Tips for Playing Jazz with Just a Guitar
Playing jazz music with nothing but a guitar might seem like it is out of reach, but I am here to tell you, that is not the case at all. I know that in the beginning I was intimidated by all of the information I was being asked to absorb. Eventually, however, I learned that by establishing strong fundamentals and a good understanding of the basics, the more complicated stuff really was not all that complicated. For this lesson, it is necessary for you to have a relatively good understanding of the fretboard. If that is not the case for you, I would recommend digging into that a bit more before moving onto something like this. Here, I will be providing some basic 7th chords for you as well as some arranging tips so you can begin making your own simple arrangements right away, but it is important that you are able to find notes on the fretboard fairly quickly.
Principles for Arranging
When it comes to arranging tunes for solo guitar, it is important to establish some parameters. On a guitar, we are limited to six notes at a time at most. We are not blessed with easy harmonic access like piano players, so we are required to have a bit of ingenuity. Let’s go over some parameters that can help you along the way.
Since the human ear typically perceives the highest line in an arrangement as the melody, we will attempt to restrict the melodic content to the top two strings. This is not a hard and fast rule and sometimes you will have to break it, but it’s a good limitation to set for yourself. Otherwise, things can get pretty hairy. Some melodies have a very wide range and will require some rule bending or breaking.
Harmonic material is often restricted to the middle four or top four strings. This all depends, of course, on what your arrangement is asking of you. Within these chord shapes, the melodic material will often be at the top of your chord, and that’s fine. There is always going to be some overlap.
Most of your bass material will be delegated to the bottom two strings. The bass provides the foundation for your arrangement and plays an extremely important role in defining the harmony. For the purposes of this lesson, we are sticking to root position shapes to avoid confusion. Eventually, as this becomes easier for you and your vocabulary becomes more sophisticated, you will want to play around with bass movement to create some tension and general harmonic interest.
As I mentioned earlier, you surely noticed some overlap between each role and this is the nature of the instrument: we only have six strings! The chord shapes themselves will often provide you with everything you need for a particular moment in an arrangement: bass, melody, and harmonic material.
For the purposes of this lesson, I will only stick to root position chords. For the time being, you can get a lot out of just these shapes and it is probably best to make sure you have a good grasp on this material before moving on to more complicated things. Eventually, as your chord library expands, you will be able to create tension and harmonic interest with chord inversions, substitutions, and more.
Here, we will be discussing what are called “shell voicings”. These shapes get their name because they only use the notes in a chord that define its quality. Basically, the chord tones are root, third, and seventh. We are omitting the fifth because it sounds through overtones. The omitting of this fifth means that we will get some of the same voicings for different chords.
For example, Gm7b5 is G Bb Db F and Gm7 is G Bb D F. When we omit the fifth on both chords, we are left with G Bb F. See what I mean? Great. Let’s continue!
These shapes were taught to me as basics, but all these years later, I still find myself using them in some variation or another. Further, since they only use three strings at a time, it leaves openings for adding melodic content.
From the sixth string:
...and here they are starting from the fifth string:
Building the Arrangement
Now that we have some vocabulary and arranging concepts under our belts, let’s see how we can put it all together. Here, I will provide a simple little melody and harmonize it using some of what we have gone over here.
Let’s assume the harmonic material - or chords - for this melody is a simple ii V I progression in C major.
That’s going to be
| Dm7 | G7 | Cmaj7 |
Assuming we harmonize every note, the material you will be playing will look something like the following:
Now, most players do not harmonize every single note, but I believe it is helpful to understand how you can harmonize each note so that you know every option you have available to you. Sometimes, it is also necessary to move around the top note in a given chord shape to accommodate the melody. You probably noticed some of that happening here. Once you feel comfortable with all of the material provided here, I will highly recommend exploring drop 2 and drop 3 voicings with all of their inversions. This is, of course, a LOT of material. But if you can get all of this down, you will be on your way to creating some really interesting arrangements.
The great thing about this material, is that if you can master this, you will soon find that your comping has improved drastically. This is the case particularly with comping behind the melody. Ideally, you want the top line of your comping to fit with the melody note being played. What better way to achieve that than by actually playing some of the melodic material behind the lead player?
I hope you enjoyed this lesson. Happy practicing!
About the Author
Marc-Andre Seguin is the webmaster, “brains behind” and teacher on JazzGuitarLessons.net, the #1 online resource for learning how to play jazz guitar. He draws from his experience both as a professional jazz guitarist and professional jazz teacher to help thousands of people from all around the world learn the craft of jazz guitar.