Approach to learning jazz guitar
My approach to teaching jazz starts with a fundamental understanding of chords, scales and arpeggios. Additionally an understanding functional harmony is necessary. Once all of these things are in place we work through songs preparing for any playing situation (solo, duo, trio, etc). The method is as follows:
Melody gives a song it’s identity. This seems obvious enough but consider it when approaching a new song. Learn the melody initially on it’s own merits (without thinking of chords). Consider the range and key to find a comfortable position on the neck. Look for what makes it unique (repetition, form, intervals, accidentals, etc..). At first play in the written range placing the melody in a mid to low range, then play one octave up to place the melody in a more suitable playing range. Memorization is not necessary. Staying close to the page (reading) at this stage will reinforce a visual aspect that will be helpful later when it is played from memory.
The chord progression is the canvas to the melody. A melody can be seen from two perspectives. First is how the notes relate to the key and second is how the notes relate to the chords. The key approach gives an overall feeling of a tonality while the chord approach shifts with each new harmony. Analyze the chord progression in terms of functional harmony (ii-V-I, etc.) Look for key changes.
Now that the song is understood in terms of melody and harmony it’s time to combine the two. Harmonize the melody using four note voicings. The melody should be placed on the first and second strings as much as possible. The basic approach is to learn all inversions for commonly used chords and harmonize the melody with the appropriate voicing.
Successfully improvising depends on several things. Understanding scales and arpeggios will allow you to find the ideas you are hearing on the neck. Most importantly is a strong knowledge of the tune. Your main objective is to be melodic. Think “less is more.” Try to get your point across in as few notes as possible. When considering notes to choose start with the key (scale) you are in. Bear in mind that the key may change several times. Thinking of a scale will generally suggest more melodic ideas. This is because of the way notes relate in a overall “key feeling” rather than to a specific chord. This is not to say “ignore the chords” but don’t overlook a broader view of the song. As a result, your phrases will be longer. As the chords progress certain notes within the chords will leave the key. Factor in these notes to the key by altering the scale. The key is not changing (modulation), it is just making small adjustments to accommodate various chords. A good exercise is to actually compose a solo. Doing this will allow you to freeze time and think, be clever, write what you don’t have enough time to think of in real time. Another practice idea is to improvise in real time at ballad tempo. This will also give you extra time to think while playing.
This approach prepares you for any playing situation. In a group (with another chord instrument) you can play single note melody. In a solo or duo situation, you can play chord melody. In an accompaniment setting, you can play chords.
Improvising applies to all playing situations. In a solo situation improvising involves harmonizing your melody as you improvise, while this is a challenge, it is basically a combination of a chord-melody approach and an improvised solo.