Learning Jazz Standards

Question by Karl
(Boston, MA, USA)

First of all, thank you Marc-Andre, for this website.

I am trying to learn a repertoire of standards, as I think it is essential part of being a jazz musician. For me it is proving to be one of the most difficult things, not just because it will involve a lot of memorization, but because I am so unsure of the ‘proper’ way to play them.

What I am asking is, how do I choose what fret position to play the melody on? As we all know, there are numerous positions/modes to play a melody on the guitar, unlike on the piano. When I learn melodies on the guitar, I want to feel confident I am approaching them in a smart way.

Should the melody move from position to position when the chord changes? What about key changes? Should I try to play the notes on the higher (G,B,E) strings? How much should I rely on a fake book as far as memorizing goes?

Thanks for any answers you may have, and any other pointers for learning standards.


M-A’s Answer:

Karl,

You are absolutely right, building a decent repertoire of jazz standards is essential for all jazz musicians. But let me reassure you right away: it won’t be that difficult.  It doesn’t involve a tremendous amount of memorization or require you to figure out “the right way” each time. It’s the opposite. There’s little or no memorization and the standards should “play themselves” so to speak. Let’s see why.

Memorization: Sound

Allright, let me ask you this: How much actual practice/work did you put into memorizing Happy Birthday? How about The Star Spangled Banner? Do you have to concentrate very hard each time you sing those tunes (and look in the fakebook), or do they just come out naturally?

That is exactly what you want to do with standards: listen and then try to imitate what you hear. DO NOT fall in the trap of browsing through fakebooks, trying to memorize a bunch of tunes you’ve never even heard .

The “memorization” you’re talking about starts with deep listening. I highly recommend simple and straight-ahead recordings of jazz standards by singers such as Chet Baker . Chet’s always a great point of reference. (I learned many standards from him.)

In brief, you don’t have to memorize tunes, you just have to know them. Before even attempting to play something on your guitar, that “next song” you’re learning should feel like Happy Birthday : sing it convincingly and learn the lyrics if possible. That will make all the difference in the world… the standards will “play themselves” the same way Happy Birthday “sings itself” each time there’s a cake and candles lying around!!!

 

Proper Fingerings

Let’s keep Happy Birthday as our main example here. Go ahead and play it on your guitar right now and sing along to your playing.

Good? Still fumbling on some notes? Try again, this time find a good fingering and stick to it. Got it? Make sure your fingerings for Happy Birthday are rock-solid before reading the next paragraph.

Good! Play it once again. Only this time you will let go of your fingers (don’t even look) and focus all your attention on sound.  If it sounds like it “should”, you’re done. If not, figure out a new set of fingerings and try again.

By sounding like it “should” I mean: sounding like you expect it to sound, in the deep memories of your ears. (See the cake? Smell the candles?!)

…back to jazz standards now.

Guitar fingerings for jazz standards are not necessarily related to positions, frets or strings. It should be clear to you by now. Here’s what matters the most: it has to 1- sound good. 2- make sense for you.  Remember : Sound comes first.

The process we used on Happy Birthday is applicable to any song you want to play on the guitar. Focus on the sound of the melody (you should hear it in your head) and play how you feel it.  There are exceptions, of course, where some fingerings are better than others. Playing bebop heads is a good example. That would be the topic of an entirely different article, though.

Memorization Take 2 : Changes

I guess that’s where most people hit a brick wall. “Oh my god! This tune has at least 23 different chords. How am I gonna know which one comes after the next?” (and so on…) Much like the melody in the previous step, memorizing chord changes for jazz standards is not about “brain memory” : it’s about hearing and listening.

Playing the bass part (root notes) is the very first thing to do. After that, you should try to sing the melody while playing the bass notes simultaneously. Forget about the chord qualities (maj, min, dom7, etc.) for now. Think of the root movement as another melody…only this time, it’s the “bass melody”, the foundation of the piece. Of course, if you can, sing the roots while you play the melody on the guitar.

Betcha didn’t think of that! (-:

Only after you can really hear the melody and root motion can you start to apply chord qualities and “go intellectual” on the tune. The next logical step would be to make an harmonic analysis : relationship of each chord to the tonic (or “key of the moment”) through roman numerals, secondary dominants, modulations, etc.

That, also, could be the topic of an entirely different article. For the time being, I highly recommend Jerry Coker’s Hearin’ the Changes . That book outlines most (if not all) of the common traits found in chord progressions in jazz standards and much more…

Memorization Take 3: Fake Books

To wrap it all up, learning jazz standards is all about ears, not fingers! You can, but don’t have to, use fake books. I find them useful because they often indicate what key a song is most often played in and some performance notes from famous jazz recordings. (I really like the New Real Book series.)

