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.
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.