How Hard Is Learning Jazz Guitar?

How Hard Is Learning Jazz Guitar?

When I was in music school, stories of Coltrane and Charlie Parker practicing jazz for 10-12 hours a day would circulate the hallways like folk tales.

At the time, it was inspiring, but for prospective jazz musicians I can understand how it would be intimidating. Do you really need to become some sort of monk to play jazz?!

So, in today's post I hope to clear up some of these so-called "jazz myths". Then, I'll give my take on what you actually need in order to learn jazz guitar!

We'll discuss:

  1. Your Personal Goals
  2. Common "Jazz Myths" (what you don't need)
  3. A Balanced Approach (what you will need)

What Are Your Goals?

Before you can assess what it will take to learn to play jazz guitar, first you have to ask yourself: what am I really trying to accomplish?

If your answer was that you want to play faster than Pat Martino and know more chords than Ted Greene, then I won't sugar coat it: you might just have to practice for 12 hours each day.

However, perhaps your answer was more along the lines of wanting to:

  1. Play with a great swing feel
  2. Play both solo guitar and in groups
  3. One day have your own "sound"
yngwie malmsteen

I'll gladly say that these goals are something that anyone can achieve.

Sure, you won't be the Yngwie Malmsteen of bebop, but then again, why would you want to be?

If this sounds more your speed, then read on!

Common "Jazz Myths"

Do you need any of these things to accomplish the goals we just listed? Let's investigate!

1. A PhD: Look at a list of the most revered jazz musicians, and then check how many of them even had a degree at all. Case closed 🏛️

2. The ability to read musicThis one would certainly not hurt - however, Wes Montgomery and Chet Baker did not read music!

3. All-day practice sessionsIf you're not careful, this one might actually hurt your progress! To express yourself, you must also have time to live your life.

Now that we've discussed what you don't need, let's talk about what you will need in order to learn jazz guitar!

A Balanced Approach

If you're still looking for a fixed number of hours to practice, unfortunately you won't be finding that here. Everyone's needs are too different! For a sample practice routine, see this 45 Minutes to Jazz Guitar Victory PDF here.

Instead, what I'll be doing is outlining the kind of learning approach that you can take to achieve your goals.

1. Listen to Jazz Records

Seems obvious, right? But you'd be surprised by how many people want to play jazz and don't actually listen to it that much.

Listening to jazz records is perhaps the most important step when trying to learn jazz - it helps to internalize the nuances of the music. Here are a few classics!

Musicians who don't listen heavily to jazz records will struggle to internalize standard tunes, because they aren't learning them in a natural way.

2. Work On Fundamentals

At all levels, the fundamentals of jazz guitar include chord shapes, scales and standard tunes.

For beginners, it's easy to get overwhelmed by the endless practice possibilities! However, if you know exactly what to focus on, the task at hand becomes much more approachable.

Here is where I'll recommend that you learn shell voicings, the major scale, and these standard tunes first. When practicing, always aim to have a good time feel!

These are all the basic tools you'll need to play standards with other musicians.

P.S. If you're not feeling confident about anything in these lessons, the best thing to do would be to consult a private teacher :)

3. Embrace Your Creativity

In jazz guitar, creativity is not an option, it's required!

Just think: in the course of one standard, you'll have to interpret the melody in your own way, improvise a solo and comping, all with a unique musical voice.

That's a lot to of improvising! If you're coming from say, a classical background, you might find this aspect of jazz quite difficult.

With this in mind, here are a few tips to encourage your inner creativity:

  1. Use limitations - this will force you to play things you haven't considered, and stop you from repeating yourself too much. Here are some ideas to get you started!
  2. Personal Reflection - think about why you're learning this music, and what parts of your playing make it distinctly you. Then, develop those things further! You might call this, finding your muse.

Summary

Will all that said, I hope you now have a clearer understanding of what it takes to learn jazz guitar!

It won't take 12 hours every day, but it will take a lot of listening, practicing fundamentals, and embracing your creativity.

If you focus on these things, I can promise that learning jazz guitar will be a piece of cake. 🍰

Photo of Yngwie Malmsteen courtesy of:  Alterna2 http://www.alterna2.com - originally posted to Flickr as Concierto de Yngwie Malmsteen en la sala Apolo de Barcelona, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4463275

Interested in learning how to improvise?

If you've ever wondered where to get started with jazz improv, how to approach playing changes and so on, be sure to check out our Beginner's Guide to Jazz Improv!

beginners guide to improv w store background