All About Jazz

What does ‘jazz’ mean to you? Even the word is controversial. Where does it begin, what is it? There seems to be no clear definition. Some attempts have been made at defining jazz as a truly American art form, but this belies the influence of virtuoso performers like Django Rheinhardt and Stephane Grapelli.

Others believe that jazz is a performer’s art – a musical genre where improvisation is the norm, and a piece should never be played the same way twice, but this is a view through modern eyes. Every generation believes they have discovered something new, so is jazz truly a new musical form?

For most of musical history, professional musicians have been required to be skilled in the art of improvisation. Many of the most famous composers were also well-known performers and highly skilled at improvisation. Bach and Handel were known for their abilities as was Mozart. Beethoven often played pieces by Bach, adding improvisations of his own when performing in the salons of the nobility, while Liszt was also known as a virtuoso with an amazing ability to improvise.

It was only in the late 19th and 20th centuries that musicians were expected to be skilled in reading music and reproduce exactly what was written, without further ornamentation. So if improvisation is an age-old skill, what, if anything is different about Jazz?

It may be a question of degree. While earlier composers/performers would create wholly improvised variations on a theme, it was not normal to abandon the theme altogether, as sometimes happens in jazz. Much has been made of the fact that early jazz musicians were often unable to read music, but this is hardly an argument since throughout history, many ‘professional’ musicians have been similarly ignorant of musical notation.

So what makes Jazz different? According to many, the time signature or ‘swing’ of jazz is what sets it apart, but the truth may lie in the apparent tension between popular jazz and ‘art jazz’. The academic analysis of jazz has created boundaries for the genre which may be entirely artificial. Most dangerous of all, it is possible that the academic influence will make jazz respectable.

For much of the appeal of jazz is in it’s ‘bad boy’ past, a past where no distinct point of origin is obvious. Although there seems to be a connection with African music, the only clear point of similarity is the incorporation of ‘blue’ notes, notes which can only be produced on instruments with continuous variations in pitch (like the guitar).

Blues music was heavily influenced by ragtime and the music played on banjo and in vaudeville. The instruments of marching bands became the staple instruments of jazz and in 1915, the first jazz arrangement in print was ‘jelly roll blues’.

From 1920-1933 the sale of alcohol in public places was banned in the USA. In this era of ‘prohibition’ jazz music was heard in all the underground bars and ‘speakeasies’ giving the music a decidedly sinful association. One Princeton professor described jazz as ‘an irritation of the nerves of hearing.’

In 1930, European jazz surfaced notably with the Quintette du Hot Club de France. European jazz had a gypsy influence and concentrated on the string, rather than wind instruments, the violin, the guitar and the double bass. From there bebop, modal jazz and cool jazz all developed.

In the late 1950s a movement called ‘free jazz’ began, breaking all the boundaries of beat, creating a style which some describe as ‘orgiastic’. Sometimes criticized as too avant-garde, free jazz is viewed by some as a return to the true roots of the genre, or in some way mystical. Musicians attempt to extract new and different sounds from their instruments, increasing their improvisation technique, but abandoning the traditional 4/4 tempo of most jazz pieces for an irregular beat.

Creative jazz, jazz-funk, jazz fusion, modern jazz, and try to put a boundary around a style which essentially has none. Is jazz as wild and original as it’s proponents seem to believe? Probably not. Is Jazz an intellectual movement in music, deeply subversive but eminently academic?

Once again, probably not. You can be pretentious about anything, music is not immune. What jazz is, is a wonderful, liberating musical form, which, with today’s emphasis on music as a composers art, gives vent to the soul of the musician and provides a framework for improvisation. Duke Ellington famously said ‘It’s all music’, but if you find the dangerous world of sensational jazz calls to you, why wait? Perhaps you need Jazz Guitar lessons?

Beginner Jazz Guitar Questions

What is Jazz Chord progression?

Jazz chord progression refers to the common chord progressions in jazz music. Chord progressions are a succession of chords that are typically played in order, one after the next, and to a specific duration. There are several common jazz chords that you’ll need to know to become proficient at jazz chord progression.
What are the most common jazz chords?

As previously mentioned, there are several types of jazz chords for guitar that you’ll want to learn to master chord progressions. These include:

• ii V I Major
• Dim7 Passing Chords
• I to IV

How Important is listening to jazz music?

Listening to jazz music is critical for anyone who wants to become an amazing jazz guitar player. When you hear how specific jazz chords can be played, you quickly begin to learn how to infuse those sounds into your own playing. Listen to as much jazz music as possible to become a skilled player.

Should I use a teacher in the beginning?

