Technique level?

Question  by Claus


I’m an advanced rock player interested in learning jazz. I notice a lot of people never bother much about technique, speed, etc. I find that a bit strange. Of course one’s craft should be as balanced as possible, but having “free” hands, that really gives you better tools for improvisation. At least it is some part of the picture.

But what do you think is a needed level of technique, speed to play jazz on a high level? Some standards go by fast (Donna Lee, Cherokee, etc.), and to play those like Joe Pass, Andreas Oberg, Birelli Lagrene I think you should be able to play 8th notes at 300 bpm! What are your thoughts on technique level, speed, for jazz?


M-A’s Answer:

Hello Claus,

Great question.

First, let me reassure you: there is no such thing as “needed level of technique/speed” in order to play jazz on a high level.
Not all great jazz musicians were/are virtuosos; you can play and enjoy music without being amazingly technically agile and it’s ok.

If “fast” and virtuosity in music is your call, then that is perfectly ok too. Simply remember that music (and jazz) is not ONLY about speed/technique. Furthermore, I believe I understand your question quite well and I feel it is important not to mix matters : music (etheral, invisible) and technique (physical, solid). In jazz (and any improvised music), the sounds should come first. The technique is merely a mean to and end… NOT the whole thing!

Let’s start with an example to demonstrate this better…


Wes -vs- Yngwie

Musician #1: has the technical facility to play eighth notes at 300 or more. That’s all he can do. Many notes, many scales, many arpeggios, whatever he wants. He has “free hands” as you said…

Can musician #1 improvise convincingly on Donna Lee at 300? Maybe. But not necessarily.

Musician #2: knows Donna Lee inside out (melody, form, maybe chord structures and scales too) and has good ears. He can really hear himself and what other musicians are playing.

Can musician #2 improvise convincingly on Donna Lee at 300? For sure!

It doesn’t mean that this second musician will be physically able to play streams of 8th notes at 300 BPM… but the “musical story”, his personal voice and experience will shine through no matter what. Probably more so than the musician #1 who can play 8ths with surgical precision at lightning speed (if that’s all he knows to do).

Even if musician #2 isn’t a virtuoso, he might still have many interesting things to say in his musical speech. Because: 1- He knows the tune and 2- He can hear what he/other play. He’s listening.

By the way, I’m not dissing any musician that can play 8ths precisely @ 300 BPM!!!

A great example of this type of “Musician #2” jazz guitar playing: Jim Hall.

Listen to the Sonny Rolins’ album “The Bridge”. The contrast between the technical dexterity of Sonny and Jim is very sharp… yet they’re both legendary players for their sense of taste and personal voices.


On the other hand…

Ok, so that was for “being the devil’s advocate” part. Now, on the other hand: technique is extremely important! Every musician has to develop a very personal, sensual and musical relationship with the instrument.

The more “free” your hands are, the more music can (and will) come out naturally, I agree with you Claus. There’s always a varying degree of “athletics” related to playing the music depending on the chosen instrument. It’s simply important not to fall in any sort of technical “trap” of any kind when performing/practicing.

A few general guidelines:

  • Practice technique only when you can hear/sing what you’re practicing;
  • Practice things that sound “good” to you (YOUR definition of good!);
  • Don’t focus most of practicing time on solely physical exercises;
  • Technical exercises can (and should) come from something cool you heard and cannot play yet;
  • Play less and wait for the next idea to come in your head/ears first when you solo. (Pacing your ideas)
  • _______________________ (write your own!)


Wrap up

Now I realize how hard your question was to answer. Wow! In the end, I think the “balance” of technique in one’s playing is a very personal thing, no matter what. My view is that jazz comes from the ears:

Music comes first. The instrument and its limitation
are the tools with which we express the music that is
already there in our heads/ears.

The sound, feelings and expression in music take 
precedence over the level of difficulty of what is played. 

In fact, this last paragraph could have been my whole answer… but I always like to extrapolate!

I hope this helps,
Practice well,

Marc-Andre Seguin



If you really want to practice deep technique for fast stuff, try to hear fast lines without playing them. For example, set the metronome slow and hear the major scale in time, in 8th notes in your mind.

Can you hear it faster? What’s the fastest you can hear it by still using the metronome?

You’ll hit a wall somewhere. The fastest you can hear this scale is probably the fastest you can play it cleanly also. I’m not “just saying” that as it applies to most musicians and students that I know!

So the speed barrier is in the ears. Funny, huh?! Yes, I’m sure it’s not “the other way around” because it’s a scientific facts that fingers and muscles of musicians and non-musicians move all at the same maximum speed!

Now, imagine if you could push the envelope just by hearing and concentrating hard (instead of doing it athletically). What a time and energy saver it could be! See the book Forward Motion for more exercises like that.


Old Comments for Technique level?

May 03, 2010
Yes, yes
by: Dalhi

If you can hear it, you will play it. That’s why listening to the music that you’re trying to play is so good for you, as you will consciously as well as subconsciously start to digest it, assimilate it in your mind, and it will start to come out in your playing without you necessarily even trying really hard. Try transcribing ONE line that is really fast and crazy, like a crazy Coltrane line or something, or Sonny. Or something from a guitarist (might make it more attainable on the instrument), and try and play it as closely as possible as you can. Remember that quality over quantity primes! Better to really get 1 great line down, learn it in 12 keys, then to get 10 fast lines down that you’re still not playing that well, and you don’t even understand what’s going on. ]]>

May 01, 2010
Well Done
by: Larry

Great response to that difficult question

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