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Learning and Playing Jazz Guitar

The Basics of Jazz Guitar

For decades, jazz and guitar have been heavily intertwined. It’s hard to imagine one without the other. If you are considering playing guitar in this most American genre of music, you are in for a rewarding journey. Here, we will go over a brief history of jazz guitar, and the basics of playing in this popular style.

The history

In the earliest days of jazz, the banjo was the main chordal rhythm instrument. As jazz became more harmonically complex, and as the upright bass replaced the tuba as the dominant bass instrument, the louder and more versatile guitar became dominant. Jazz guitars were soon designed to reflect the louder style necessary to “keep up” with the other instruments.

Jazz was the first music style that made wide use of the electric guitar. Although solid-body electrics are now commonly used, the primary guitar used in this style of music from the 1920s on has been the archtop guitar.

During the Big Band and Swing eras, the guitar was used primarily as a rhythm instrument, although jazz accompaniment became increasingly more stylized. Initially, only small combos made use of guitar leads. It wasn’t until the post-WWII era that guitars were being used with higher versatility, both as rhythm and lead instruments.

In the bebop era and beyond, improved electronics and an expanded number of guitar models, as well as the innovative work of many musicians brought about what is commonly known as “jazz guitar.”

The 1970s brought on the advent of jazz-rock fusion, signified by many guitarists using solid-body guitars and bringing in elements of many rock guitarists such as Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix.

Playing jazz guitar

Unlike many other genres of music, the complexity and improvisational nature of jazz compels the jazz guitarist to learn a wider variety of chords than in other genres. It is also important for the guitarist to learn advanced subjects like altered chords and re-harmonization. These are all used over several basic jazz progressions. As always, it is best to stick with basic chords at first, and then learn the advanced ones as you build off of the basics. Just understand that you are going to likely wind up using chords outside of the normal realm of most other genres.

A lot of jazz guitar involves “comping,” or accompanying the other instruments. In a standard jazz combo, the pianist or guitarist typically comps during the horn and bass solos by improvising  chords and countermelodies. This is most common in small combos.

Another commonly used playing style is “blowing,” or playing one-note solos, played over the melodies and improvisations played by the other instruments.

Of course, not all soloing is limited to blowing. Oftentimes, a jazz guitarist will use a combination of chords and notes to create great soundscapes.

Where to start

Listen to some of the jazz guitar greats like Stanley Jordan, Pat Metheny, and John McLaughlin, among others. Find a music teacher who understands and appreciates jazz guitar and can teach you well.

Phone Glenn Sutton at: 619-306-3664.

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