Jazz music is often hailed as an original American art form.

It was born of slavery, played on unconventional instruments such as washboards, earthen jugs and boxes. In its earliest incarnations, it consisted of call-and-response vocals, a pattern of communication common of slaves working in the fields.

Today, we can still hear such homophonic melodies in Gospel music, where the soloist or vocal leader follows one melody and the chorus, a different – maybe slower one.

When jazz music emerged in the late 19th century, no slave would be given or permitted to have a guitar; that instrument was a much later addition to the genre.

Jazz music has gone through several incarnations since American slaves celebrated a good harvest by putting on a show in Congo Square in New Orleans.

Your Superprof wants to take you to the American south, to a time when a new type of music was emerging; a musical style that would come to be associated with class and distinction.

No need for a passport or packing a bag; this journey into the past is intellectual, not physical.

The History of Jazz

Much as the slaveowners tried to stamp it out, they could not dissuade their ‘property’ from upholding and expressing their spiritual beliefs, often in a language unknown.

So it came to be that displaced west Africans, working in the fields of Georgia, Alabama and Louisiana would chant their way through work. And, if there was a cause for celebration – maybe the birth of a child or the end of the harvest, singing and dancing would be permitted.

Many Gospel songs have jazz blues roots
These days, many Gospel choirs have a guitar player to accompany them in song Image by Samuele Schirò from Pixabay

One way that slave owners attempted to dissuade ‘secret’ communication in the slaves’ own language was to force them to speak English and make them attend church – not to worship their own deities but the Christian God.

This mandate gave rise to Gospel music and its secular counterpoint, the Blues, both of which were a pleasing form of entertainment to white ears that permitted further musical exploration by the black population in America.

Out of public squares in New Orleans, specifically Congo Square, those early jazz performers caught strains of French quadrilles being played. That led to to the incorporation of brass instruments into the unique brand of music.

Later, a form of piano-dominant music called Ragtime, played in heavily black population further north made its way down south. Soon, this style of music too was incorporated into what would be a defining musical movement.

It wasn’t until the early 20th century that the guitar would feature into any jazz music; the instrument’s warm tones simply couldn’t compete with the brassiness of the horns and the pounding of the piano.

In 1923, the Gibson L5 acoustic archtop guitar found its home in jazz.

Jazz guitarists like Eddie Lang were thrilled to finally have an instrument to play chords with greater complexity that wouldn’t jar with the warm bass notes, as the banjo did.

The 1920s through the 30s became the Age of Jazz. It blended seamlessly with Swing and Big Band music and the guitar was an integral part of the rhythm section.

The electric guitar had as yet not been invented; acoustically, the guitar still could not compete with the saxes and trumpets. Still, some Big Bands permitted short guitar solos; it was during those times that guitarists such as Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian got their turn to shine.

After the Second World War, jazz music reinvented itself. Gone were the big bands; say hello to intimate quartets and combos. Coincidentally, early forays into electric guitars meant that jazz guitarists could have their turn in the spotlight.

As electric guitars continued to improve, so did the players of those instruments.

In the hands of Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall, the jazz guitar explored a wider range of tones and moods; indeed, it is those three guitar players who established what is now known as jazz guitar playing.

You may start out playing rhythm guitar in your jazz combo
Jazz chords are a bit more intricate to play Image by Casey Budd from Pixabay

Jazz Guitar Specifics

You might intuit that one can play jazz licks on any guitar.

While that may be true – you could even riff off a few notes on an amped-up Stratocaster, it takes a specific type of guitar to achieve that unique jazz sound.

The guitar of choice for jazz guitarists is the full-depth, archtop guitar.

Archtops are acoustic guitars with steel strings and a floating bridge. They boast a large soundbox – thanks in part to their arched tops and f-holes, such as those found on the violin.

Archtops are electric guitars; they may have magnetic or piezoelectric pickups to transmit their sound. Players will often set their guitar’s amplifier to give their instrument a certain tone, depending on the piece being played.

Reverb effects, built-in on guitar amplifiers, often feature in jazz guitar but it wasn’t until the jazz fusion era of the 70s that jazz guitarists started using pedal effects: wahs, chorus and overdrive pedals.

