About the Author
Marc-Andre Seguin is the webmaster, “brains behind” and teacher on JazzGuitarLessons.net, the #1
online resource for learning how to play jazz guitar. He draws from his experience both as a professional
jazz guitarist and professional jazz teacher to help thousands of people from all around the world learn
the craft of jazz guitar.
Jazz guitar is one of the most fun and also most challenging styles to play on the instrument. It takes lots of rigorous study and there is always a new challenge so it really keeps things interesting. One question I am often asked is “Where do I begin?” In truth, you can play any jazz standard on guitar in one way or another, but here, I will discuss some of my favorite ones and I will talk about why they lend themselves to the instrument. You may encounter some arrangement challenges as well as key changes and modulations, but this will all serve to make you a better musician. I also encourage you to learn these tunes in different keys. This will make you come up with different arrangements to fit the instrument and it will also prepare you to play for a singer who might want the keys changed.
Autumn Leaves is often the first or one of the first tunes any aspiring jazz musician learns. It was composed in 1946 by French-Hungarian composer Joseph Kosma for the movie “Les Portes de la Nuit.” Harmonically, the tune is fairly easy, sticking mostly to the key of G minor - or E minor depending on which version you learn first. It has nice harmonic motion in 4ths which really lends itself to the guitar. The melody also lays out very nicely on the instrument, which is why I’m putting this one first on this list. This tune also gives you the opportunity to explore the famous ii V I progression as well as its minor counterpart. The minor ii V I is typically played as iim7b5, V7alt, and i. This presents a slew of challenges and it is a good idea to learn to tackle this early on.
Here, we have a standard jazz blues composed by Sonny Rollins. It is extremely important to really be able to play the blues form as a pretty large chunk of jazz standards are based on it one way or another. This particular tune does not really lend itself to “solo guitar” renditions, but with some ingenuity, I’m sure you could manage something! Either way, it’s a great tune to learn as it is often called on jam sessions. The jazz blues differs from a traditional blues in that there is a good bit of added harmony. There is also a iii vi ii V turnaround which is another good thing to get a handle on early in your playing career.
Next on the list, we have “Blue Bossa” composed by Kenny Dorham. This is another one of those tunes teachers often give to their students in introductory courses. For one, it offers the opportunity to play over a more Brazilian feel which gets you away from all the swing stuff for a bit. It is not a traditional bossa, but it’s a good start. This tune also presents the challenge of a key change for a short period of time, going from C minor to Db major. Key changes are everywhere in jazz, and it is important that you start tackling them as soon as you feel comfortable playing over one key.
Watermelon Man is an easy enough tune that is also good to have in your repertoire. The form is a 16-bar blues and it makes use of a funky-latin sort of groove, once again, getting you away from all the swing stuff. Harmonically, it is rather simply, presenting more or less the same types of challenges as your standard blues, but the 16-bar form gives you something interesting to play over which is that oscillating V to IV progression. This is easy to tackle in principle, but to really do it in a way that is consistently interesting is the real challenge. This turnaround also tends to fool the more novice players as they expect the turnaround to arrive sooner than it does. Of course, this is easily remedied by knowing and studying the form.
Last but not least, we have another classic Sonny Rollins tune, “Oleo.” The chords to this tune, like many, many others, are based on the classic Gershwin tune, “I’ve Got Rhythm.” Since you cannot copyright chords, only melodies, many musicians and composers over the years have written tunes over this form. Affectionately known as “Rhythm Changes”, the changes offer up the challenge of playing over the classic I vi ii V progression, a IV to minor IV modulation, and even cycling dominants in the bridge section. Being able to play over these changes is an essential and will prepare you for many of the challenges you will face as you learn more tunes and expand your repertoire. For example, the tune “All the Things You Are” also includes a IV to minor IV modulation as does the beginning of the popular standard, “Just Friends”. Playing over these changes is deceptively difficult, so make sure you give it its due attention!
To close, I would just like to point out that each tune presents its own set of challenges. Whether that is a wide-range melody, difficult changes, or a tough groove, there is always something to learn. Therefore, as a beginner - and even as an advanced player - you should spend a good chunk of your time learning different standards. When learning the tunes, make sure you learn the melody as well as the harmony. As guitar players, we are expected to be able to cover all the bases as our instrument can be used in a variety of different roles. In other words, you should be able to play single note solos, the melody, a solo arrangement, comp, and so on. This may seem like a lot, but once you get into the swing of things (pun intended), you will see that it gets easier and easier over time.