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Jazz Guitar 101: Must-Knows for Beginners

by Susan Palmer, Guitar Instructor and author of “The Guitar Lesson Companion” method books

February 27, 2019
Written by
Susan Palmer

Upon first listen, jazz guitarist Mimi Fox’s mastery of the instrument is immediately recognizable—and it’s easy to imagine how her skillful playing could be applied to any style of music. Jazz offers the rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic keys that unlock music theory and strengthen the connection between your ears and your instrument, all while honing your technique on the guitar.

I was inspired to play jazz as a teenager when I became aware that many of my musical heroes had studied jazz at some point in their lives. I joined my school’s jazz band and although I had been playing guitar for a few years, so much about this new-to-me style was exciting and overwhelming: the dense chords, sophisticated scales, the dream of effortlessly weaving intricate melodic lines through a variety of chord progressions. I knew jazz would be an important part of my musical journey; I just needed to know where to begin.


“It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” is the title of a 1931 jazz composition written by Duke Ellington with lyrics by Irving Mills.It highlights the most important element in jazz: rhythm. You can play all of the notes in a piece correctly, but it’s the rhythm that will make someone tap their foot to the music. Good music balances elements of predictability and surprise, and syncopated rhythms (accenting an unanticipated part of the beat) are fundamental to this sound.

[Example: unaccented rhythm (measure one) versus accented rhythm (measure two)]

Learn new rhythms from books and recordings. When listening to recordings, copy the rhythms you like by tapping them out, then play them on guitar using different pitches. Transcribe your favorite rhythms on paper so you can return to them when you’re seeking inspirhation.


Early jazz styles include swing and big band music. In both cases, the rhythm guitarist plays three-note chords on the lower four strings, and drives the tempo in the band by strumming a solid quarter-note rhythm, while accenting the chords that fall on beats two and four. Give this a try, using one of the most popular chord progressions in jazz, the I, VI, II, V progression. 

[Example: big band/swing voicings for a 1625 progression]

In small groups, called combos, these fuller voicings can round out the mix. (If there is also a piano in the group, you may want to trade choruses so you both don’t add too much to the mix.) The guitarist has more rhythmic freedom in this setting because the accompaniment is more of a conversation with the soloist, and this creates a more modern jazz sound.

[Example: Basic 7 chord voicings]


The chord progression we’ve been using in this lesson is in the key of C major, so it makes sense to improvise using the C major scale. As you play, you’ll discover that while all the notes are correct, some of them sound better at certain times than others. For example, if you play the note F over a C chord, you’ll hear the F clash with the C chord. That’s because the C chord contains the note E, and since F is a half step away from E, the F sounds very dissonant.

[Example: C major scale notes and diagram]

You’ll need to be specific if you want all of your notes to sound like they fit. The secret is to focus on the notes that belong to each chord, called chord tones. Chord tones are not the only notes you’ll want to play, but they are the skeleton you will find in great solos across musical genres.

[Example: Spelling of each chord with chord tones, and arpeggio pattern diagrams, and a melodic phrase]

After learning the chord tones for each chord, the next step is to use what we call “smooth voice leading” to create a more natural flow in the line. When the chords change, look for notes that stay the same, or move by half steps, and play those transitions as you improvise.

Notice how the first two chords in the progression contain the note E, and the F of the Dm7 chord is a half step away from that E. In the last two chords, the note C wants to move a half step down to become the B of the G7 chord.

[Example: finding voice leading in melodic phrase and solo example]

Adding a syncopated rhythm to the melodic line above transforms the notes into a more convincing jazz phrase.

[Example: Syncopated jazz phrase]

Discover your own rhythmic voice by imaging a melody, and record yourself playing the rhythm while using only one pitch. Then listen to the recording and pull out the rhythms you like and attach the best pitches to the phrase using chord tones and smooth voice leading as your guide.


There’s a reason people often say that if you can play jazz, you can play anything. Jazz music is full of lessons, and it can seem like a daunting task to get started. A good method and teacher will help you learn these skills in small chunks, just like how you have learned everything else you have mastered on the guitar up to this point. 

Practice these exercises until you can make them your own, and listen to all kinds of music, especially if it seems difficult to listen to at first; your ears will grow. I hope you find the study of jazz to be intellectually and spiritually rewarding and that it strengthens your understanding of music on the guitar.

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