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A Rock Guitarist Guide To Jazz

a rock guitarist guide to jazz.

Making the jump from playing rock to jazz is challenging even for the best guitarists. The complex chords, scales, and fingerings are very different from the usual major/minor pentatonic you probably are using for most of your solos.

In this article, I want to share some tips that will help you switch from rock to jazz guitar.

What makes jazz so hard to play on guitar?

It’s well known that jazz is one of the hardest genres to play, especially if you are from a different background. For the average guitarist, what a jazzer plays looks and sounds very odd and different.

The main reason why jazz is hard to play on guitar is the complex harmonic structure of songs. What this means is that chords are complex, and progressions are even more so. Much has been made over tricky ‘jazz chords’ among rock musicians who prefer to avoid them mostly. The biggest challenge is not playing the chords but playing over them since the familiar scales don’t work.

Like all genres, there are certain techniques like alternate picking, timing, vibrato, etc., that differ from player to player. Jazz can be slow, mellow, and melodic, but it can also be extremely fast and with odd time signatures. 

  • Master Intervals

Learning how chords and scale are built is the most important part of jazz music theory.  The truth is that you won’t be able to memorize every shape in every key, so you need to know how to form the shapes. 

Start from the most basic Major scale, then move to all the others while focusing on the function of each note.  It’s hard work, but you can find help online. 

  • Learn notes and triads on the fretboard

Only intervals are not enough. You need to find every possible note or triad without a moment of hesitation.   

When playing rock or blues, we sometimes tend to only learn a few of the notes of the neck and just orientate with finding the root, not of the scale or chord. In a jazz situation, that does not always work, as you need to play other notes rather than the root. Very often different jazz bands will play tunes in different keys. For a rock song, it might be easy to change the key; for a jazz tune, it can be very tricky.  If you are playing the solo, then it gets even harder. Combining knowledge of intervals with a fully memorized fretboard is the best way to approach that.

  • Master chords and arpeggios 

‘Jazz’ chords are standard chords with extensions added. Your ability to play good jazz solos depends much on how you can find chord shapes and their respective arpeggios.

An E7#9 chord is just a normal E7 chord with minor 3rd intervals one added to the chord (G note). The logic is the same for all chords and should become second nature to find the shape without thinking about them.  

Arpeggios are essential for lead guitar playing. The best practice you can do to become a solo jazz guitarist is to find a chord progression and follow every chord with a different arpeggio all across the neck. At times a jazz progression changes keys multiple times inside a few bars so you need to know arpeggios for each individual chord in order not to play bad notes.

The quote that says that there are no wrong notes in Jazz has its truth. Yet you should be at a certain level of playing triads and truly apply that concept smoothly.

A cheat sheet that you can have with you always or a guitar poster with all the jazz theory, chords, and arpeggios could be your best investment and helping hand. 

  • Learn Jazz Standards 

If you truly want to dedicate your playing to jazz, you should start from the basics. Even if you want to become a jazz-rock guitarist, there’s gold to be found in the old standards.

Most jazz guitar, both traditional and modern, is based in a way in these classic pieces and the harmonic content legends such as Wes Montgomery, Django Reinhardt, Joe Pass, and others brought to the table a long time ago.

Final thoughts on switching to jazz guitar 

The only thing no one can show you is the jazz feel and touch. The only way to achieve both is to listen to as much music as possible and try to learn from the records. Keep in mind that the goal is not to be a machine of all the possible jazz licks or follow strictly every chord with notes by the book.


At Fretboard Geek, we are dedicated to helping players develop, so we are offering a 33% discount on all the cheat sheets you’ll find useful for your journey into Jazz guitar.

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