How to Learn the Right Guitar Style for Jazz

When we think of an electric guitar, most people think of rock and roll.  However, the electric guitar of today had it’s beginnings in the jazz world.  In the 1930’s  the popular music of the day was the big band sound.  In order for the guitarist to contribute to the sound, he had to be heard.  Thus electric amplification for the guitar came into being.  Not only do jazz guitarists have to be fluent in chords and melodies, but they must have a strong grasp on improvisational skills.   

electric guitar

Notable guitarists that perform excellently in the jazz genre include Michael Bloomfield, who worked with jazz great Woody Herman on the celebrated album:  Woody Herman Brand New, and jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, who found success in Europe with his particular styling.  In order to be a competent jazz guitarist, it’s necessary to have a sound foundation in the genre itself, technical skills, learn about the environment, ear training, and have a good command of music theory.In order to become good at anything, one must absorb it, be immersed in it, and learn from it.  

Music transcription as well as technical skills are important process in learning to play quality jazz guitar.  Music transcription means that you write down what you are hearing while you are listening to a piece.  We are not talking about transcribing every note here, though there is nothing wrong with that.  We are speaking of transcribing with the purpose of getting a grasp of the ‘feel’ of  the music.   

As far as technical skills go, you will have to learn new scales, modes, arpeggios and chords.  It is recommended that as you learn these skills, you ‘get out of the book’ so to speak, and practice these skills within a musical context.   Another important technical skill is ear training.  Erroll Garner was a jazz pianist who played by ‘ear’.  This means that he was able to process music theory (chords, notes, melodies, etc.) ‘in his head’ and play a song just by hearing it.   Ear training is when you learn how to do this for yourself, and it is crucial to being an excellent jazz guitarist. If you see yourself as a jazz guitarist in a combo, then you have to get out into the music scene and get together with other jazz musicians.  

Jazz is heavy on the improvisation.  It’s of the utmost importance that the jazz guitarist learn how to interact with other musicians not only socially, but musically as well.  There are dynamics involved when jazz musicians play, and you can only develop that ‘sense’ and understanding by actually going out and playing with a group of jazz musicians.

The jazz guitarist is one that must be technically sound in music theory, but be able to adapt and improvise while playing in a group of other jazz musicians.   It is known as America’s only original living art form.  To become a great jazz guitarist, become familiar with the various stylings of the masters of the jazz guitar, such as Johnny Smith, Pat Metheny, or Kenny Burrell, to name a few.  According to Wynton Marsalis, jazz music is “music that swings” in other words, it’s improvised, it’s a living art form. The jazz guitarist contributes to the overall feel of the ‘swing’, able to provide either rhythmical beats, or complex, emotionally driven and improvised solos.


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Top 5 Jazz Musicians

  1. Louis Armstrong                                                                                                                                                                     louis-armstrong-jazz-history

Armstrong is not only one of the most well known jazz musicians, trumpeters, and voices of the world, he’s also an extremely important figure to the genre. The future jazz king was young and alive at the earliest peak of jazz, yet he was also black and southern during a time of prejudice and racism before even the breath of the Civil Rights Movement. His eventual fame and success would come at the combination of fate – being alive and talented at the right place and time – and ironic circumstance – selling his music, along with his blackness, to white audiences. His illustrious career would lead him to Chicago as well as New York City, where he would meet and go on to create a long musical friendship with Ella Fitzgerald.  

2. Billie Holiday

Somehow Lady Day was able to give gloominess a sultriness. And with the blues embedded in the origins of jazz, is it any wonder? Holiday was described by her contemporary, Frank Sinatra, as “the most important influence on American popular singing in the last twenty years” (Source 1, p. 368). This was said in 1958, merely months before her untimely death. The unparalleled sound of her iconic voice – its bright, high trilling to its low, smooth valleys – undoubtedly inspired a generation. Part of the Harlem Renaissance, Holiday brought cultural and sociopolitical context to a changing America, particularly with her rendition of the poem, “Strange Fruit”.

3. Dizzy Gillespie


Dizzy Gillespie is most closely associated with the Bebop generation of jazz, in which the genre took on a new, funkier, heavier sound. It was during this time that jazz even began to take on an ethnic interest, in which Gillespie explored Latin, Cuban influences. His large cheeks not only blew into the brass lips of his trumpet but also breathed new life into the fundamentals of jazz. With the help of his contemporaries, Gillespie reinvited the wildness of jazz, the roots of the genre that may have been forgotten.

4. Fats Waller

Famous for his entertaining performance as well his musical talent, Waller was a lively pianist. As a jazz figure, he is associated with ragtime, one of the earlier leanings of jazz music. His career overlapped with the widespread enthusiasm of radio and with it, radio shows, in which he starred in many. He was born in New York City, a hub for the jazz world, and easily gained popularity with both his adored ragtime tunes and sense of humor. His most famous song is the title, “Ain’t Misbehavin'” which may seem ironic to anyone familiar with his love for the ladies. Irregardless his vices, Waller was an influential early figure on the jazz community, opening the genre to white audiences, and concurrently helping jazz’s eventual leap into the mainstream.

5. Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington was involved and making music throughout many of jazz’s evolutions. This fact alone showcases his larger than life career and influence as one of the best jazz musicians. As a man both behind (conductor) and in front of (pianist) of the music, Ellington wrote and performed thousands of songs. Early success was found for the musician in the 1940’s, particularly with the big band and swing movements. One of his most popular tunes is “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got That Swing)” which inspired a generation of Americans during and after WWII. Sources:1. Visions of Jazz: The First Century by Gary Giddins (1998)