Remember though that the fakebook is only a reference. Work with the chart for a while and dismiss it… the thing you should keep doing is listening to a good recording of the tune!  So, when you’re jamming or gigging (or recording…) leave the fakebook on the shelf. (Please!) There’s nothing worse than four jazz musicians reading on a stage… and no musical interaction!

There are exceptions here again. I personally rely heavily on charts during Christmas time. We sometimes have to play 30 holiday tunes every night (arranged in a jazz style). There’s no way I can memorize all that if I don’t play them year round.  (-:

Play your tunes often, they’ll stick with you.

Finally, remember that the more tunes you learn, the easier it gets. Jazz standards have melodic and harmonic “recurring formulas” all over them. See Hearin’ the Changes .

I hope this can be helpful to you Karl,

Practice Well.

Marc-Andre Seguin

PS
Use your ears and you will be able to “wing” standards by ear once in a while. Try it now : turn on the radio and jam with a jazz station. One my mentors, the great saxophonist Dave Turner, does that on a daily basis!

Old Comments for Learning Jazz Standards

Dec 13, 2011

Some Additional Homework
by: Anonymous

Actually making myself PLAY all the roots is helpful. Then all the 3rds (gotta know which ones are major and minor), 5ths (use b5 if it is a II half-diminished), 7ths (is it Major or dominant?). You get the idea. Then, you add approach notes that are static with regard to your target note. (For example, say you’re playing all the 3rd in ‘Stella’. Your first target pitch is a G – the minor third of the openning Emb5 – your second pitch is C# – the Maj. 3rd of the A7 chord: so you could approach those tones from a half-step below by playing F#, G, C, C#; and then intensifying the challenge by playing the tone a half-step down AND a half-step above before the target note itself – so, F# G# G-natural, C D C#). This sounds vaguely masochistic, I know. But I gotta tell you it has made my ear 100% more reliable, and was taught to me by the great jazz teacher Jerry Bergonzi.

Nov 14, 2011
PLAYING MELODIES IN POSITION
by: PHIL ROBERTS

a VERY EFFECTIVE WAY TO APPROACH MELODY LEARNING IS ONE I TEACH TO MY STUDENTS AND IT IS TOTALLY LOGICAL AND EASY. MY RESEARCH HAS PROVEN THAT MANY MELODIES IN THE REAL BOOK ENCOMPASS AN INTERVAL OF A MAJOR 10TH C/D FOR EXAMPLE WHICH CAN BE PLAYED IN APPROPRIATE 4 FRET/ 4 FINGER POSITIONS ON THE FINGERBOARD WHICH ALSO CORRESPOND TO THE CAGED PARADIGM. THIS IS ACTUALLY A BLATANTLY SIMPLE WAY TO APPROACH MELODY PLAYING BY LOCATING THE LOWEST NOTE AND THE HIGHEST NOTE (AHA) IN THE PIECE AND RUNNING THE SCALE IN A COMFORTABLE 4FRET / 4 FINGER POSITION. I HAVE FOUND ALMOST ALWAYS THAT “A BEST WAY” TO PLAY A MELODY DOES EXIST SOMEWHERE,IT REVEALS ITSELF BEAUTIFULLY LIKE A DANCE, AND YOU HAVE TO FIND IT NATURALLY YOURSELF. MOST LEARNING IS REALLY SELF DISCOVERY ON THIS SEEMINGLY COMPLICATED INSTRUMENT. THE GENIUS IS TO MAKE THE COMPLICATED SIMPLE.
HOPE THIS HELPS,
PHIL ROBERTS

Sep 15, 2011
learning standards
by: Anonymous

I used to use the “learn the root notes” method years ago when learning rock and pop tunes.

Thanks for pulling all this together!

Nov 05, 2010
Learning the Jazz Standards
by: Jazzpup

Thank you so much for the procedure you have provided. It has been quite helpful in how I will learn the tunes from now on.

I too have been struggling to put a repertoire of performable jazz tunes together; also feeling really overwhelmed by the amount of’memorization’that I thought would be involved. So for the longest time I’ve spent all my time on technique whilst effortlessly procrastinating on repertoire building…increasingly feeling bad about myself. After all what is a musician/singer without a song.

