For years jazz and rock guitar were seen as two different sides of a coin that would never interact with each other.
The typical image of the rock guitar player was that of the “carefree” improviser shredding out a pentatonic. The jazz guitarist was perceived as the well-prepared, well-studied musician that knew and followed weird and complex chord changes. This perception is still present today, sometimes justified but often exaggerated.
In the 70’, guitarists Larry Carlton, John McLaughlin, Alan Holsworth, and many others entered the scene introducing a fusion of the two genres in a new guitar playing style called ‘jazz-rock,’ or ‘jazz-fusion.’
In this article, we will elaborate on what makes jazz-rock special and some tips on how to get started in it as a guitar player.
What is the jazz-rock guitar style?
A good definition of the jazz-rock genre is the following
“Jazz fusion, fusion, or jazz-rock is a mixed music genre which developed by mixing the rhythms of funk and R&B music with the amplification and effects of rock music, complex musical tactics as well as extended and (most of the time) instrumental compositions.”
Same as the genre, the guitar style played on it had the same mixed characteristics that were much dependent on the individual player’s styles. Bands like Steely Dan helped make the style more popular and pushed it into other genres as well.
In the words of Larry Carlton and Lee Ritenour, two fusion guitar greats:
“People would put the label fusion on everything they did not know how to name, but we were only playing what we liked. That opened the door to a whole new genre.”
Listen to a performance of their debut album together and a very in-depth interview of them both here
Since this article is focused on guitarists and wants to help you become a better player in this genre, we will take elements that all these players have in common in the playing and list them out as ‘pillars’ on which to build your jazz-rock/fusion guitar foundation.
Fretboard Mastery is the path and the goal
What all fusion players have in common is absolute fretboard mastery of the ability to recognize, recall, visualize, and play all shapes of chords, scales, inversion, triads that the music needs.
The jazz element of fusion makes it necessary to be able to master at least a portion of what a good jazz improviser would study in jazz school. If you are self-taught or aspire to be, there are many ways to learn how to master the fretboard including online drills and courses.
Fretboard mastery is where the jazz element comes in strongly in the genre and it’s also the biggest entry barrier for most new starters in the genre.
Learn songs that are ‘rich in musical nutrients’
If you consider yourself an Intermediate guitarist that knows his way around general chord extensions and can improvise around a diatonic chord progression a great way to get started is to learn jazz-rock songs that are “rich in musical nutrients.”
A great band to get you inside jazz-rock is Steely Dan. Take any Steely Dan song and first learn the rhythm guitar, you will find some great chord voicings in there. When you get to the solo, other than only learning it, analyze it musically and figure out the scales involved.
Start to learn songs that cross that border between what you’re most familiar with and what you want to get to know more.
It’s always best to start from more familiar ground and slowly enter another genre.
Train your ears as much as you can
Soloing over the complex chord progression is typical in fusion music. Even if you know the theory behind what you should play over the chords, a good ear is necessary to recognize the chords and make up good melodies.
There are many great resources for ear training online. One of them is our method that involves real practical knowledge of the guitar fretboard.
Focus on the music, not technical prowess
It’s very easy to get lost in the many ‘competitions’ of guitar skills of fusion players. The reality is that they are all made up of fans comparing musicians, and the big names in the genre don’t pay much attention to how good others are.
When recording your first song, or playing a show, people always want to listen to something catchy that they can relate with. It won’t matter if you play fast or know all the scales if you don’t use melodies that serve the song.
The ultimate goal is to write catchy tunes/solos that people would listen to even in 10 years from their release.
Learn theory as you apply it
It’s very easy to get lost in the vast music theory associated with jazz. The good news is that the “carefree” guitarist inside of you is what makes jazz-rock, by all means, 50% or more rock.
There is no set pattern of learning the genre, no method, no standards to learn. The same thing can be said about your approach to music theory.
If you are a jazz guitarist then you probably already know most of the theory you need. If you are a self-taught guitarist, the best way would be to learn the theory of the things you can already play then start learning new concepts.
Our music theory drills apply a practical approach to learning theory, as all are based around the fretboard of your instrument.
Developing your style is important
Fusion is one of those genres that accepts every other genre in its mix.
There is no wrong way to approach it and all the elements from your playing that add something unique are welcome. Controversy is always accepted and the added complexity makes the style more fun to play.
A good example is Mark Lettieri and his funky playing style which is always present in whatever he is playing. Is Mark a fusion guitarist? Some will say no, and some yes. While, he is not primarily a jazz guitarist, nor does he have the phrasing of a jazz guitarist, he mixes genres in a unique way and plays “jazz” in his own way.
Allan Holdsworth is the king of “unique guitar playing.” It’s commonly accepted that only he knew what he was playing and how he was doing it.
His ambition to play the guitar as a saxophone and his unique approach to chord voicings and most aspects of guitar developed his own unique style in the fusion world.
The freedom to add your own elements is what makes ‘fusion’ still rock n’ roll.
The foundation of getting started in jazz-rock or fusion is a mix of fretboard mastery, your style, and a good practice routine.
Start from what you are already familiar with and start adding elements from there.