10 Must Know Jazz Standards Every Guitarist Should Know
A couple of weeks ago on my Facebook page I asked my readers what they would like to see an article about which is the result of this 10 must know jazz standards article.
Reader David M said he would like to see an article on “the best standards to practice”. Although, I already published an article that explains how to learn jazz standards, I realized that I didn’t have anything on what standards to focus on, so I decided to try and sum up 10 must know jazz standards in this article.
Learning to play jazz guitar means knowing a lot of standards, but with there been so many standards to learn, which ones are played and called most frequently? Which should be we be expected to know at a jam session? Ever gig and jam session is different, so you need to really know as much tunes as possible to be really prepared, but this article will focus on some the most played tunes.
If you are just starting to learn jazz guitar there are some tunes on this list that are recommend to start with such as Summertime, but others such as the Rhythm Changes shouldn’t be the first tune you dive into. If you have been playing jazz guitar for a year or two, and feel as though you’re an intermediate player, this list should help you realize if you’ve missed any important tunes.
If there’s enough interest I will write a follow up article with 10 beginner jazz guitar tunes, and then maybe 10 advanced jazz guitar tunes. Leave a comment below if you would like to see one of these lists, or if you would like to see a tune study article on a particular standard.
Major and Minor Blues
The first tune on the list that every jazz guitarist should know is a 12 bar blues. I don’t know if you would class a blues as a standard, but the list felt incomplete without mentioning one.
If you’ve come to jazz from a blues background, you’ll most likely already know the I, IV, V version of this progression. Like the traditional blues, the jazz blues is most commonly a 12 bar form, but with embellished harmony. Click here to read a lesson I wrote on how you add passing chords to a 12 bar jazz blues progression.
The most common keys for the major jazz blues progression are Bb, Eb, C and F. Minor blues tunes are often played in C-, D-, F-, and Eb-, but both sequences should be practiced in all 12 keys. A great major blues theme to learn is Sonny Rollin’s ‘Tenor Madness’, and a common minor blues to learn is ‘Mr PC’. Click the video below to hear a great version of Clifford Brown’s blues tune ‘Blues Walk’ featuring Clint Strong on guitar.
Next to a blues, the rhythm changes is one of the most used progressions in the jazz repertoire. As mentioned in the introduction, this is not really one of the first standards that should be tackled by beginners, but is great to learn if you have a fair amount of standards under your belt and want to push yourself to the next level.
To learn how to solo over this progression, check out this series of articles that I published: Rhythm Changes Soloing Guide. If you would like to expand your comping chops over this progression, check out this article: How to Comp Rhythm Changes. Some great rhythm changes themes to check out are Oleo, Rhythm-a-ning, The Flintstones Theme, and Lester Leaps In. The video below showcases a great unknown swing and jazz player Dave Biller blowing over the rhythm changes on a black guard Tele.
Stella By Starlight
Although not quite as harmonically dense as the rhythm changes, Stella by Starlight is rich in harmony with a chord in almost every bar of the progression making it a popular workout for experienced and intermediate jazz guitar players. Again, this shouldn’t really be the first tune you tackle, but it’s great if you have 5-10 standards under your belt.
The bridge harmony uses juicey extentions such as altered dominant and #11 chords which provide many blowing options for jazz musicians. The tune features major and minor II-V-I’s as well as back door II-V’s so it’s a good idea to go through the tune and see what’s happening harmonically before blowing over it. Due the tunes popularity with musicians, the title is often just shortend to ‘Stella’. Check out this version of George Benson burning over Stella.
This is the first standard that I teach to all my private beginner jazz guitar students, and for good reason. The melody is based on a minor pentatonic scale which is familiar territory to most jazz guitarists, and the chord sequence can be as dense or empty as it needs to be.
Summertime also has multiple arrangement possibilities. The melody sounds great as a ballad, bossa, or swing. Check out John Coltrane’s burning version through the link before.
All The Things You Are
Like Stella by Starlight, A.T.T.Y.A (as it’s often abbreviated to) is a well known tune that is learnt by a lot of beginner and intermediate players that often remains part of the more experienced jazz musician’s repertoire.
One reason for this is because the tune uses cyclic movement extensively and passes through different keys. Modulating in perfect fourths and fifths is often used in jazz standards so by practicing techniques over this tune, you are well prepared for many other tunes.
The melody is almost entirley based off thirds, so it’s a great tune if you’re wanting to work on your guide tone and voice leading techniques. To learn more about outlining thirds, check out this podcast. You can also try and find the third within each chord voicing.
Hank Garland recorded a blistering version of this tune with Gary Burton on Vibes. If you haven’t heard this tune before, it’s worth noting that Hank is playing a counter melody to the original theme.
Along with Summertime, Autumn Leaves is a great first tune to learn when you’re new to jazz guitar. The tune provides a good workout to practice II-V-I progressions because you have one bar of each chord, so there’s plenty of time to explore bebop scales, licks, and chord soloing. It should be noted that Autumn Leaves is commonly played in two different keys, G minor, and E minor.
Both keys have their pros and cons and guitar. I personally prefer playing the tune in E minor as a solo guitar piece because of the open string possibilities that the key permits.
To learn more about using open strings with jazz guitar chords, check out this article. My favorite version of this tune is the Jim Hall/Ron Carter recording, check it out:
This tune is often the first bossa nova tune that manly jazz guitarists learn. I rarely hear this one played on gigs by experienced players, but it’s still a great tune to learn that has a lot of blowing, comping, and solo guitar possibilities.
Besides being a good insight in the bossa nova style, Blue Bossa is also a good piece to work on when it comes to playing in minor keys. There’s lots of time to explore different minor scales over the first 4 bars, and almost all the II-V-I’s have one chord per bar giving you plenty of tune to explore different blowing concepts.
To find out more about how to comp in the bossa nova style, check out this article I published.
There Will Never Be Another You
Like the other standards in this article, They’ll Never Be Another You features frequently used modulations, and has a great strong melody. This tune is most commonly played in Eb, but it’s worth taking through a few different keys because singers usually like to sing this tune.
The trickiest part to this tune is the last 4 bars of the progression because there is 2 chords for each bar. Harmonically these chords are just functioning as a turnaround to the I chord though.
My personal favorite version of this tune is by Russell Malone. Check out this version of him playing in with Billy Taylor on piano.
Body and Soul
This is without a doubt, the most played jazz ballad I hear on gigs. The harmony of Body and Soul is rich providing many options for superimpositions and substitutions.
One interesting feature of the tune that I personally like is the semi-tone modulation to the bridge. Even though, the semi tone is a small interval, modulating from a key with 5 flats (Db) to 2 sharps (D) makes a refreshing difference to the sound.
Jim Hall owns this tune. I can listen to two or three different recordings of him playing it and never get bored because he interprets it differently each time.
Days of Wine and Roses
The Days of Wine and Roses is a great tune for intermediate jazz guitarists to check out. I am not sure if Henri Mancini wrote the lyrics as well as the melody, but they should be learnt to memorize the melody and gain more of an insight to the tune.
Joe Pass recorded The Days of Wine and Roses, Pat Martino and Wes recorded the tune as a bossa show casing it’s different arrangement possibilities, but it’s most often called as a medium swing tune.
I hope that this article has brought some insight on which jazz standards are important to learn and help you reach your goals as a jazz guitarist. Do you have a favorite jazz standard? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.