When learning jazz guitar chords, learning standards and progressions is also important so that you can apply the comping, chord solos and chord melody arrangements you learn, but what is the best way to really learn a chord progression?

I am sure at some stage in our developments we’ve tried to learn a progression or tune and it just doesn’t stick in our minds for some reason or another, so this instalment will be about the most sucessful ways I’ve found to learn progressions.

 

Why Learn Chord Progressions?

 

A couple of years ago when I first got into learning jazz standards I made a personal goal to learn as many tunes and progressions as possible for three reasons.

The first is I did not want to be bogged down looking at music when I was playing. I wanted to be able to concentrate on what other musicians played and I wanted to be to concentrate on what I played.

Don’t get me wrong sheet music has its purpose, but unless you’ve been playing jazz for less than a year, I always cringe whenever I see a musician readings dots when they’re playing autumn leaves.

The second reason I wanted to learn the progressions is because I never saw any of my favourite standard jazz musician’s reading music and the one’s who played a lot of gigs seemed to always know the tunes.

The third reason is I didn’t have and still down own a music stand. Yeah, I know I need to get one some day, but for someone who is primarily a ‘standard’s’ jazz guitarist it’s rare there’s a tune that’s called that I don’t know, and if there is, the bassist usually has a copy of the music.

Throughout my career as a jazz guitarist I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many great jazz guitarists and musicians who have learnt jazz guitar in various different ways and have always been fascinated at how everyone gets different results.

In today’s instalment of the 30 Days to Better Jazz Guitar series I’ll be sharing some ways to learn progressions that have been successful with my guitar students and other musicians I have talked to.

 

 

Get Someone to Show You the Chords

 

To me this is the ultimate way to learn a standard or a progression.

I’ll never forget a guitar lesson with my old teacher Jamie Taylor in which I was learning some standards for my 1st year jazz guitar recital and needed to learn a new bossa/latin tune.

I had learnt Black Orpheus and although I knew Blue Bossa, I wanted to branch out and learn one of the lesser known pieces so JT recommended ‘The Shadow of Your Smile’, a favourite of his.

Instead of looking at a sheet of chords JT was insistent that he show me the chords on guitar first. This was the first time that I had ever learned chords from someone instead of using a real book, and to this today I can still remember the chords to the tune as clear as day.

When someone shows you the chords the information tends to stick in your ears and head better than when you read them of paper.

I have met a few excellent gypsy jazz guitarists who don’t read any sheet music at all and learn every single tune they know this way.

Although I don’t recommend avoiding learning to read dots, the extra ear training these musicians have is very impressive.

Whenever I am at a gypsy jazz guitar jam and the guitarist doesn’t know the chords he or she will say “just play through the chords” and they will usually have them down after the 1st or 2nd chorus.

 

 

Learn From The Recording

 

If you don’t know anyone who can show you the chords to a progression the next best thing would be to have a go at learning a progression from a recording.

This is a great exercise to do to develop your ears even if you already know someone who can tell you the chords.

Learning off the record  can be tricky for those new to jazz guitar, but developing good ears from the very start is a great idea and you will certainly feel the benefit in the long term.

Because it can be tricky there is a few tips to transcribe chords that I recommend to my students.

One of those tips is working out the chords to a tune or progression without a guitar.

You might be thinking “how can this make learning chords easier?”

Well, one reason is because when we use the guitar to work out progressions we often try and guess what the chords are and put our fingers on 10 different chords before eventually getting the right one.

By not using the guitar we are forced to use our ears more and really listen to the chords rather than guess what they are.

There are two things you must listen out to when working chords; the chord type and movement.

There are four main chord types; major 7, dominant 7th, minor 7th and minor 7b5. To work out the movement listen the bass.

 

 

Take One Progression Though Different Keys

 

The next step should only be done when you feel completely comfortable with a progression in the initial key first.

Taking tunes through different keys is a great exercise because you can’t just rely on chord grips, you really need to understand and think about the movement between chords in a progression.

Understanding movements of progressions is very important for playing jazz gigs and jam sessions.

There’s been times when I have been on the band stand and did not know the tune and another musician has quickly told me the changes.

Again you don’t even need a guitar to practice this. If a singer says to me “Take the A Train in Gb” I will run through the chords mentally first before thinking about them on the guitar.

Infact when I was being taught harmony and chord progressions at Leeds College of Music one exercise the tutor would always get us to would be to write down a new progression on manuscript in all 12 keys.

To this day I am glad he made us do it. At first you really have to think about it, but once you have done with a few tunes and progressions you can do it with almost any jazz tune you know without having to think about it much.

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I hope the following tips will be useful to you when learning chord progressions. Do you have any ways that you like to learn chords that are not discussed in this article?

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