Countless jazz band directors start off each new school year by teaching the 12-bar blues.  The director arms his young jazz cadets with a powerful new weapon: the blues scale.  With this new weapon in their limited arsenal, the hatchling jazz musicians promptly begin to spread their musical wings, ready for their first few flights.  Emboldened (or not so much), they wail something resembling the blues…sort of.

The problem is that if we show a beginner a scale, they simply play a scale.  And a scale is not very musical.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love scales.  Scales are great for technique.  Scales are also very helpful in learning which notes will sound good over a particular chord (some jazz theory buffs have gotten into calling them “pitch collections” rather than scales.  Whatever floats your boat).  But arming thyself with a scale does not a jazz musician make!

Students need to learn the language of jazz.  Let me share an analogy with you:  I took a LOT of music classes in high school and college, but I didn’t really have many foreign language classes.  Music was my priority, and so I spent the majority of my electives taking music classes.  However, I did manage to fit in a year of German, a semester of French, and a semester of Spanish along the way.  I am terrible at all three.  At least I can speak English…and jazz!

One thing I noticed in my limited language studies is how much easier it is to understand speech than it is to open your mouth and communicate.  A perpetual foreign language beginner, I never progressed to the stage where communicating was easy. Sure, I knew a few words, I could count to probably about 50, and I knew how to say “Mr. Potato Head” in German.  You know, the important stuff that a high-school Freshman wants to know.  But I was stuck in the blues scale of high school German, unable to speak fluently!

When a person temporarily moves to a foreign country with a new language, they learn the language quickly because they are hearing the language all the time.  I think the same is true for jazz.

Beginners need to hear lots of jazz before they can speak the language of jazz.  Knowing a couple scales and trying to improvise without listening to jazz is like trying to speak a foreign language without ever hearing a conversation.  It just doesn’t work!  Listening is one of the most crucial elements of learning to play the music, and so it baffles me why listening is so often neglected in junior high and high school programs.  Listening to jazz should be a required part of the curriculum.

There are other ways students can learn.  I currently teach a 7th grade piano student.  We have been working on playing the F blues.  At the very beginning I showed him the F blues scale…meh.  He could kind of make a solo, but it wasn’t really musically satisfying (yet).  Then I made him learn four choruses of a Kenny Burrell solo, note for note, by ear (with lots of help).  I showed him the solo piece by piece, lick by lick, with plenty of review along the way.  He then practiced it on his own, and kept listening outside of our lessons.

It took a few weeks, but he learned the solo, note for note, one lick at a time.  He could play it up to tempo along with the recording.  He’s 13 years old.  Pretty cool!

He was able to learn a little less than a chorus per week.  In less than two months, he could play the whole Kenny Burrell solo with his right hand along with the recording.  He didn’t write a single note down.  But he could sure play that solo!  No left-hand yet, although it is a good thing for piano players to add in their own left-hand voicings.

We picked a solo that was appropriate for his level.  Kenny Burrell uses notes from the blues scale for about 80% of his solo. After transcribing the solo, my student can play a much better solo on F blues changes because he understands how to use the blues scale!  It was like having a lesson from Kenny Burrell.  Strategic transcribing can work wonders if applied correctly.  It’s good to have a direction in mind, something you want to work on that you know the solo will teach.

Another thing I have done to teach jazz language is to demonstrate an easy jazz lick by ear, and have my student(s) parrot the lick back to me.  Many times they will be able to play it back to me the first time.  If they miss part of the lick, I’ll play it again a few times until they get it, slowing it down if necessary.  If transcribing a solo is one way to learn jazz language, learning licks by ear is a second way.  Playing written licks  is a third.  I use all three approaches in my teaching.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the blues scale, but knowing it isn’t enough.  You have to learn how to use it!  There are those who teach the blues scale without offering any guidance as to how to apply the scale.  That is kind of like teaching a few words without mentioning anything about grammar and sentence structure.  It’s a start, but it’s not enough!  Of course, there are MANY jazz concepts to learn beyond any particular scale!  If students are listening to the music, all of these concepts are much easier to grasp and apply.

Jazz is a language.  A scale is like a translation dictionary.  It contains the information you need to know, but it’s not much help if you don’t understand how to use it correctly.  Students of the music need to listen.  They need to imitate and transcribe phrases or solos.  Playing a solo along with the master who played the solo is one of the best ways to learn the language!   Transcribing makes the jazz musician a better improviser in the same way that reading makes an author a better writer.  It sparks new ideas and opens up new possibilities.

With the proper guidance, even a beginner can transcribe solos.  It is important to pick solos, licks, and players to listen to that are appropriate for their level or they might end up getting frustrated.

Am I suggesting we give up teaching the blues scale all together?  Absolutely not.  I just want everyone to listen to the music and learn to speak the language.  Without lots of listening and even some transcribing, the blues scale ends up being a crutch that can end up stunting the growth of the improviser.

Keep Swingin’,

-Camden Hughes

p.s. Brent Vaartstra and myself will soon be offering private jazz lessons on Skype and Google Hangout!  I will be teaching jazz piano, but I am willing to take students of other instruments who want help with jazz theory and/or constructing jazz solo lines. Brent will be teaching jazz guitar. 

We hope to be able to help others learn to speak the language of jazz.  We enjoy teaching, and we have the know-how to help students of the music to really excel.  Put in a good word for us the next time you hear of a student who wants help with jazz piano or jazz guitar!  We are experienced teachers, our rates are competitive, and we love passing on the music.  Plus, Skype allows us to teach anywhere in the world where there is a good internet connection, access to Skype, and an English-speaking student (refer back to my language story above…sorry, no lessons in German!)

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy:

A Jazz Guide to Practicing

25 Easy ii-V-I Licks

Stop Beating Yourself Up!

The Truth About Getting a Jazz Degree

30 Stepsto Better Jazz Playing


  1. I totally agree with this, I find that I have the same problem teaching blues to my students. Thanks for the insight.

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