learn jazz standardsOne of the most effective ways that you can get better as a jazz guitarist is by knowing how to learn jazz standards on the guitar. Standards give us an application in which to utilize the things that we have been working on in the practice room.

As a teacher one of the most common things I hear is from students is “I don’t know enough tunes”, so in this article I will be sharing 5 tips on how to learn jazz standards.

First of all, why is it important to know tunes? Well, have you ever being asked to play in front of family and friends?

Have you noticed that they always say “play us a tune” and not “play us a scale”? People like to hear music that has time, form and melody, as oppose to someone playing up and down a scale. As guitarists we should always have a few pieces that we can play without a band.


To play at jam sessions and standard gigs we need to know a lot of tunes. Make sure you know the tune well before performing it in public. One problem I have seen happen countless times at jams is when someone agrees to play a tune they don’t know very well.

Something always goes wrong, often before the blowing has even begun. There’s nothing worse than a tune falling apart half way through in front of an audience of other musicians, so make sure you have the tune memorized inside out before calling it. If you know the melody, but aren’t sure about the chords in the bridge, suggest another tune.


All the great players know tunes like the back of their hand; you never see Joe Pass or Kurt Rosenwinkel with a lead sheet when they are jamming on standards. Not having to worry about sheet music frees up the mind, so we can focus on ‘hearing’ the changes instead of thinking about them mechanically.


There is no set number of tunes that we should know, and even if you already know a lot of repertoire, we never stop learning tunes. Every professional musician I speak to is working on getting new tunes into their set all the time.

I am no master by any means, but as I write this I know somewhere in the region of 80-100 tunes off the top of my head. It used to take me up to a week to learn tunes, and it is normal at first for it to take a while.

Below are some ways that  have helped me memorize tunes as quick as a day now, unless it’s something complex like a bop tune.


Learn the Lyrics


Dexter Gordon once refused to play a ballad, because he had forgotten the lyrics during the gig. Even though we are not singers, it is important that we know the know the lyrics to the tunes we play. After all, if we have gone through the effort to learn a song, shouldn’t we at least know what it’s about? Knowing  the lyrics and what the song is about might completely change how we interpret the music.


Words helps us memorize faster, especially with rhythm. Remembering melodies is easier  when they are to associated with words instead of theory, e.g. ‘ascending major scale in crotchets’. Analyzing how the melody works harmonically is fine, but when we’re performing ,we need to have the song in mind, not the theory.


Go Beyond The Real Book


Real or fake books are great when we are just starting out or for a quick reference. They help us develop our reading and follow forms when we have to improvise on sight. However, they can also stop us from being free and using our ears. Instead of using a real book to learn a tune, transcribe the melody and chords from a recording.

By learning a tune of a recording you will be developing multiple skills at the same time such as technique, language, ear training, and notating. Not to mention that you will be learning how another musician interprets and embelishes the melody as oppose to a real book rendition.


Analyze the Harmony


Musicians analyze the harmony of a tune by looking at how it supports the melody, and seeing how it changes throughout the tune. By learning how the melody works there’s less chance of us forgetting it because we have a clear understanding and we’re not guessing which fret to play.


Analyzing the harmony helps us see chords as sequences instead of  each chord by itself. The ability to transpose songs into different keys is a skill becomes easy after learning a few tunes. I have never practiced one tune in all 12 keys and can transpose any standard I know into any key, because I will know another tune that uses the similar modulations. It is worth it transposing a tune through a few keys, but usually after a few transpositions you can play it any key.


Learn the Melody in Multiple Positions


As guitarist’s it’s a common trap for us to get in ‘fixed’ positions when learning lines, scales and melodies. I have had students come to me who have worked out nice chord melodies, but when I ask them to play just the melody, they sometimes struggle due to being ‘locked in position’.


Playing with different instruments will sometimes require you to the melody in a different position. For example, if you’re playing with a pianist, chances are the nice chord melody arrangement you’ve been working on might not sound as good as single lines. If you have learnt the melody on lower strings you might need to play it up the octave to cut through.


Learn the arpeggios and chords in all positions and inversions


It is important that we have the entire fret board available to us when we solo or comp so that we feel free with want we want to play. There are 5 main arpeggios positions on the guitar (2 octaves in each position) that cover the majority of the neck. If applicable, learning the melody as a chordal arrangement is good because we can see the harmony.


Setting exercises to practise arpeggios and chord inversions is a great way to make sure we have them  down. Try playing the arpeggios to the tune that you’re working on only 2 strings. This causes us to think about the note names and phrasing more, as oppose to just hitting the changes in a fixed position on the neck. Try playing all the chords to a tune you’re working within a 5 fret span. This will avoid any jumping around the neck and you might discover some interesting new voicings.


Ok, so we know why it’s important to learn tunes and how to learn them, but which one’s do we need to know? Having been to countless jam sessions, sit-ins, and gigs I have compiled a list of must know standards that are always called.

  1. Stella By Starlight
  2. Jazz/Blues
  3. All The Things You Are
  4. There Will Never Be Another You
  5. Body & Soul
  6. Solar
  7. Autumn Leaves
  8. Blue Bossa
  9. Days of Wine and Roses
  10. Rhythm Changes

Besides jam session tunes there’s a few tunes that I’ve been asked to play at restaurant gigs a lot. There’s nothing more embarrassing than someone requesting ‘Autumn Leaves’ and not knowing it! As well as learning the standards, it’s also worth having a few arrangements of pop tunes and a few seasonal tunes for good tips.

  1. Girl From Ipanema
  2. A seasonal tune such as Summertime or Jingle Bells
  3. Misty
  4. Happy Birthday
  5. A Pop Tune ‘jazzed’ up (Beatles, Elvis, Hank Williams, etc)

What are some of your favorite jazz standards to play? If you have a favorite jazz standard let me know in the comment box below this article.

Be Sociable, Share!

Jamie Holroyd Guitar Frequently Asked Questions

Check out any link below for the answers to my top 10 most frequently asked questions that I am asked by students, teachers, readers, and subscribers.