By Bruce Arnold

To learn more from the professor of jazz, Bruce Arnold, check out his TrueFire courses: Total Modal and Jazz Guitar for Beginners.

The celebrated jazz guitarist and director of the New York University Summer Guitar Intensive offers his tips for starting out. He cautions that there are no shortcuts when it comes to learning jazz guitar, but here are 7 essential building blocks.

1. Absorb by transcription

Learning any style of music requires you listen to it and maybe transcribe some melodies and/or solos. Many people don’t know where to start with jazz, so I would recommend starting with something easy like Miles Davis’s solo on “Someday My Prince will Come” or maybe “So What.”  You don’t need to do the whole solo but at least learn 8 measures or so.  That will help you to develop the right “feel” when you play jazz.  For guitarists, I would also listen to someone like Wes Montgomery particularly for how he plays chords. Check out:

The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes MontgomeryMost of the tracks in this album are considered to be the best examples of Wes Montgomery’s two distinguishing techniques ‘thumb picking’ and the use of octaves. The album is considered by many fans and critics to be the pinnacle of Montgomery’s recorded studio work.

Boss GuitarWes Montgomery recorded Boss Guitar at age 38, just five years before his death. While the records that followed would give him some radio hits (and lose him some fans), this 1963 session was a time when he really could make the bold claim of the album’s title.

2. You can’t learn only in your head

Get your body involved because your mind and body are acting in concert.  With any new style you need to apply the information you are studying. For jazz you need to learn new scales, arpeggios and chords.  As you learn each new chord, arpeggio and scale you need to play it within a musical situation.  I’d recommend using chord vamps to play the scales and arpeggios over. Your ear and your dexterity will improve, and you will find that you are retaining the information more easily. Be sure to check out TrueFire’s jazz guitar lessons as well.

3. Develop your musical social skills

You can only go so far learning jazz in isolation.  Jazz is a social, improvisatory art form, and you need to interact with other musicians to develop your sensitivity and understand the dynamics of working correctly in a jazz setting. It’s always about communication, whether it’s with your fellow players or the audience.

4. Hear it properly

Jazz has evolved from a fairly simple form to a high art that the greatest musicians have contributed to. It contains much more sophisticated melodies and harmonies than most popular music.  You need to develop you ear so you can hear these harmonies.  I would start with these two books to develop the right way to hear.

Ear Training: One Note Complete
This Ear Training method has been developed to teach the student how to hear the way musical sounds are organized within a key, teaching you to instantly recognize which notes other musicians are playing, what key a chord progression is in, and what the notes in a given melody are. This book is a required text at New York University and Princeton University.

Contextual Ear Training
This book presents an approach that can be practiced anywhere that you can listen with a CD or MP3 player so you can practice no matter how busy your schedule may be. Contextual Ear Training contains four CDs that help to focus in on this technique in a structured way.

5. Get literate

Jazz music also has a lot more complicated rhythms and it is common that when playing with jazz musicians you will be required to read music. So you need to learn many of these rhythms and learn to read too.  I’ve created a whole series of books to help develop your rhythm and help you master sight reading.  I would start with the book Rhythm Primer if you are a total beginner, or if you are a little more advanced start with, Rhythms Volume One and Rhythms Volume Two.

6. Get MORE literate

If you want to compose and play with the big boys, learn some music theory to help you understand jazz chord progressions and scales. Remember jazz music is played in every key.  It’s not like guitar based rock which is mostly in keys like C, D, G, E, A.  In order to function well in a jazz environment you must develop your music theory skills.  Here are two books that are great for helping you bridge that gap

Music Theory Workbook for Guitar Volume One
Music Theory Workbook for Guitar Volume Two

7. Be patient

It takes many years to develop the skills needed to play jazz guitar and if you are a guitar player it’s even tougher.  Even though the guitar is thought of as a “folk” instrument, it is in reality a formidable and flexible vehicle which requires a lot more work to master than most other instruments.  So set up a practice schedule for yourself, set realistic goals, and you will see the fruits of your labor.

To learn more from the professor of jazz, Bruce Arnold, check out his TrueFire courses: Total Modal and Jazz Guitar for Beginners. Bruce has also written more than 60 music instruction books and is the director of Guitar Studies at New York University and Princeton University as well as the creator of the New York University Summer Guitar Intensive. He has taught at the New England Conservatory, Dartmouth College, Berklee College of Music, New School University, and City College of New York. You can visit Bruce online and learn more at