It is always a good idea to use a teacher right from the start. Why? Because they show you how to avoid mistakes, most of which end up consuming way too much of your time. Investing in a teacher, whether online or in person, is an excellent way to cultivate professional-level skills. Their ability to pick up on your strengths also allows you to maximize your practice time for the better.

What tools should I use?

We can’t emphasize this enough; a guitar chords chart is one of the best tools to use to start learning how to play jazz guitar. Chord charts provide an excellent reference for anyone who’s just starting out because they break down the details of each chord. Grab a good one for the best results.

Should I focus on tunes over music theory?

Music theory is critical if you want to be proficient in the most minute of jazz guitar playing. However, tunes are a better way to capitalize on your natural talent. Your skills can only be cultivated when you fully understand the sounds jazz music should make. If you can explore your own talent and dive deeper into the sounds, tunes, and rhythms produced by jazz music, then focusing on tunes over music theory makes more sense.

Can I learn how to play jazz guitar without learning the fretboard?

In short, no. The fretboard is the most important of your guitar. If you don’t know what is where, you won’t be able to follow along with music sheets or jazz chord progression because you’ll have no clue where your fingers are supposed to go. Invest a good portion of your practice time in learning all there is to know about your fretboard. If you can, grab a jazz guitar chord chart too to help you visualize where to place your hand on your fretboard for specific chords.

Will learning technique make me sound like a real jazz player?

Possibly. Learning technical terms is an important part of becoming a true jazz guitar player. However, it isn’t the only element to focus on when learning to play jazz. In reality, you have to take things a step further to sound like a guitarist. An important part of that is learning the jazz language. Now, you may be wondering what jazz language is.

In short, it is the bite-size bits and pieces musicians use to make their improvisation technique better. Things such as enclosures, passing tones, and more are critical elements in rounding out your play. These are the elements that make your music sound truly jazzy.

I just started learning how to play jazz guitar, should I start transcribing right away?

Yes! Even if you aren’t quite clear on what you’re doing, start transcribing right away. Your ability to learn how to transcribe and understand the process can become the catalyst to your play in the future. In other words, the more familiar you are with transcription, the better of a jazz musician you’ll become.


You likely have countless more questions about how to play jazz guitar like a pro, but these are the basics. Jazz chord progression coupled with a clear understanding of jazz chords, likely as a result of jazz guitar chord charts, can turn any novice into a professional jazz guitar player. Stay focused on the end goal of becoming a better player, and reap the benefits of your hard work in the short term.

Importance of Jazz Theory to Jazz Musicians

Before we answer that question, let’s take a closer look at what jazz theory is.

What is Jazz Guitar Theory?

Jazzy theory isn’t the easiest thing to narrow down. It is many different things to different people. To some people it’s confusing, overbearing, and virtually useless. To other’s it’s the catalyst for their ability to play jazz guitar and remains a very important part of their musical career.

Jazz theory in its most basic form, however, is simply a method of speaking about the sound of music. It’s a way to narrow down the construction of the rhythms, melodies and tunes that we hear every single day.

Instead of wondering how a certain sound was made with an instrument, you simply have to read the notes from the musician to know how the sound was made. Every theory you learn is unified by real sound.

Essentially, jazz guitar theory becomes most important when you understand how it relates to the tunes that resonate with you. But it takes more than a few weeks to learn how sounds are made and how you can create your own compositions.

Basics of Jazz Guitar Theory

Jazz theory can be summed up in three simple terms. Those terms are 12 keys, 4 main types of chords, and common chord progressions. You’ll see these three terms rehearsed over and over again when you’re learning jazz theory.

Sure, in some cases a twist will be thrown into the mix to confuse you, but essentially these three rules define the whole of jazz theory. To be a successful soloist, you need to understand these three rules. Without a basic understanding of them you’ll be left struggling to figure out how a sound was created.

Don’t believe me? Well, let me know where you stand after spending years studying music theory and tell me if I’m wrong. I think you’ll find that these common themes are the most important aspects of jazz guitar theory, no matter how you slice it.

Improvisational Jazz

When it comes to improvisational jazz, jazz theory becomes a bit more important. A deep understanding of jazz theory is important if you want to write your own music. If you intend for others to read and replay your compositions, it is all the more important to have a good grasp of jazz theory-otherwise you’ll just spread bad music around.

However, I’d argue that jazz guitar theory isn’t the most important skill to master in regards to jazz improvisation. Countless jazz legends never learned to read music, including Wes Montgomery and Erroll Garner. If they didn’t need to understand jazz guitar theory, there’s a good chance you don’t either. The ability to play by ear continues to be the defining factor for many jazz musicians.


In the end, you don’t have to have 10 years of jazz theory study under your belt to be a successful jazz musician. However, learning the basic elements that make up jazz music composition will go a long way towards improving your improvisation. Either route you choose, more knowledge can never hurt.