A Jazz Guitar Practice Routine That Works
One of the most popular questions I get asked is “how do I build an effective jazz guitar practice routine?” Considering all the different elements that make up learning jazz guitar, it is no surprise that guitarists feel overwhelmed about what to practice.
I was never very good at having a structured practice routine when I first started learning how to play jazz guitar. But over the years I have discovered several things in my own personal practice that have brought out great results and worked very well with the different students that I teach too.
This article aims to assist you in making the most of your time practice by breaking down the different elements of a jazz guitar practice routine. Because each guitarist has a different amount of time they can spare to spend practicing, I will use percentages to divide the different elements instead of time.
The divider can be applied to daily practice and weekly practice. So the different practice elements can all be practiced in one session, or they can be spanned over one week if you prefer.
If you have one hour a day to practice, that adds up to seven hours a week. 25% of 7 hours practice is around 1 hour 45 minutes, so you could either do 15 minutes of repertoire work each day or 1 hour one night and 45 minutes the next day.
Recommended Jazz Guitar Practice Routine Tools
- Pen and Paper
- Backing Tracks
Jazz Guitar Practice Routine – Warm up Exercises 5%
Spending a few minutes warming up before a practice session helps get the fingers flowing and prevents possible technical frustration later in the practice session.
I published an article about the commonly known ‘spider exercise’ warm up for Guitar International a few years ago which I recommend checking out if you haven’t come across it.
Besides the finger per fret warm up I also like to play fourth intervals on adjacent strings with each finger all across the guitar the neck. Barring multiple notes with one finger builds up the required finger strength for stretchy jazz chords.
Playing a tune you know well is also a good way to get warmed up. I like to play a blues that modulates in fourths to get my brain working in all 12 keys but you can play anything.
Jazz Guitar Practice Routine – Technical Study 10%
Jazz guitar scales, arpeggios and chords should be included in the technical study section of a jazz guitar practice routine. At the very least, jazz guitarists should know the following scales in two octaves in two different fingerboard positions and in all 12 keys.
- Major Scale
- Dorian Mode
- Mixolydian Mode
- Locrian Mode
- Harmonic Minor Scale
- Melodic Minor Scale
Not all jazz guitarists like think or use scales when they improvise. But knowing the listed scales is useful for learning and understanding theory and chord progressions.
Besides scales, arpeggios are important for jazz guitarists to study. The following arpeggios should be learned in at least two octaves in two different fingerboard positions in all 12 keys.
Check out this detailed arpeggio article for fingerings and explanations.
- Major 7th Arpeggios
- Dominant 7th Arpeggios
- Minor 7th Arpeggios
- Minor 7b5 Arpeggios
Finally, the last aspect to the technical study of a jazz guitar practice routine is chords. The following chords should be learned in all 12 keys.
There are many more scales, arpeggios, and chords to ultimately learn which I might publish a separate article on, but the technical studies here should keep most beginners to intermediate jazz guitarists busy for a few months.
Jazz Guitar Practice Routine — Repertoire 25%
Knowing all the scales in the world isn’t going to be useful without repertoire to apply them to. Check out this 10 Must Know Jazz Standards article and this article that explains effective methods to learn tunes.
Different elements of the jazz guitar practice routine such as language, chord progressions, phrasing, theory, aural skills, harmony and sight reading are all part of learning repertoire which is why it should take up at least one quarter of your jazz guitar practice routine.
A realistic goal for most guitarists is to learn at least one new tune a month. When someone says they know a tune I would expect them to be able to do the following, all from memory.
- Play the melody in single lines in at least two separate octaves
- Comp the entire progression in two different areas of the guitar neck
- Comp the progression in a few different keys
- If applicable, play the melody using chords
- Be able to improvise over the tune without getting lost
Jazz Guitar Practice Routine — Language 25%
One of the biggest weaknesses I notice in students when they first come to me for a private jazz guitar lesson is the lack of language. Spending time learning jazz language is the fastest way to get a good jazz feel and sound like a professional jazz musician when improvising.
Transcription is the best way to learn jazz language because when done correctly, you are internalizing the music before even learning to play it. My teacher at Leeds College of Music, Jamil Sheriff, once suggested always having a transcription on the go and I have found this to be excellent advice.
Besides transcribing, there are many free resources available to the practicing jazz guitarist. I have a plenty of free jazz lick lessons on the site.
Jazz phrases should be practiced harmonically and rhythmically to gain the most use out of them. Also remember that is far better to be able to use one or two simple phrases in 10 different ways than 20 phrases in only one way.
