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21 Quick-fire Jazz Skills to Practice Today

Not sure what to practice? Perhaps you just feel lost and unsure of what things a jazz musician should be working on to improve their jazz improvisation skills.

Or maybe there is just so much for you to practice that you feel overwhelmed and don’t know where to start. Don’t worry! This happens to everybody.

These 21 quick fire jazz skills are all things that jazz musicians should be practicing. Some of them have more to do with music than jazz specifically, but are important for jazz musicians to have a handle on. Use this list to pick 3 things to practice today, or this week. You can always come back to this list for more!

1. Scales.

Work on playing your basic scales such as major or natural minor. Also be familiar with your dorian minor, mixolydian, and melodic minor scales. Make sure you can play them in multiple keys.

2. Arpeggios.

Work on spelling out different chords by playing arpeggios. Then take a jazz standard or a chord progression and play the arpeggios over the form.

3. Enclosure.

Work on this technique that can really help you conceptualize jazz language and some of it’s characteristics.

4. Minor pentatonic application.

This is a pretty commonly used scale, especially in a blues context, but you can use this scale in many different ways. So you can see what I mean, check this out.

5. Interval recognition.

Having a great ear is super important as a jazz musician. One of the most basic ear-training skills to have is being able to recognize intervals, like major thirds, minor sixths, and perfect fourths. You can also use jazz standards to help you memorize them.

6. Learn a lick by ear.

Find a lick (short musical phrase or idea) that you like from one of your favorite jazz musicians. Learn it from the recording and be able to play it on your instrument.

7. Take musical phrases into all 12 keys.

Take a musical phrase, or a lick you have learned, and be able to play it in all 12 keys.

8. Learn how to play a jazz solo by ear.

Find a jazz solo you really like by one of your favorite musicians, and learn it by ear. This is a bigger project to do, but the results will be quite worthwhile! If you need a little extra help with knowing how to do this, check this out.

9. Learn a jazz standard.

There are hundreds (if not thousands) of jazz standards you can learn, and they all have something musical to teach us. If you need help picking one, check out our 50 jazz standards you need to know list, and if you need help with how to learn a jazz standard, check this out.

10. Learn a jazz standard you already know in different keys.

Work on a jazz standard you are already familiar with and take it into different keys, or if you are ambitious, all 12. Taking tunes into different and uncommon key centers can really help you understand a tune more fully and improve your improvisation ability.

11. Learn a jazz blues tune.

The blues is one of the most important song forms in jazz, and studying jazz blues is really important. There are always more blues heads to learn and have ready to play at any given time. If you need some help picking one out, here’s a good list.

12. Learn a rhythm changes head.

Rhythm changes is another common song form in jazz and is important to study. Lots of bebop heads are written over this form. Need some help picking one out? Check out this list.

13. Practice some jazz etudes.

While it’s important to be learning jazz language by ear, it is also helpful to read them and analyze them. Etudes are also normally written for practicing purposes, and help identify particular ideas and concepts. The best thing to do is find a good book to practice out of. We actually have one called 15 Essential Jazz Etudes, you can use.

14. Compose your own jazz solo.

Write your own jazz solo and be able to play it. Writing down solos helps you express the music you hear in your head, helps you analyze the jazz language you know, come up with your own original ideas, and improve your notation ability. This is a great practice!

15. Practice specific chord progressions.

Pick just one chord progression to focus on. Try working on your ii-V-I’s, or your minor ii-V-i’s. There are many more of course. Just focus on one and practice improvising over it for an extended period of time. Want a list of common jazz chord progressions, and play-alongs to help you practice in different keys? Go here.

16. Write your own jazz lick.

Similarly to composing your own solo, it can be helpful to create your own jazz lines to play. The music you create will also feel more natural to you. Try composing your own and work on it in different keys.

17. Practice improvising over just one chord.

Pick one chord and practice creating melodic lines over it. Try working on a maj7, min7, dom7, dim7, maj7(b5), or half-diminished chord. Of course there are more than just that! If you want a list of chords to practice, and some play-alongs to help you practice in different keys go here.

18. Compose your own contrafact.

What’s a contrafact? In jazz, a contrafact is a musical composition consisting of a new melody overlaid on a familiar harmonic structure. Essentially you are borrowing the chord changes to a jazz standard and writing your own melody over top of it. Pick a jazz standard you like, get rid of the melody and write your own.

19. Practice playing just the 3rds and 7ths of a jazz standard progression.

Take a jazz standard(s) and simply identify and play only the 3rds and 7ths of each chord. These notes identify the voice leading between different chords and are good notes to target while improvising.

20. Practice improvising over a jazz standard with a metronome.

The key and focus here is with a metronome. Set your metronome to default click on beats 2 and 4. When you are comfortable with that set it to 1 and 3. Then set it to only click once a measure. This is covered in much greater detail in this podcast episode.

21. Listen to jazz.

This is not to be underestimated! If you aren’t feeling motivated to practice, this is a good one to go to. Why? Because at the end of the day, listening to jazz is some of the best practice you can do. I’m serious.

Brent Vaartstra
Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz guitarist and educator living in New York City. He is the head blogger and podcast host for which he owns and operates. He actively performs around the New York metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publication "Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar." He's also the host of the music entrepreneurship podcast "Passive Income Musician."


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