How to Play Jazz Guitar: The Truth About Finding Your Muse

practice and mindset May 06, 2014

When we are learning how to play jazz guitar, the question is always: "Am I practicing the right stuff?"

Or better still: "What is the next step a jazz guitarist at my level should take?"

As far as I know, there's never a perfect answer. Thank God. We are lucky that there's no pre-established curriculum for a jazz musicians to learn. Else we would all sound and play the same way!

But in this short post, we'll try to uncover what really works for you as a jazz guitarist on a lifelong journey of learning.

Already have it ...

Unlike other materials you might have read on (or other instructional jazz guitar website), I'll try to convey to you that you already know what you need, now. Not necessarily in terms of scales, chords, theory and tunes  ... but rather as a little "voice" that knows what works.  I believe that a small part of you knows what's best for your musical improvement.

And yes: I am talking about you intuition or subconscious (or whatever else you wanna call it!)

Basically, my point is the following: there's a muse constantly guiding us, letting us gravitate towards the materials we should practice the most...


Yep! [Laughs]

It is not necessarily the muse we think of when a composer has a stroke of genius, or when a scientist makes a brilliant discovery almost by accident. What I am referring to here is more like "let's find what makes you tick".

Remember that my perspective comes from teaching (now for over 15 years, wow) and that I recently deeply realized that no two people are the same. And especially when it comes to learning music. What makes you tick won't necessarily work for me. And it won't necessarily last for you either!

I had this revelation, and really wanted to share it here! :-)

Some Examples Please?

Well, let's start with a recent anecdote: I've been teaching customized lessons to a nice intermediate jazz guitarist for the past several weeks. Everything is going really well: we are tackling new tunes together, comping and chords, working on rhythms and time, learning chord melody stuff, other techniques, etc.

But there's this brick wall my student kept hitting: improvisation. It was not possible for this jazz guitarist to improvise on ANY of the handful of tunes we worked on together. (I kept thinking: Just take a solo, man!)

We tried several approaches: I directed him to learn the proper scales for improvisation. Success! Can you improvise something now? Nope. (So it is a technical success, so to speak). I then directed him to learn to proper arpeggios for improvisation. But once again: only technical success. No decent soloing came out of this.

Another method: we looked at the "shell" of each chord. Playing just on 3rd and 7th and making the proper voice-leading connections (on the same set of strings, etc.) NOPE! Once again. We were blocked.

And the Muse Struck

After pondering a little bit, walking in circle in the studio, I thought of a little something.

Let's have this guy compose a slow chord-tones line on this standard. Say in whole-notes, only one note for each bar, or whenever the chord changes. After he composes it, he could memorize it completely. And then: he should try to connect to long notes to one another with the scales and arpeggios he already knows. That will constitute the "improvisation" on the changes.

And I figured: if it doesn't work, we are not hurting anything. It's just one more tool in the toolbox.

What do you think happened?

It was a total success.

This student has been soloing on tunes ever since, and he has a method to develop his own improvisations now. What's more fun: even if the solos are based on the same "structure" (like a skeleton of slow lines) he improvises different lines every time.

Moral of the story

No, it doesn't mean that you all have to use slow guide-tone or chord-tone lines to learn improvisation! [Laughs]

(Although these are great tools!)

What we should remember: the student found what made him tick. We uncovered the tool that made everything clear in his ears and in his playing. Scales, arpeggios and 3rd-7ths didn't work. But chord-tones worked! So the moral: you have to find what makes you tick. And be aware that this muse can (and will) change with time. The student above may wind up only practicing this stuff for a few weeks, and then work on other more relevant materials. It's fine. We have to adapt, always.

And furthermore: that muse is already there for you! You simply have to remove the mental clutter around it. :-)

While continuing to stress the fact that we must look for that muse (or "what makes us tick" or that thing that really "makes sense" for us, etc.) let me continue with some more personal examples.

Example: Starting Out

Without fear of admitting it, it is by reading / playing through Arnie Berle's book that I first played "jazz" on the guitar. Learning arpeggio and scale shapes simultaneously in one position, practicing common scale patterns and applying this on II-V-I ... it was a first for me. And in one way, it doesn't seem that far in the past.

I certainly outgrew the materials in the book fairly fast, but at this point, it was exactly what I needed and what made the more sense for me. I made strides for a few months. I finally could understand a part of what Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass were doing on the recordings!

Example: Diagonal

I discovered and totally abused the concept of diagonal scale fingering patterns for guitar. That was in my last year of undergraduate music study, in Montreal. It opened so many doors, it's scary. This is really how to play jazz guitar on the physical level. To this day, I admit that not a SINGLE technical aspect of the guitar had a bigger impact on my playing than this idea. It clicked with me, motivated me ... and made me sound drastically different very fast. Still: the muse was just a simple concept! :-)

And it only lasted a little while ...

Example: Blowing on Tunes

One full year. Can you believe that!?!

During one full year all I did was play gigs (playing mostly jazz standards or bebop stuff, and the odd blues / rock show), and practicing on standards. I'd come back home, flick the metronome on and improvise on standards until I got blue in the face.

I was learning 2-3 tunes a week, of course ... but my practice was completely unfocused in terms of scales, chords, chord melody, etc. I would just warm up and then jam. I didn't mind, and I didn't know exactly why. But for the time being, just "fooling around" on standards was all that I needed. It was my "muse" of the moment.

Indeed, the "fooling around" often got me to create interesting chord melody stuff, learn harmony, apply new scales concepts, etc. But it seems that my mind and ears needed the context of using tunes first, instead of learning new musical material "dry".


From these few personal anecdotes, I think you get the picture. Nobody specifically told me to go and do these things. I read or heard about them somewhere (perhaps). But in any case: it just felt right for me...

How to Play Jazz Guitar: Conclusion

Whenever you are practicing an exercise for a certain purpose (i.e. improving upon a certain area of your playing), try to find that muse. Find what really makes you tick, what really makes sense for you in the context. Don't be so sure that your way of addressing the problem (certain exercises) are the holy grail. Even if your teacher says so!!! :-)

Don't mind what is written in a magazine, in a book, or even on a website (!) ... just seek the thing that will make you grow the fastest, and that makes the more sense to you.

It will spark the learning process and have you make strides.

Practice well, and I'll see you next time.

UPDATE: See Podcast #16 on the podcasts page on for an audio discussion on the same topic.



For intermediate guitarists ready to "crack the code" in jazz


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