Strategies for Getting Started Into Jazz


To many people, at one point or another, jazz can seem very difficult to play and can be discouraging at first. This was the case for me as well as many of my peers early on. However, most of the pros will tell you that while it does take lots of disciplined practice, it is not an impossible task. The learning never ends, but that should be more of a reason to be excited than discouraged. Today we will go over a few basic things that can get you started on your way. We will talk a bit about rhythm, harmony, melody, and more. More than just tips, these are important things to focus on in the early stages.

Listen to Jazz

This is a funny one, isn’t it? You would be surprised by how many people are just dying to learn to play jazz, but almost never listen to any of it! This is crucial. Much of what you will need to internalize will be done through listening.


One of the defining characteristics of jazz music, is its approach to rhythm. In jazz, the 8th notes are swung. Assuming you have some basic knowledge of rhythm, two 8th notes are played as a triplet where the first two beats of the triplet are tied as in the diagram below:

Additionally, in traditional swing, the feel is always on beats 2 and 4 of the measure. This is usually marked by the drummer’s hi-hat. It is important to remember that this is a traditional approach, and modern players do away with this sort of thing all the time, opting instead of straight 8th notes and counting from beat 1 instead of 2 and 4. Another thing that is important to note, is that even in traditional swing, when playing at really fast tempos, 8th notes tend to become “straight” again. It can sound rather clunky when you are trying to swing 8th notes at blazing tempos.


A library of books can be written about the subject of harmony, particularly in jazz music. To get started, you have to know how to build triads. Some of you might already have this information down, but for the sake of thoroughness, we will briefly discuss triad construction.

Major = 1 3 5 / Ex. C E G
Minor = 1 b3 5 / Ex. C Eb G Diminished = 1 b3 b5 / Ex. C Eb Gb Augmented = 1 3 #5 / Ex. C E G#

Now, let’s go ahead and add the 7ths to these chords so we can see how those are built.

Major 7th = 1 3 5 7 / Ex. C E G B
Dominant 7th = 1 3 5 b7 / Ex. C E G Bb
Minor 7th = 1 b3 5 b7 / Ex. C Eb G Bb
Minor 7b5 (half dim) = 1 b3 b5 b7 / Ex. C Eb Gb Bb

The upper extensions have their names because they are reached by stacking above the octave. Here are some examples:

9 (2) / D is the 9th of C 11 (4) / F is the 11th of C 13 (6) / A is the 13th of C

Going into each individual application is beyond the scope of this lesson, but it’s important to get to know these.


Learning about melody in jazz is not much different from other styles of music. Interestingly, however, since the harmony is a bit more expansive in jazz than in other styles, the melodies tend to reflect that. Often, you will find melodies taking full advantage of the spectrum of notes available. These include traditional 3rds and 7ths but also 9ths, 11ths, 13ths, and alterations of all of those. I encourage you to learn as many tunes as possible and analyze how these melodies are constructed.


Improvisation is one of the cornerstones of jazz music. In order to be a good improviser, you must learn every approach you can and then use that to make music. I won’t go over the nuts and bolts of each approach, but I will make a list of things for you to consider while you study.

  • Learn which modes sound good over specific chords -Learn to use arpeggios
  • Transcribe other players’ solos!
  • Learn how to play over specific progressions

That last one is particularly important. There are certain progressions that come up over and over again. Learn to play each one of these in all 12 keys. The best way to discover these progressions is by learning lots of tunes, which leads me to the next tip:

Learn Tunes

Learn a bunch of tunes! Learning a wide array of tunes ensures that you encounter different progressions, forms, and overall different scenarios. Early on, you will probably want to pull out all of the fake books you own, but the sooner you get rid of this habit, the better. These books have a lot of mistakes, and learning by ear is great ear training and also a great way to really get into every nook and cranny of the tune. Once you have learned a tune, learn it in different keys and try playing it in different time signatures. This is the best way to really absorb it.

Go to Jam Sessions

Most teachers will tell you that much of what you need to learn will be gained through experience on the bandstand. There really is no way around this. Because of the improvisational nature of the music, the only way to know what it’s like to play with a band is to play with one. This way, you will learn generally agreed upon chord changes for tunes and how they are felt from a rhythmic perspective. This is also a good way to learn how to handle your own solos, but more importantly, those of other players. You’ll learn when to lay out and how to interact with other players within the context of a live setting. This is also a great way to meet people. If you happen to want to get out and gig playing this music, you will need to meet as many players as possible. Even if that’s not your situation, it’s always great to make more friends, isn’t it?


About the Author:

Marc-Andre Seguin is the webmaster, “brains behind” and teacher on, 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.


Rate This Post:


Leave a comment