Tips to Jazzify Your Playing

As a musician who plays jazz, I am introducing a new occasional feature with a focus on playing. And although I’m a guitarist, I think a lot of what I’ll share will apply to any instrument.

If you are a contemporary musician, it’s likely that your main — or only — style is not jazz. In this post, I’ll share some general tips on how to incorporate some jazz into your playing, to jazzify it, if you’ll permit me. Lots of people would love to be able to incorporate some jazzy licks into their playing, without necessarily committing themselves to becoming a Jazz Player®, but they feel overwhelmed. The problem is usually not one of talent or ability, but rather, they just don’t know where to begin. That’s understandable, as jazz has been around for about 100 years and has an immense discography.

But building a jazz-based vocabulary on your instrument doesn’t have to be so daunting. There are any number of ways to go about it. Here are some ideas that have worked for me and many others.

Listen to Lots of Jazz

This is a no-brainer and should go without saying. And there is no getting around it. Just as you wouldn’t attempt to learn funk bass without listening to people like Bootsy Collins, Larry Graham, or Bernard Edwards, there’s no better way to prepare yourself than to be very familiar with the the jazz idiom. I’m assuming that most people who want to bring some jazz into their playing are thinking about mainstream jazz, so my comments are based on that (with apologies to free jazz, avant garde, fusion, etc.). Thus, the vocabulary in question can be sourced to the period  roughly from 1945-1965, so that’s where your should begin.

If you’re a rock musician who has never been exposed to jazz, you might not know how “easy” rock players have it. Close to 100% of rock music is based on a modal harmonic structure. This means that when a rock player takes a solo, they are playing in one scale and in one key, as opposed to jazz musicians who typically conform to a set of underlying chord changes that often switch keys very rapidly.

But Mr. Jazzopath, what does that have to do with anything?

Example: Let’s say you learn some Angus Young licks from the song “Back in Black.” Those licks are going to use the E blues scale, and will work over just about any other E blues tune. Or, with a simple modulation, in any other minor key! These licks are what you might call “freely transferable” (my phrase).

However, jazz licks aren’t necessarily as transferable.

Example: You hear Charlie Parker’s solo on “Ornithology” and really like one of the licks, so you learn it. The difference between this lick and Angus Young’s in the above example, is that Bird’s lick was played to sound good over a very specific chord change, e.g., ii-V-I, and won’t necessarily sound good if you start using it willy-nilly! Unlike the Angus lick that you can effectively use almost anywhere, you’ll need to find appropriate harmonic environments for your new Bird lick.

However, if you restrict your licks, at least in the beginning, to modal tunes, you’ll have an easier time.

Recommended albums to swipe licks from? I’d start with these:

  • Kind of Blue, Miles Davis (“So What?”, “Freddie Freeloader”, “All Blues”)
  • My Favorite Things, John Coltrane (title track)
  • Time Out, Dave Brubeck (“Take Five”, solo section)
  • Bluesnik, Jackie McLean (whole album, as it’s a variety of blues compositions)
  • Idle Moments, Grant Green (lots of modal stuff to steal from!)

Do NOT, Under Any Circumstances, Focus Only on Players Who Play Your Instrument! 

I am always amazed by guitar players who don’t listen to other instruments and cite only guitarists as influences. Jazz players are far less likely to do this, as there are legendary soloists on pretty much every instrument. Rock guitarists, however, probably won’t find many “rock trombone” or “rock trumpet” players from whom to steal ideas! But every jazz guitarist worth his salt will have spent countless hours dissecting the solos of horn players and pianists.

One of the most helpful things for me has always been listening to how horn players phrase their lines differently. One of my early guitar teachers pointed out that horn players have something built-in to their technique that helps to prevent their lines from becoming “run-on sentences”: They have to breathe! He encouraged me to notice my own breathing while I played, and to stop playing when I needed to take a breath. It wasn’t easy at first, but it really helped my playing become more sophisticated. But the best thing you can do is…

Know How Licks Work Harmonically, So You Can Use Them Effectively

When used correctly, books of jazz licks are fine, but they can also be useless when you learn the licks out of context. Learning a lick is one thing, but knowing how to use it is entirely another.

In college, I remember guys learning the head to “Donna Lee” and kind of stopping there, like, Isn’t it cool that I can play that? Well, not really. It’s exactly like an actor who doesn’t speak English learns his/her lines phonetically: Being able to play “Donna Lee” is no more evidence that you can play jazz or improvise than parroting movie lines means you can speak English. It’s all about understanding the context and what the notes mean and why they work.

With rock licks, this is, again, generally easier, because rock licks/solos typically involve one scale over one key. This makes it easier to “cut and paste” a line from one song and put it in a different song. Jazz licks may work over chord changes that require different scales, so “cutting and pasting” may wind up sounding horrid if used indiscriminately. But if you put in the time, you can really jazz up your playing, because you’ve learned why things work and when you can use them.

That’s all I have for now. Good luck in your quest to jazzify!

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