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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