Guitar Lessons 101: A Guide to Jazz

Playing jazz guitar to me means that you know the rules, but then bend and break them at your own discretion.  It’s the style with the most freedom of expression.

But mastering this art form takes a lot of research.  To bend the rules, you must first know them.  So here is some initial research for you to get started with jazz guitar.

To get started, here is a glimpse into the essence of jazz guitar at

What is the jazz guitar style?

The easiest way to begin is to describe what is not the jazz guitar style. Power 5 chords, simple open chords, steady strums, static chord progressions, a lack of key modulations, heavy bending and vibrato, slinky thin strings, distortion, excessive volume, huge amplifiers … these are a few characteristics that say that the music is probably not the jazz guitar style.

On the other hand, mellow tone, full body hollow electric guitars, great tone, the use of modality, a large repertoire of chords and voicings, more scales and arpeggios than you can imagine, shifting harmonic tonalities, fast hands, octaves, standards, soloing on complex chord progressions, the “swing” feel in rhythm, dynamic shading, the Bossa, the Samba, the Jazz Waltz, screaming tempos, flying arpeggios, rubato ballads.. These are some signs of this style.

The jazz guitar style today might be considered a performance blend of standards from the 30s and 40s, the modal influences of Miles Davis, the harmonic sophistication of the French Impressionistic period and the Blues.

Obviously, jazz is a wide idiom ranging from the Bebop to the Atonal to the Urban to the Free to the Progressive styles. In the long run, what works is what works for you and your audience.

In today’s internet mentality and ultra niche markets, it seems more important than ever to be able to categorize music. If no other reason than to know how to direct your marketing efforts, where to advertise, where to promote and where to perform. Jazz guitar is a category in and of itself.

The jazz guitar style is an art form. Is it a commercial style? Well, that depends on how you define “commercial”. I believe it has a tremendous potential to develop a significant world wide audience.

Improvisation is at the heart soul of this style. The freedom of improvisation lives with the discipline of a very complex art form. The goal is however to allow people to see beyond the complexity and into the beauty of direct communication. Yes, too often jazz guitarists substitute meaningless flash for substance. But welcome to the world in general. Our society is not short on replacing substance with surface.

Listen to the jazz guitar. Find who and what you like. The guitar is the most popular instrument in the world, Its sound appeals to the masses. The jazz guitar with its unique sound and feel is well positioned to influence the listening standards of the world!

There is a common phrase referred to in the jazz idiom and most other live group performance styles; it’s called playing “In The Pocket.”  This article will give you more insight on this theme at

Many years ago, I got my first pro session call. A&R; Studio, NYC. Full band and six horn players. Some sight reading, mostly rhythm playing.

I did OK. Everyone seemed happy, and I was relieved to just survive! At the end, packing up my gear, the horn guys start talking to me, saying they dug my playing but I could use some help playing “in the pocket.”

There really was no way they could truly explain it to me except by picking up my guitar and showing me. The groove the horn player laid out was deep and authoritative. It showed command and confidence. It was like hearing an English accent after hearing a New York suburb accent your whole life. I got it.

So what is the pocket and how can you learn it? You can’t learn it without hearing and feeling it. You can’t understand it in a vacuum. It exists and shows its teeth and beauty while playing live with other musicians. Once you learn it, your life will never be the same.

Esoteric? Maybe. But still very real. Here’s another description. Ever see a pro basketball player handle a ball? The bounce is firm. With authority. Command. How about a pro quarterback? His pass is perfect. Spiral. Placed where he wants it.

The pocket is like that to me. It is an understanding of exactly what you can do on your instrument. It is perfect timing. You do not step on other players’ shoes. You know where you live, and it is good and right and groovin’.

Playing guitar means not only learning from guitarists. You MUST listen to other musicians to truly learn. With that in mind, I asked a few friends who I DEEPLY respect about their take on playing “in the pocket.”

Here’s what bassist, solo artist, producer Les July, one of the grooviest people on the planet, says about the pocket:

“Generally, the pocket is the perfect synchronicity of the bass drum and the bass guitar. When applied to an entire band, it’s about everyone playing in perfect time, with attitude.” Les has played with Nile Rodgers, Dr. Dre and The Bus Boys, to name a few. He lives the pocket.

