Okay, so you want to learn how to play jazz but you just don’t know where to start. That’s perfectly understandable! There is so much information out there, it can be overwhelming. In fact, jazz can be a very overwhelming style of music to learn. There is a great deal of musical knowledge and skill involved to play it.

But don’t let this stop you! It doesn’t have to be overwhelming. We get a lot of emails from people just like you, who want to study jazz but just need some help in the right direction. That’s why I’m laying out this Beginner’s Guide to Playing Jazz for you.

In this guide, I’m going to walk you through some essentials to starting your jazz journey. Even if you’ve started studying jazz already, this guide can serve as a great checklist for you. The goal is to provide you with all of the resources you need to get going!

Just in case this is your first time visiting Learn Jazz Standards, or you haven’t signed up yet, I highly suggest you subscribe to our newsletter. You get a free jazz practicing eBook and three of our top jazz tips to start you off. It’s just a great way to keep building off of this beginners guide.

Let’s get started!

Some helpful musical skills to have

I think it’s important to start by listing some basic musical skills that can be incredibly helpful to already have under your belt. This is not to say that if you don’t have all of these down, that you cannot start learning to play jazz. These are just some fundamentals that if you haven’t worked on them already you should be coupling with your jazz studies to be successful.

  1. Know your basic scales. Major, and natural minor scales (flat the 3rd and 7th of the major scale) are important to know. But we also suggest knowing your Dorian minor and Mixolydian scales, because these sounds often come up in a jazz context. Scales are not necessarily the path to learning to improvise, but they are important for understanding your instrument and music theory.
  2. Understand how to construct 7th chords. It’s important to understand how to build chords, and especially the different kinds of 7th chords and their extensions. If you know this already, jazz harmony will make more sense. Check out this Jazz Chords for Dummies post which shows you how to construct 7th chords.
  3. Know the basics of your instrument. I think it’s important to say, that if you are trying to learn an instrument for the first time, you should probably work on the fundamentals necessary first. In a way, jazz music requires you to know your instrument at least at a basic level. So if you are still trying to learn where the notes are on your instrument, consider taking a step back for a second.

Learn about jazz history

When studying any style of music, I think it is important to understand its history, tradition, and how it has evolved. If you skip this part, you are kind of missing out on truly understanding the music you are playing.

Jazz has an incredibly rich history, and its tradition is really telling of what you should be working on. We have an awesome video series from Prof. Brent Jensen doing lectures for a college course on the different styles of jazz throughout jazz history. He talks about early jazz, the swing era, bebop, cool jazz, hard bop, free jazz, and jazz fusion. These videos are a great starting point for learning about jazz history, so click any of those links to get started. If you want to really delve into jazz history, I would suggest the Ken Burns documentary series on jazz.

Be listening to a lot of jazz

If there is one thing you take away from this Beginners guide, take away this. In order to understand this music you need to be listening to a lot of jazz. Now that may seem obvious, but it really is the most important thing. Jazz is a language. There are many important aspects to learning a language, but listening is at the top of the list. You need to be immersed in jazz music in order to truly get it.

Who should I listen to, you ask? Some of those jazz history videos in the previous section should help, but here’s a short list just to get you started, in no particular order:

Louis Armstrong    Miles Davis   John Coltrane   Cannonball Adderly   Charlie Parker  

Sonny Rollins    Thelonious Monk   Charles Mingus   Duke Ellington   Count Basie    Max Roach

Charlie Christian    Wes Montgomery   Lester Young    Coleman Hawkins   Wynton Kelley  

Bud Powell   Dizzy Gillespie    Freddie Hubbard    Lee Morgan    Philly Joe Jones    Bill Evans  

Jim Hall   Herbie Hancock    Paul Chambers    Dexter Gordon    Ornette Coleman   Ray Brown

Red Garland    Stan Getz   Kenny Baron   Tony Williams   Elvin Jones   McCoy Tyner

Honestly, these are just a few. There are so many more. But if you Google any of these names they will ultimately lead you to others as you continue to explore. When you find a particular record to listen to, always look at who’s in the band and then find more records they are on.

Start learning jazz standards

Now obviously if you want to learn how to play jazz, you need to learn some repertoire. Jazz standards are the common vehicles that jazz musicians use to improvise. These songs should be the building blocks for your jazz playing. In order to communicate with other jazz musicians you need to know the common repertoire. We talk much more in detail on this in our article Why Learn Jazz Standards?, if you’d like to do some more reading.

Also, learning jazz standards will help you discover important chord progressions in jazz that you will need to learn how to improvise over, such as a ii-V-I.

This particular website has a lot of resources for learning jazz standards. You can find hundreds of jazz standards in our index of jazz standards. Each jazz standard in our index includes a bio of the tune, chord charts for C, Bb, and Eb instruments, a play-along to practice with, and videos of important jazz artists playing the tune.

We also have a lot of tips for learning jazz standards. I highly suggest you check out our podcast episode How to Properly Learn a Jazz Standard. Or if you prefer to read, check out How to Learn a Jazz Standard by Ear and How to Learn a Jazz Standard and Not Forget It.

Now, at this point you might be thinking: but there are hundreds, even thousands of jazz standards! Which ones should I start with?

Great question! There are two lists we have that are great for pointing out which jazz standards to learn.

Check out 20 Jazz Standards for Begginers if you are looking for some jazz standards that are fairly easy to learn and also important to know. Check out 50 Jazz Standards You Need to Know for a list of jazz standards that are important to know, and ultimately you will want to learn all of them.

Start learning jazz language

As I said before, jazz is a language. So in order to start speaking the language we need to learn how to talk.

The best way to do this is to go straight to the jazz greats themselves. I highly suggest learning licks (small musical phrases) by ear and also learning entire solos of jazz greats by ear.

If you want to start learning how to do this, I highly suggest listening to our podcast episode 5 Steps to Learning Jazz Language by Ear. Or if you prefer to read, check out How to Learn a Jazz Solo by Ear. Now if you are wondering what an easy and good jazz solo to start with would be, try Miles Davis’ solo on Freddie Freeloader.

Now it is also wise to listen to and read jazz solos. Reading solos from sheet music can help you analyze what you are playing better, and visualize how a solo is developed. A great resource for that is our eBook “15 Essential Jazz Etudes” which is available in versions for C instruments, upright and electric bass, and with Guitar TABS.

Start finding other jazz musicians to play with

Ultimately, jazz is not meant to be played in the practice room, and ultimately the most impacting musical growth you will have will come from playing with others. So try to find some like-minded musicians to play with.

I know this is not possible for everyone, but if you have a friend that is on roughly the same level as you, it would be a great idea to get together regularly to practice songs. Having a practice/jam buddy is always a great thing to have.

It is also important to find jazz musicians that are better than you to play with. These musicians will challenge you and push you to higher levels of playing. You want to be surrounding yourself with great musicians.

Find a mentor/teacher to study with

For me having a teacher to really guide me down the right path was always priceless. I still go in for little “doctor checkups” with some of my favorite musicians from time to time. But having someone who at the very least will give you things to work on is essential to your jazz success. You need to have someone who can help you, push you, and feed you with the information you need.

Now at this point, you should have a lot of stuff to check out. All of the links I have provided certainly elaborate much further on these topics. I don’t want to wear you out, so I’ll let you go off and explore!

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Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz guitarist and educator living in New York City. He is the head blogger and podcast host for learnjazzstandards.com which he owns and operates. He actively performs around the New York metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publications "500 Jazz Licks" and "Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar." To learn more, visit www.brentvaartstra.com.