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Jazz Cat Blog

Learning a jazz standard

Posted by on May 30, 2016 at 12:35 AM Comments comments (0)

Before I go acting like these are all my own, genius ideas... let me just state right out that I got most of this from Jamey Aebersold and his excellent work over at

If you want to order something from them, they usually send out a free copy of a great little reference called the The Free Jazz Handbook, or at least they used to.

So, here's what I recommend for getting a tune under your belt.

First of all, some great advice I got from a guy at an open jazz jam in Wilmington, NC, years ago. He said if you're just learning, then pick three tunes, no more. Pick a blues, an AABA form and a bossa nova groove (like Song For My Father or Blue Bossa, something like that).

Whatever tune you pick, go through these steps, in order. Some of the steps will go quicker than others. Don't rush. This is something you've chosen to do for the rest of your life. Therefore, it is your life and you probably shouldn't rush your life 8)

1. Listen!  This may seem obvious but players often overlook it, going straight to the chart. Listen to the original, the earliest known version, by the composer if possible.

Play it many times and really pay attention. Then, listen to versions by other artists, both older and more modern. Get a sense of the various "takes" on the song.

Don't forget to learn the words to the tune and sing along with it, so you get an idea of the pitch changes. This makes a huge difference, later on.

2. Learn the melody... very, very slowly. Don't try to play it in time. Just muddle through it, slowly and get the notes right. It's perfectly OK to stop and start again. Don't go back to the beginning though. Just pick up wherever you left off. Get the melody "under your fingers" in this way.

Also, make sure if you're a guitar player that you're in the correct register. Standard sheet music is played an octave lower on the guitar.

You can also think of it in the opposite way, that the music is written an octave higher than what you play on your guitar.

3. Now, try playing the melody at a slow tempo, seeing if you can make it all the way through without mistakes. Use a metronome or drum machine to keep yourself honest on the timing.

4. Next, you'll want to work through the chords. Start with the simplest forms you know, even if they are not appropriate for the song. Some will boo and hiss at that bit of advice but oh well. I say start with whatever comes naturally to you and then work out better chord voicings, later.

Get to where you can make it through the whole song, in tempo (slow, of course).

5. Next, work out some jazzier chord voicings. You'll want some sparse, three-note voicings, on adjacent strings. This will help you to fit in with a combo setting where there is a piano, bass, horns, etc. Big, bulky chords are great for big band settings but in small combos, they will stick out like a sore thumb.

Try to use good "voice-leading". That's a subject unto itself, so we'll look at that another time. Just file it away in your mind for now and do your best.


Practice makes perfect, right?


No such thing as perfection.

Practice makes improvement!

6. Once you can get through the tune playing the harmony (the chords), then record yourself playing several choruses (passes through the song).

It doesn't have to be a good recording, a crappy one will do just fine. You just have to be able to hear the chord qualities (major, minor, dominant, etc). It's probably a good idea to include the metronome or the drum machine, too.

This keeps honest jazz cats honest :) 

7. Now, you have a recording of the harmony, so you can practice playing the melody, over the harmony. If you have the ability (with a second recording device or overdubbing), you can record you playing the melody over the harmony. That's optional.

What is important is that you get the chords and the melody really solid. Players will perhaps forgive a lousy solo. If you butcher the chords or the melody, they may throw things at you :mad: 

8. Once you're able to play the melody over the harmony well enough to do it with other musicians, then progress to soloing. Do this in BABY STEPS! Unless you're a masochist, that is.

I suggest you do these exercises, one at a time:

* Play the melody but throw in extra notes. Also, try staggering the rhythm of the melody. Try playing phrases backward or slower or faster, be creative and have fun.

* Play just the 1 (the root note) of each chord. Do this in time, with your recording. Maybe throw in the octave, after you get comfortable. Maybe two octaves.

* Play (again, with the recording) the third of each chord (example: CMaj7, the third is E and for Gm7, the third is B flat).

* Play the 5th of each chord. Spend the least amount of time on this step, because the 5th is usually the most "stable" chord tone and we usually ditch it altogether, in favor of the third or the seventh. Which brings us to...

* Play the 7th of each chord. Again, do this with the recording, in time. If you need to work through it without tempo first, that's fine, just work your way up to the tempo as soon as you can.

* Next, play the triad, the arpeggio of each chord. For a CMaj7, that's C, E and G, at least for now. Later, you can add 7ths, 9ths, etc. Spend a good amount of time on this, you can fake your way through a lot of stuff, just doing this.

* Play the first three notes of the scale through each chord of the tune.

* Play the first five notes of the scale, through each chord.

* Play the entire scale, ascending, through each chord.

* Play the entire scale, descending, through the chords.

* Play up and down each scale, through the chords. Make sure to use the correct scale. Our CMaj7 would use the C Major Scale, while the Gmin7 chord would use the G Minor Scale and something like a Bb9 would use a B flat Dominant (7th) Scale, which is essentially a major scale with a flat (minor) seven in it, instead of a major seven.

* You can then try things like playing the scale ascending and arpeggio, descending. Then, the opposite... arpeggio ascending and scale descending.

* Try doing most of the stuff mentioned already but adding in 9ths (for all chords), 11ths (mostly just for Major chords) and 13ths (mostly just for Dominant chords).

That's more than enough to get you started. If you work (or rather play) diligently at this, you'll find that interesting ideas start to bubble up, naturally, all on their own!

Have fun and don't let anybody tell you that you're not good enough. Practice hard, play hard and remember that music is an art form, not a competition. 

My name is Magus (aka Kevin Trent Boswell) and you can hear my tunes here: CD Baby