How about drummer extraordinaire John O’Reilly? He plays with The Trans-Siberian Orchestra. He’s also done time with Ritchie Blackmore, Alan Holdsworth, Zakk Wylde and Steve Morse. Here’s John’s take on “the pocket”:

“What I find very disturbing these days is that many younger drummers have no idea how to produce “The Pocket,” let alone know what it is. They tend to think of it as something they have to search for; in other words, it’s out there somewhere. When, in fact, it’s inside of their very soul, searching for a way to express itself. No, it’s not in your monitor mix, my friend. It’s not anywhere outside of you. Quick question: Have you studied the great masters of the past? Start with Hal Blaine, Al Jackson, Bernard Purdy, Panama Francis. Google these greats. Listen and learn because success will leave clues every time.”

One more buddy, guitarist George Marinelli. George has played with Bonnie Raitt for quite some time. He’s also a founding member of Bruce Hornsby and The Range. Living in Nashville, he has played on countless sessions. George gives us some advice on how to lock in to the groove:

“One way to stay locked with the groove is to keep the right hand pumping 1/8ths or 1/16ths and mute with the left hand, only un-muting for the desired notes. Works great for single-note funk parts.”

Take from this blog post what you may. But remember, if you are not in the pocket, you may not get a second chance.

One of the greatest challenges for not only jazz guitarists, but guitarists in general, is the style of picking on jazz guitar.  Here is an introduction to a few different styles of picking on jazz guitar at .

Contrary to popular opinion, picking is the most difficult technical skill on the jazz guitar. Since the fingering hand is visually impressive, most guitar players think more and work harder on the fingering hand than they do on the picking hand.

Let’s break down picking into its most basic components. There are only 2 pick strokes – a down pick and an up pick. This is a fact but it’s not too useful. What is useful however, is the fact that there are four picking pairs:

  • 1) down – up
  • 2) up – down
  • 3) down – down
  • 4) up – up.

The terms best suited to describe the function of these picking pairs are: Legato picking and Articulate picking.
The Legato style: down – down and up – up is used to smooth the transition from string to string and when you want a smooth, connected sound from note to note.
The Articulate style: down – up and up – down is used to create a distinct attack for each note. The effect of the Articulate style is to emphasize the individual strike of each note.

Players who use this style have a machine gun sounding attack. It is, as its name implies, a sharp edged sound. The Legato Style is more horn like and sounds more like breathing. Great players use both styles interchangeably.

Each style has advantages and disadvantages. The use of either style is dictated by style, personal taste and the efficiency required in each situation.

Lastly, I briefly touched on the importance of knowing the rules so you can bend them.  One of the great rules of jazz theory is the scale.  Here is the first of a series of articles that give an introduction to common jazz scales at .

Jazz Guitar Scale #1: The Dorian Mode.

The Dorian Mode: Some Basic Theory…

Mastering this scale is vital for improvising in a jazz style. Unless you master it, you WILL struggle playing jazz. Yep…it’s THAT important. It is hard for me to imagine a jazz song where I wouldn’t need to use it!

The dorian mode has the following formula…

1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7

This formula tells us what we need to do to the major scale in order to create the dorian mode. Let’s work out the notes of the D dorian mode to make things clearer…

Step 1:

Write down the notes of the D major scale. Doing this gives us these notes…

D E F# G A B C#

Step 2:

Flatten the third and seventh notes of the D major scale. We have to do this because the formula of the dorian more has a b3 and a b7. Flattening these notes gives us this…


These are the notes of the D dorian mode.

The Dorian Mode: Where To Use It…

The dorian mode works really well over minor 7th chords. So in our example above, we would use the D dorian mode over D minor 7th chords. The reason why the dorian mode works so well over minor 7th chords is because the formula for minor 7th chords is 1 b3 5 b7. Notice how these chord tones are also in the formula for the dorian mode?

To help you learn the dorian mode, here is a cool sounding four bar chord progression. I highly recommend recording it onto a tape or your computer. Your goal is to master soloing over it…

// Dmin7 / Dmin7 / Fmin7 / Fmin7 //

To improvise over this chord progression use D dorian for the first two bars, and F dorian for the last two bars. It can be quite challenging to switch between the two scales fluently. Especially if you recorded the chord progression at a really fast tempo. But that’s what makes jazz fun!

Soloing fluently in a jazz guitar style is almost impossible if you don’t completely master jazz guitar scales.

This is just a brief introduction into the complex universe of jazz theory and guitar playing.  Playing jazz is a great source of self-expression.

Have fun and stay tuned for more!


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