7 Must-Know Tips to Play Jazz Better

By Austin Consordini

When thinking about things that are American, we think about Apple pie, hot dogs, the star-spangled banner, military heroes, and the statue of liberty. We think of GMC and Ford vehicles that proudly brandish the stamp of “made in America.” One often over-looked piece of America’s culture is jazz music.

Jazz was created in New Orleans in the late 19th and early 20th century in the African-American communities. There is no denying now that jazz has since become an integral part of the American music scene with people picking up a jazz piano, saxophone, or brass instrument to learn the riveting chords all around the world. If you are interested in playing jazz music, there are 7 tips you must know to become the best musician you can.

Chord Progressions

There are common chord progressions that are vital to being a jazz piano player. Learn these chords and become a master at them. Once you learn the foundation of jazz chord progressions, you can start getting creative with other chords. Check out the tips to playing progressions found here. Knowing the melody of any song will better help you understand and memorize the chord progressions in a piece.

Improv and Solo

Jazz music doesn’t have a lot of rules and the rules in place are meant to be broken. The heart of jazz is about improvisation and feeling the emotion in every note. A great jazz musician will be able to improvise, take a solo in the moment, and mold the music as they play. The blues scale is the most likely to help your improvs be excellent. In the key of C, the scale would be C, Eb, F, Gb, G, Bb and then C. This Blues Scale pattern repeats in all keys: G, D, A, E, B, F#, Db, Ab, Eb, Bb, and F. Practicing and mastering the blues scale in all keys is essential for other genres of music such as rock n roll also.

Keep it Simple

It’s not about the notes you play so much as the way you play them. The catchiest jazz tunes often have the simplest chords, with added flourish! Use Melodic statements, blues statements, and other techniques to embellish your tunes.

Practice Scales for Speed

One of the best ways to practice getting your fingers moving across keys is to practice scales specifically looking to increase your speed. Going as fast as you can isn’t the goal, rather, playing the notes perfectly, getting the right finger positioning, and becoming more in tune with your instrument will greatly improve your playing ability. Practicing your scales for speed also builds your muscle memory which is talked about below.

Improve Your Memory

One of the most important tools in a jazz musician’s bag is their memory. Ear, mind, and muscle memory are vital for any musician. You must become attuned to sounds, notes, and chords. You must be able to tune your own instrument and identify the individual instruments in a band. In your mind, you must be able to think measures ahead, be able to improvise in an instant, and understand the dynamics of the band and how all the members work together. Jazz musicians also rely on muscle memory, so their mind doesn’t have to think about the finger placement of their fingers as they progress through chords.

Practice with Others

One of the most fun activities a musician does is hang out and jam with other musicians. Playing with others is a great way to learn new tricks, practice different techniques, get feedback from peers, and hone your craft. Jazz musicians can never become great at improvisation if they aren’t constantly practicing with a group.

Learn Multiple Instruments

We all want to master one instrument, but to be the best jazz musician, you should master at least two. Learning multiple instruments help players to understand the jazz genre of music better. Mastering multiple instruments is also great for strengthening the mind and memory. Every jazz musician should be able to play the piano. Most jazz compositions are first created and transcribed at a piano. Other instruments to learn would be a brass or woodwind instrument, particularly the trumpet and saxophone. Bass guitar is the best string instrument to learn outside of the piano as the rhythm section of jazz music is the one responsible for keeping the ensemble moving forward together.

Mastering these seven tips for playing the best jazz music will not turn you into a Miles Davis or Duke Ellington overnight. The best jazz musicians in the world practice their craft and hone their skills over many years, many picking up instruments for the first time as a young child. Each jazz master the world has seen has been able to become the greatest because they have a deep, unwavering passion for the music.

Austin Consordini is the creator of the music technology site Consordini.com. He says, “My main range of interests includes violin and guitar play, also I play the drums sometimes (especially, when it’s a necessity to express strong emotions). Music for me is like a medicine. It helps me not only to develop and expand my musical skills but also treats my mind and body.”

Guest columnist: Jazz guitar scales that every guitarist should know

Marc-Andre Seguin

Editor’s Note: Today we begin what we hope will be an ongoing series of guest columns from jazz musicians, specialists, historians and other experts. Today’s guest columnist is Marc-Andre Seguin of JazzGuitarLessons.net.

Marc-Andre Seguin

These days, there is a lot of importance placed on scales while other aspects of improvisation are neglected. Still, however, knowing your scales is extremely valuable and having a well-rounded vocabulary will certainly help you on your way to being a great jazz guitar player. For each one of these scales, there are associated modes, but today, we will look at individual modes from the major scale, the melodic minor scale, and the diminished scale. These scales should get you by in most improvisational settings.

The Dorian mode is the second mode of the major scale and it is often how players are taught to deal with minor 7th chords in the early stages. It also the basis of lots of famous modal tunes such as “Impressions” and “So What.”

The Mixolydian mode is the fifth mode of the major scale and it is commonly played over dominant 7th chords that don’t have altered extensions such as b9, #11, etc. This mode gives you the 1, 3, 5, and b7 of a standard dominant 7th chord.

The Ionian mode, otherwise known as the major scale, can be used over the I chord in a progression. This scale provides the 1, 3, 5, 7 of a standard major 7th chord. It is important to note, however, that when using this scale, you should be careful not to lay into the 4th – in this case the F – as it will clash with the 3rd (E) of the chord. This leads us to our next mode.

The Lydian mode is the fourth mode of the major scale. It’s basically a major scale with a #11. Many players opt to use this in preference over a regular major scale as that #11 doesn’t clash with the 3rd and it also creates a nice, “dreamy” sort of sound.

Knowing all of your melodic minor modes inside-out will get you out of trouble in a lot of situations. You might know this scale from classical music where the 6th and 7th are raised ascending, but go back to normal descending. In jazz, we tend to use the raised 6th and 7th both, ascending and descending. This is great over min/maj 7th chords and is actually applicable over min 7th chords if you don’t lay into that #7 too much.

Lydian Dominant – sometimes known as Lydian b7 – is the fourth mode of melodic minor. This one is particularly useful over dominant 7th chords with a #11. You could also think of simple playing the melodic minor scale from the 5. For example, for Bb7#11, you can play F melodic minor and you’ll have everything you need.

The Altered Dominant scale, otherwise known as the seventh mode of melodic minor, is great for tackling alt dominant chords. It gives you the following chord tones and no natural 5th:

1, 3, b5(or #11), b7, b9, #9, #11, b13

For D7b13b9, you could play Eb melodic minor and be good to go!

Lastly, we have the half-whole diminished scale. I have seen this one go by other names, but this is what I like to call it. There is also the whole-half diminished scale, and it’s basically the same thing but starting from a different note with a different application. I find this scale is great for playing over dominant chords with a natural 13th and a b9 or #9. It’s also great over diminished chords (duh).

To close, I’d like to point out that scales are very valuable, but it’s also important to go over every aspect of music. There is a lot of importance placed on scales and not enough on other things like arpeggios, time-feel, phrasing, etc.

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.