One of the most common pieces of advice I hear is “play what you hear”. While this might seem like simple advice at first, what does it really mean, and how do we get the sounds we want into our ears?

When I am teaching jazz guitar to students one problem that I often see is that the student’s finger’s get ahead of their ears and as guitarists it’s certainly one problem that we’re all guilty of, but how do we really get the sounds of jazz into our ears before our fingers?

Learning scales and arpeggios is great and certainly part of becoming a better jazz guitarist but within each arpeggio and scale there is a lot of information and we sometimes go through them too quickly without really getting the sounds of the notes within the harmony into our ears.

A great solution to this is to use an exercise that I learnt from watching the fantastic jazz guitarist Howard Alden who demonstrated this at a workshop which I attended. The exercise helps you get the sounds of intervals within scales and arpeggios into our ears by playing them with the root of a chord.


Play What You Hear – Howard Alden Exercise


Pick any tune that you are working on, in this example I have used a jazz blues because most guitarists will know this form, and play the bass note and an interval of your choice, in this case I’ve selected the third.

Do this for every chord of the progression that you are working on slowly then start to practice it in time.


play what you hear


Playing an interval at the same time as the root helps you hear how the interval relates to the harmony and by isolating specific intervals out across the fretboard you will know how to locate them without referring to a scale.

To play the exercises I have written out you will need to either have a hybrid picking or finger style right hand technique, so if you’re strictly a plectrum player try picking the extension first and the root afterwards.

To really get the sounds of the chord tones into your ears you could also try playing the bass note first, then singing the extension.

Here’s two more examples, the first one is the root and 9th of the chord, the second is with the root and 7th.


Root and 9th

Root and 7th


To see the intervals across the fretboard try playing the root on a different bass string every time you go round the chorus.

You can also build chords around the bass note and extension to better your jazz guitar chord and comping chops.

Once you start to feel comfortable with seeing the extensions across the neck, try and create some lines with them. The following example shows how you can use lines once you begin to see thirds across the neck.



Notice how the third is being targeted in different ways throughout the example. In the first bar the third is being targeted using chromatic enclosures. Bar 3 shows how I used thirds with syncopated rhythms giving the lick a nice bouncy feel.


How to Practice This Exercise


  • Pick one extention such as the 3rd or 7th and apply it the chords of a tune in free time first
  • Once you can locate the interval, practice going round the progression or tune that you are working on slowly
  • Using the same interval start on a different bass string so that find the interval in a different position on the guitar neck
  • Go through the same progression and change the interval each time so that you learn all the possible sounds for each chord.


This exercise is a fun way to learn the sounds of jazz harmony, and has opended my ears to many new sounds when improvising. How do you practice hearing jazz harmony? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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