one long episode on the weekend. In an hour’s practice, divide the time into repertoire, technique, reading, and improvisation study. A practice space like the one shown, that is quiet, free of distractions, and always available is paramount.
Remaining committed to learning the style may be the one factor that will lead to eventual success: star quality players usually admit that their success was based on 1% talent and 99% hard work.
When guitar players want to make the shift from ROCK to JAZZ, they should consider....
The Elvis Effect and How We Learn Jazz Guitar February 2009
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