How to Play Jazz Guitar

I am learning to play jazz guitar now. No, not guitar. Jazz guitar. Totally different. I don’t play your simple cowboy chord shit, or some Wagon Wheel piano bar shit, or some acoustic tablature Alice in Chains bullshit. Or your doodle-ee doodle-ee heavy metal Lydian scale horseshit. And don’t even get me started on how bad the blues is. This is jazz. Like, I’m using an instrument, and that instrument is this guitar in my hands. But get this: It’s just an instrument. Jazz is music. I don’t have any special love for the guitar—in fact I detest it because it stinks for jazz, not organized right, the way a piano is. It’s just the only instrument I know how to play well enough to take up as my instrument for jazz music, which is America’s enduring and greatest gift to the world and not at all the relic you may think it is.

It’s an art form, man. America’s indigenous art form!

It’s not some extruded pink Max Martin Taylor Swift bullshit. You have to practice and learn for years just to be bad at jazz. Look at me, I’m terrible at jazz! I don’t even know what I’m doing and I’ve been practicing and learning for like seven or eight years.

Jazz is about improvising, man. It’s not some “here you go here’s the song” bullshit. It’s not some happy-crappy Chris Bocci bullshit, either, where the whole thing is in A minor and the horn is just playing pentatonic scales like some pimply high-school marching band clarinetist.

Jazz is about improvising with other people. A bunch of very very good jazz musicians respond to each other, compose music in real time, OK? Someone calls out How High the Moon and you go, What key? Oh, E flat? Alright. Boom. A flat? No problem. You’re into the head and the melody is lying down on these chords and you just have to, like, stare into it, feel these chords going by and all their possibilities.

Myself I don’t know if I know that many of the possibilities yet. I’ve only been learning and practicing for seven years. A little more. But players who know jazz, they hear that F minor, that B flat seven, and they say to themselves, Hey, most cats would play the F Dorian at this point, something pretty to get you to the E flat but not me, I’m going to do the step-down for a bar or even play the fucking G dominant! Actually they don’t even think that, they just do it! Because jazz is about action and about the present moment.

I’ve tried to join a couple of bands to play jazz in but they haven’t really worked out. In at least one of them the other guys didn’t even know what they were doing. Just because the guy had a stand-up bass he thought he was playing jazz. He was just playing some Usher bullshit. There were a couple of bands like that that I had to get the fuck away from.

There is this new group I found that really knows its stuff. Like a real jazz ensemble. I discovered them playing one night at this supper club, not even even listed, and they were just soaring! But, like, cool soaring. They wouldn’t even talk to me when I tried to ask them who they were and did they know how to play How High the Moon. There was a part in one of their sets where they kind of had a guest slot and of course I had my guitar and my amplifier in the car and so I ran out and got them and played a little bit with them. It didn’t go well. They told me I was terrible—and that’s another reason I knew they were serious jazz-heads. They’re never going to let me in the band but I’ll keep following them and showing up with my rig in the back of the car and in the mean time I can tell I’ve found a group that speaks the same language as I do, and that language is jazz.

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