5 Effective Jazz Guitar Hacks for Intermediate and Advanced Players
Jazz can be an overwhelming undertaking when you don’t focus on simple concepts during your practice. To counter this, I’ve thought about easy hacks and notions that can really open up your playing and give you many options to explore with minimal effort. The more you think about these tricks, the more ways you can develop them and become a stronger player.
The first hack comes from a tool that you are probably already familiar with. The metronome is the number one device to work and solidify your rhythm and timing. Most of us start off playing with a steady pulse on each beat and concentrate on performing notes with everything on time. For jazz music though, a neat little trick is to set that reference to the 2nd and 4th beat of a measure. This gives you a great swing feel and simulates the universal desire to snap your fingers along to jazz. Simply put your metronome to half the speed you want to work on. If you’re working on a medium swing tempo (anywhere from 120 to 140 beats per minute), set your metronome to a range of 60 to 70. Although tricky at first, synchronise to the rhythm by counting 2 and 4 out loud and then fill in the spaces between those beats with 1 and 3 to get started. Practice your heads, comping and improvisation in this fashion. You’ll instantly feel a change in your phrasing and feel, all the while working on your inner time keeping.
A good exercise that translates well to improvisation is to focus on voice leading within a set of changes. Voice leading is the melodic approach where a note connects to another using the shortest route possible and highlighting the changes in the harmony underneath. For example, when Dm7 switches to G7, if you underline that change by playing C to B (7th to 3rd), you will create a very strong movement in your melody that will naturally indicate to our ear the changes in harmony. A good way to practice this is to link a series of arpeggios and short melodic lines. Here’s an example which you can apply to any key and run over the standards you know. I’ve included variations in major and minor II-Vs so you can try these out in most situations.
Hack the pentatonic scale
Our trusty pentatonic scale doesn’t always have to represent a major or minor mode. By limiting ourselves to the 5 very familiar shapes, we can express different modes by applying them to different roots than the ones were playing over of. For example, while playing over a C major 7 chord, we can fiddle around with the B minor pentatonic scale to highlight C Lydian (B = 7th, D = 9th, E = 3rd, F# = #11th, A = 13th). Notice how all the tasty extensions instantly appear? It’s a great way to open up your options and add variety in your tonal palette. Here’s one more instance of this concept that will help you deal with altered chords. By playing a minor pentatonic scale one and a half steps higher from the root of a given altered chord; you will highlight chord tones from the appropriate altered scale. For example, by playing Eb minor pentonic over C7alt you will accentuate Eb (#9), Gb (b5), Ab (#5), Bb (b7) and Db (b9); choice notes that really indicated the altered scale.
Motives for Motifs
Sometimes, when playing faster tempos, unfamiliar tunes or changes that switch in a matter of a couple of beats, it’s good to have easy and familiar methods to cope with the difficulties we are facing. One of these methods is using simple motifs. For example, using a tetrachord comprised of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 5th degree, you can string these up to easily navigate changes. You can hear this exact example in Coltrane’s Giant Steps. Here are the first four bars of this standard applying this hack.
Liberty in changes
While practicing your standards and their changes, whether you’re working on improvisation or comping, you can always take liberty in the changes. Nothing keeps you from adding your own personal touch to the harmony. For example, if you’re working on a blues, you can support the harmony with extra chords instead of holding the root chord for the first 4 bars. Since you’re heading to the IVth chord on bar 5, you could add a II-V to that key. In F, it would look like this:
| F / / / | Bb / / / | F / / / | Cmin7 / F7 / |
| Bb7 / / / |
You could stretch that II-V over two bars also:
| F / / / | Bb / / / | Cmin7 / / / | F7 / / / |
| Bb7 / / / |
Another favourite technique of mine is to completely replace a set of changes by a V chord leading to a root chord. This provides ample freedom for expressing altered, diminished, Phrygian dominant and whole tone sounds. Here’s an example in the first 4 bars of rhythm changes.
|Bb / Gmin7 / | Cmin7 / F7 / | Bb / Gmin7 / | Cmin7 / F7 / |
| F7 / / / | F7 / / / | Bb / Gmin7 | Cmin7 / F7 / |
There are many other liberties you can take and these are usually only limited by your imagination. A popular example of this includes Blues for Alice which is known as a Parker Blues. Charlie Parker took the first 4 bars and transformed it into a cycle of fifths leading to the IV chord on bar 5.
|F / / / | Emin7b5 / A7 / | Dmin7 / G7 / | Cmin7 / F7 / | Bb7 / / / |
What is interesting about these hacks and jazz in general is that there are no limitations. Each of these concepts could be elaborated in depth, but at the same time can be applied to help you add variety in your playing and practicing. Have fun exploring these and coming up with your own hacks!
About the Author
Marc-Andre Seguin is the webmaster, “brains behind” and teacher on JazzGuitarLessons.net, the #1 online resource for learning how to play jazz guitar. He draws from his experience both as a professional jazz guitarist and professional jazz teacher to help thousands of people from all around the world learn the craft of jazz guitar.