Jazz Guitar Basics

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An Introduction to the Style and Structure of Jazz Guitar

Early history

Guitar did not start out as a primary instrument in Jazz; in fact, the banjo was the main chordal rhythm instrument. As jazz became more harmonically complex, and as the upright bass replaced the tuba as the dominant bass instrument in Jazz, the louder and more versatile guitar became dominant. Jazz guitars were soon designed to reflect the louder style necessary to “keep up” with the other instruments.
Many people equate the electric guitar with rock music, but Jazz is the first music style that made wide use of the electric guitar. Although solid-body electrics are now commonly used, the primary guitar used in this style of music from the 1920s to present day has been the archtop guitar.


Example of an archtop guitar

Example of an archtop guitar

During the Big Band and Swing eras, the guitar was used primarily as a rhythm instrument, although Jazz accompaniment became increasingly more stylized. Only small Jazz combos made use of guitar leads. It wasn’t until the post-WWII era that guitars were being used with higher versatility, both as rhythm and lead instruments.

In the Bebop era and beyond, improved electronics and an expanded number of guitar models, as well as the innovative work of many musicians brought about what is commonly known as “Jazz guitar.”

The 1970s brought on the advent of Jazz-Rock fusion, signified by many guitarists using solid-body guitars and bringing in elements of many Rock guitarists such as Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix.

Jazz Guitar Ingredients

Rhythm: Jazz often uses complex and odd-meter playing with hard-to-fret chords.

Harmony: Jazz guitar “voicing” emphasizes the 3rd and 7th notes of a chord. Some more sophisticated chord voicings also include the 9th, 11th, and 13th notes of the chord.

Unlike many other genres of music, the complexity and improvisational nature of Jazz compels the Jazz guitarist to learn a wider variety of chords, including major 7th, major 6th, minor 7th, minor/major 7th, dominant 7th, diminished, half-diminished, and augmented chords. It is also important for the guitarist to learn advanced subjects like altered chords and re-harmonization. These are all used over several basic Jazz progressions.

Melody: Jazz guitarists often emulate other instruments. For example, many use Jazz phrasing with the sense of natural breathing and legato phrasing used by horn players, particularly saxophone players.

Playing Styles

A lot of Jazz guitar involves “comping,” or accompanying the other instruments. In a standard Jazz combo, the pianist or guitarist typically comps during the horn and double bass solos by improvising chords and countermelodies. This is most common in small combos.

Another commonly used playing style is “blowing,” or playing one-note solos over the melodies and improvisations of the other instruments.

Of course, not all soloing is limited to blowing. Oftentimes, a Jazz guitarist will use a combination of chords and notes to create great soundscapes.

Jazz takes quite a bit of study to learn and get proficient in, but it definitely makes you a more versatile guitar player. Listen to some of the top Jazz guitarists, and you’ll hear a wide variety of styles, even within the one genre. Here is a brief list of Jazz guitarists to check out: Django Rhinehardt, Pat Metheny, Wes Montgomery, John McLaughlin, Al DiMeola, Larry Coryell and Stanley Jordan.

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