Your procedure has made it more accessible…thank you, thank you, thank you…so much. I’m actually learning ‘April in Paris’ and ‘All the things you are’…starting with the melody…learning it “inside out” and deconstructing the chords just the way you’ve described…I’m already starting to feel better about myself ‘cos I’m actually learning the tunes!!

YOU ARE A FANTASTIC TEACHER!

Sincerely
Jazzpup
Canada

May 23, 2010
Learning Jazz Standards
by: Larry

Great reply Marc. Thank you.

Nov 20, 2009
From the original poster
by: Karl

Wow! What a response! Thank you very much Marc-A!

Yes, I’ve been listening to a compilation that I made of 50 (of the most popular) jazz standards. I consider it my homework before actually picking up the guitar and trying to play them.

Thanks again for all the information you’ve given me (and others hopefully)!
karl

6 thoughts on “Learning Jazz Standards

  1. Hi Marc,

    Although this is an old thread, yet it is about what I want to know. Karl brought up a question about “Learning Jazz Standards”
    That is exactly what I am trying to engage in, but I feel I like there there is a great challenge to it.
    Your response to Karl is to solve his and my problem at hand. While he might have had a solution, but I got lost further.
    Here is how: 1) Practice what you here. I am pleased when you say one must get to know the tune he desire to learn. Do you mean that I must go on a fretboard and figure out the notes anywhere as I here them? how do I know the associated chords? how will I know the key? After that you say: “Only after you can really hear the melody and root motion can you start to apply chord qualities”
    I don’t find this a problem to do but I did not understand it can be done having not much knowledge of the instrument. The first comment by anonymous is not helping because one must have knowledge of the chord tones and fretboard to play the thirds and so on

    Your response will be very helpful

    Douglas

    • Hi Douglas. We have a standard process for learning songs here. Here are the steps:

      1. Sing the melody. Play the melody while singing. (Sing either the names of the notes or the lyrics to the song.)
      2. Sing the bass line (whole notes for 1 chord per bar; half notes for 2 chords per bar). Play the bass line while singing. (Sing the names of the bass notes.)
      3. Play both the melody and the bass together.
      4. Play the chords (whole notes or half-notes only).
      5. Sing the melody while playing the chords. (Sing either the names of the notes or the lyrics to the song.)

      You can find the melody and the “bass line” in any lead sheet for the song (if you see Cm7 for one bar, then you just stay on the C note for one bar), but it’s usually best to try to learn it by ear. This can be tricky, but rewarding. Singing the melody or the bass line helps you internalize the sound in your ear and in your body, helping you get more in synch with your guitar too.

  2. Hi Marc thank you for this very useful explanation. However I struggle a lot in learning melodies ( no problem with chords) and despite having studied some tunes for more than 2 years I still cannot play them. I also tend to forget them if I haven’t plays in 1-2 weeks. I feel I cannot seem to escape the fret/position visualisation trap. i memorise – and indeed repeat endlessly to help the process – bits of melody looking at their position on the fingerboard. I memorise positions not note pitches basically. I can sing the melody perfectly but cannot play it by hear. Any hints? Thanks in advance for your help.

    • Hi Angelo,

      Do you practice a lot two or three days out of the week or do you practice a little bit each day? I find that with memorization it is much more effective to repeat each day than to try cramming it all in one sitting.

      Also, if you can sing the melodies perfectly, that’s a great start! Do you know your intervals? I would start by doing lots of interval ear training. Be able to recognize every interval right away. There are tons of apps for this. The next step would be to figure out how each interval is laid out on the guitar. Learn each shape for each interval. When you are able to do these two things, you will see how much easier it is to play what you are hearing in your head.

      Hope this helps!

      • Hi Johnatan thank you very much for your reply. Actually I practice 2-3 day a a week for 1 to 2 hours (especially weekend) due to work family and personal obligations.I know a bit intervals I ‘ve been practicing with an app but I got stuck since several months on recognising minor vs major chord. I tried to play melodies on a single string yes I can do that – at no tempo- but with lots of sliding up and down the fretboard finding the right note. I guess I should maybe sing while playing the melody? Or eventually learn sight reading – that would mean no need to memorise fretboard positions no more – but that s a daunting task given the practice time available. it would take years.Anyway thanks for your advice I ‘ll work on the intervals as you say and try to hit the right note on the fret without sliding up / down. I ‘ll do it with just one or two bars. Eventually I should be able to play it with eyes closed and in 2 or 3 different places on the fretboard, right?

        • That’s the idea. It should be more of a thing that you’re hearing rather than shapes you are remembering. As you learn the intervals, learn the shapes that go with them on guitar.

Was this page helpful? Let us know!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.