There are other types of guitars that certain jazz players favour or that certain types of jazz call for, for instance, Latin jazz players would favour nylon strings while flat-top steel-stringed guitars have been used in ‘acoustic shredding’ by artists such as Al Di Meola and Larry Coryell.

Did you know that jazz guitarists Lenny Breau and Howard Alden play seven-string guitars? This type of guitar is usually used to play metal music...

The Particulars of Playing a Jazz Guitar

To some extent, playing jazz guitar is like playing any other guitar: you should know chords and chord progressions, you should be able to play either lead guitar or rhythm and improvisation is especially valuable in jazz guitar playing.

Still, even if you play the electric guitar, you have a ways to go before competently playing jazz guitar.

And, before you can play jazz guitar, you have to be able to tune your guitar to be able to play jazz.

You are quite right in thinking that there is such a thing as standard tuning for a guitar; even so, many rock guitarists prefer to use alternate tunings such as Drop-D.

Jazz guitarists are no different in that respect; they usually use ‘regular’ tuning – not the same as standard tuning: regular tuning implies that all of the strings are tuned to an even interval.

Another popular jazz tuning is called All Fourths: each string is set exactly a fourth apart. When playing a guitar thus-tuned, the fretboard feels easier to navigate, especially when improvising.

Jazz music is full of improvised licks and unusual arpeggios. If you are the lead guitarist, you would likely prefer the All Fourths tuning method precisely so your fingers can move more nimbly across the frets.

There are, of course, other tuning methods; some are as popular as All Fourths. You may want to try Major Third regular tuning, for instance, to see how that sounds and feels when you play.

The Gibson ES-175 is the best guitar for jazz music
Early jazz musicians favoured this Gibson ES-175 Source: Wikipedia Credit: Mytto

Playing Jazz Guitar

It goes without saying that you have to have a fair measure of proficiency in playing the guitar to begin playing jazz guitar.

And, once you do make the leap from guitarist to jazz guitarist, you should determine your playing style:

  • Big Band Rhythm: a rhythm role, usually plays four strums per bar with some improvisation allowed
    • this type of playing is mostly gone from the music scene today.
  • Small-Group Comping (short for accompanying): uses many inversions rather than standard voicings
  • Chord-melody: the guitarist arranges the entire piece and plays melody, harmony and bass.
    • Chords may be sparsely played; generally, a pick is used
  • Unaccompanied soloing: fingerstyle is emphasised but hybrid picking is also permitted
  • ‘Blowing’: also called single-note soloing, it involves maintaining the chord but picking an improvised note
  • Chord soloing: involves improvising chords and melody simultaneously, usually on the upper-register strings.

Clearly, these are but brief descriptions of complex styles of playing that call for some guitar instruction…

Taking Jazz Guitar Lessons

If you have never played the guitar before, you would certainly need to learn guitar basics before you contemplate learning how to play jazz guitar.

You have several options for learning how to play the guitar: you might choose online guitar lessons or, if you are what’s known as an autodidact – someone who can learn on their own, you might find a guitar instruction channel on YouTube to your liking.

In spite of any ability you might have for learning on your own, we would really encourage you to seek out a guitar instructor.

Such a teacher can show you the right way to play; give you pointers on how to take care of your instrument and yourself so that you don’t sustain any injury while playing – something that happens more often than you might think.

Private guitar lessons can be costly… unless you learn the guitar with a Superprof guitar tutor.

Superprof has hundreds of guitar teachers all around the UK, capable of teaching all types of guitar playing. Most are happy to give lessons online via webcam while others would prefer to work with you in the same room.

You may certainly find guitar lessons in school, in a conservatory or through your local community centre but, if you were looking for personalised instruction, tailored to the guitarist you aspire to be, you couldn’t do better than Superprof!

Now find out how you too can learn how to play flamenco guitar...

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A vagabond traveler whose first love is the written word, I advocate for continuous learning, cycling, and the joy only a beloved pet can bring. There is plenty else I am passionate about, but those three should do it, for now.