Introduction To Jazz Guitar




Jazz is a general label used to denote a broad set of musical styles. There is swing (which can be broken down into many subtle variations such as dixieland, bebop, light-jazz, etc.), jazz-rock fusion, and various latin styles such as bossa and samba. This is a drop in the bucket compared to all the other subtle variations of music that can officially be labelled as jazz. The one thing that seems to be common from one jazz style to another is that at some point in the song there will most likely be a period of time where one of the players improvises or plays a solo. For the sake of time I'm going to give you the information you need to get started in understanding the jazz world. Here are some facts:

  • Most jazz players will learn how to read standard music notation so they can read music in what's known as a fakebook.
  • A fakebook is a collection of short melodies with the chord symbols written above the melody line. This is known in other circles as a lead-sheet.
  • The player(s) will use the melody and chord symbols as a guide for what they play. In other words they don't necessarily strictly follow the notes on the page.
  • Generally the melody line is played the first and last time through the tune. This is referred to as the "Head."
  • After the Head is played through the first time, one or all the members of the group will in turn make up a melody of their own while the chord changes of the Head are played by the other members of the group. This is referred to as improvising over the chord changes or "taking a ride" or "playing a solo." After the last person in the group finishes their solo, the Head is played through and the song is ended.
  • Musicians who have learned to do this will always be able to make a little extra money playing in pick-up groups in almost any town, large or small. There's always a wedding reception or company party, etc., where "back-ground music" is needed. Many times this is strictly instrumental music.

What I've described above doesn't cover everything about the jazz world but it gives you enough insight to get started. In subsequent lessons we'll cover various topics in more detail. This lesson focuses on one of the most important aspects of jazz- relaxed playing.


Using the light swing style as a background, we're introducing a common jazz guitar technique we'll call the slide grace-note. It's a simple ornament used frequently by jazz guitarists. One thing to remember here is don't over-do it! One of the most common mistakes made by beginning jazz players is over-emphasizing rhythms and ornaments. Remember, jazz is a relaxed form of music. Refer to the HANDS video for a demonstration.


When you play with a jazz combo and they say, "Swing this one" what they're really saying is this:

Instead of playing 8th notes as equally divided groups you should play them as if they were the 1st and 3rd notes in groups of 3, otherwise known as a triplet. Did I hear you say, "HUH?!?" Ok, below is an illustration of what I'm talking about.


There is a specific underlying pulse or "feel" in the swing jazz style. When you break down the predominant underlying rhythmic pulse in the swing style you'll discover that for every single beat there is an underlying pulse of three beats. Take a look at the graphic below.

If you count slowly and steadily- One, Two, Three, Four and then replace each one of those steady counts with three equally divided notes, you are counting triplets. There are several ways to verbally count triplets, such as Trip-o-let, Trip-o-let, etc., or simply 1-2-3 1-2-3, etc., or Am-ster-dam Am-ster-dam, etc.. Any three-syllable word will do. Take a look at the interactive example below to see exactly how this works. Notice the quarter-notes on the top staff and the 8th-note triplets below. If you click the clock, you'll see and hear how this notation is counted and played.

With each tick of the clock the cursor advances 3 times. Each tick of the clock is one full beat. There are 3 equally divided triplet counts for every quarter note or beat.


You will discover that most jazz fakebook lead-sheets do not specifically notate triplets when writing out melodies. Instead, they use the simplest notation possible such as 8th notes, and indicate at the top of the page that the style is swing. This tells you that you should play the 8th notes as if they were triplets. Look again at the example above specifically at the 2nd measure. Play the example and listen to the rhythm of that measure. That is the correct rhythm for playing swing 8th-notes. Take a look at the example below. You'll need the free Scorch2 Player. If you don't have it click the link below to download and install it.


If you can't see the score, get the Sibelius Scorch plug-in here

The 8th notes in the above example are played with a triplet feel. This is much easier to notate than strictly notating every triplet. So, this is what you'll commonly find in jazz notation.


I've used the examples above to show you the basic rhythm used in the swing style but this doesn't do justice to the subtleties of the style. The jazz swing style is similar to the shuffle style in rhythm. The shuffle style is used more in blues and the shuffle "feel" is not subtle, i.e., every note in the triplet is pronounced. In the swing style you'll often hear the 2nd or 3rd note of a triplet played as a "ghost note." Ghost notes are notes that are barely heard but more implied. That's how subtle the swing style is sometimes. Keep in mind that this is only an introduction to the Jazz Style and we'll go into more detail in all these areas with subsequent jazz lessons. This lesson hits the high points.


Ok, one of the most distinct differences between jazz and any other style of music is the use of extended chords. What is an extended chord you ask? Well, the best thing for you to do is first spend a little time in the music theory section of the members homepage for an explanation of chords and then come back to this. What follows will require you to understand those theory lessons on chords. Extended chords are chords that have 4 or more separate notes in them. Notice I didn't say anything about how many strings you play, but how many separate or different notes are in the chord. The most common 4-note chords used in jazz are the 7th chords. Here are the basic 4-note chords used in this lesson. You won't have to be able to play the chords to get through this lesson but it would be a good idea for you to begin familiarizing yourself with the way these chords sound.

Simple Open-string Fingerings:

Barre-chord Fingerings:


Most traditional jazz guitarists play what's known as an archtop guitar. Below is a picture of the guitar I like to use when playing traditional jazz. However, many fusion players use solid-body electric guitars with distortion and other effects. One of my favorite jazz players, who plays a more pop-oriented jazz style, is Earl Klugh who uses a classic guitar. There really is no hard and fast rule but what I suggest you do is listen to a variety of players and gravitate to the styles of jazz you like best.

The Guild Manhattan


For many people jazz is an aquired taste. As a maturing musician you'll most likely find yourself aquiring a taste for various styles of music much like a child learns to like vegetables only after they grow up. So, I've listed the names of several of my favorite jazz guitarists from traditional to pop or fusion styles. This is not an exhaustive list of my favorites but several I know you can't go wrong with. I suggest you get several recordings and listen for yourself.


  • Joe Pass
  • Wes Montgomery
  • Johnny Smith
  • Jim Hall


  • Larry Carlton
  • Lee Ritenour
  • Earl Klugh
  • Pat Metheny



No audio files available for this lesson.