Learning a new lick every week is a sure fire way to develop language. If you are more into full solos I would limit myself to learning 8 bars of a solo a week. This is because I could learn the 8 bars in a couple of practice sessions and spent the rest of the week practicing all the language within those 8 bars.
Most jazz standards are in 32 bar form so if you learn 8 bars of a solo a week you will learn a new chorus of a solo in one month. I would also recommend learning licks or solos over tunes that you are working on.
Jazz Guitar Practice Routine — Improvisation 25%
One of the most important aspects of jazz music is often considered to be improvisation which makes it an essential part of the jazz guitar practice routine. There are two main kinds of improvisation that jazz musicians need to be comfortable with.
The first is improvising over tunes that you know from memory and the second is improvising over tunes that you don’t know and may have never seen before.
Assuming you know what scales, lines, and arpeggios to use over each chord here a few different techniques that you can use to practicing improvisation in your jazz guitar practice routine.
- Solo only using one string at a time
- Solo only using certain frets of the guitar, e.g. frets 1-4, frets 5-9, etc
- Solo only using rhythm at a time such as quarter notes or eighth notes
- Solo only using certain licks, scales or arpeggios
- Solo only using certain intervals
- Solo only using your voice
- Solo trying to set a certain ‘mood’ or ‘feel’
In performance situations, jazz guitarists are frequently required to improvise by sight soloing or sight comping. The best way to do this is to open up the real book to a random song, find a backing track on YouTube and have a go at improvising over it from sight.
Do not be too critical of your playing when practicing improvising on unseen chord progressions. The most important thing in these type of situations is usually to be able to make it through a progression without getting lost.
Jazz Guitar Practice Routine — Sight Reading 5%
Not every student or even professional musician chooses to read music. But for most guitar players, the ability to read music, even if it’s just rhythms with tab or chords is very beneficial.
Because only 5% of the jazz guitar practice routine time is given to sight reading, I would recommend practicing a different sight reading exercise in each practice session as shown in a weekly practice table example below.
Details of each of the sight reading exercises in the table below can be found in this in depth article I recently published.
|Day of the Week||Sight Reading Exercise|
|Monday||Random Real Book Melody|
|Sunday||Random Real Book Melody|
Instead of practicing a bit of sight reading in every practice session you could alternatively just dedicate one practice session a week to it and practice all the different sight reading exercises in one session.
Jazz Guitar Practice Routine — Active Listening 5%
Not all practice has to be done with a guitar. Listening is a prime example of this. I have sometimes learnt more from actively listening to a CD or going to see a gig than what I have from several hours of practicing.
Try to listen to at least one new jazz CD each week and see as many gigs as you can. If you are new to jazz guitar, and want some specific albums to check out I highly recommend the following
- Kenny Burrell — Midnight Blue
- Grant Green — Green Street
- Pat Metheny — Bright Size Life
- Kurt Rosenwinkel — Reflections
- Jim Hall — Live ’75
The first two artists are great for transcribing, as Grant Green and Kenny Burrell often use a lot of blues language which guitarists are familiar with. The other albums are a bit more challenging, but they will give you an insight into the broad range of jazz guitar styles.
As great as these albums are, active listening should not be limited to only guitar. There are several great free online steaming jazz radio stations to check out. One that I particularly enjoy is JAZZRADIO because you can choose to listen to different instruments and discover new guitarists.
I would expect an intermediate jazz guitar player who has been playing for around a year to be able to name at least 10 jazz guitarists and 5 jazz guitar albums off the top of their head.
Jazz Guitar Practice Routine — Student Example
Here is an example of all these different aspects of the jazz guitar practice routine in content from a custom email that I sent to my excellent new Skype guitar student Patrick W last week.
|Warm Up Exercises||
Student Jazz Guitar Practice Routine Resources
- 30 Days to Better Jazz Comping for Drop 2 and 3 Chord Resource PDF
- Autumn Leaves Lead Sheet
- Jim Hall/Ron Carter recording of Autumn Leaves
- Autumn Leaves Backing Track to practice chords and melody
As this jazz guitar practice routine was only from a 30 minute introductory lesson we didn’t discuss language in detail and the student isn’t interested in sight reading which is why they aren’t included.
Not all of the different practice sections will apply to every guitarist — I have met and played with some great players who do not read music.
A few other things to work on that are very important in progressing as a jazz guitarist are playing and practicing with others and working on getting a jazz guitar tone.
I hope that you have enjoyed reading this article. What are some of your favorite ways to practice jazz guitar?