How Hard Is It To Learn Jazz Guitar?

by | Apr 30, 2020 | Podcasts | 8 comments

In today’s topic, I want to talk about something important.

How hard is it, really, to learn jazz?

Check out the podcast below where I answer this question:

Join FretDojo’s online jazz guitar academy here


Hi guys. Greg O’Rourke here from the Fret Dojo Podcast. Visit my website, to get your guitar playing to the next level. In today’s topic, I want to talk about something important. How hard is it, really, to learn jazz? Because there’s a lot of differing opinions on this, but a lot of them seem to gravitate to the point of view that jazz guitar is incredibly hard to learn, will take a large chunk of your life, definitely you can’t focus on any other aspect of your life to get good at this.

Kind of like the Whiplash kind of approach. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that movie. I actually don’t really recommend that for the fainthearted, that movie, which is basically about a jazz student that goes to more extreme and extreme levels of dedication in the face of quite an intense and violent teacher that kind of puts him through hell basically to learn jazz.

Now in particular, I want to talk about an article that one of my readers sent into me with this question. How hard is it and how long does it take to learn jazz guitar? It’s on and the web post name is How Long to Learn Your Style of Guitar. It goes through a few different styles, but then it comes to jazz guitar.

Now I won’t read this whole thing obviously on the podcast now, but I just want to pick out a few tasty morsels here. So here’s a few things that this article says. “The jazz player needs a vast and extensive range of tools, because the music they play is based on sophisticated scales, and those scales are used to generate extremely complex chord structures. There are hundreds of code forms to learn and a great number of scale forms all over the neck in every key.”

So already, you can kind of hear that there’s a lot of complexity going on with jazz guitar and most people would be put off by that first paragraph here. They talk about here, in terms of the amount of study required for a jazz guitarist. Five years of study, averaging two or more hours a day, hopefully more, are required to get up and running as a player in the jazz genre. Then it takes about 10 years of three or more hours a day to fully acquire the use of those tools and a lifetime of continuing study and refinement if you want to be among the greats. A high degree of refined technique must be developed as well.

So you have to decide, do you want to be a brain surgeon or a jazz guitarist? Probably becoming a brain surgeon will be a bit less of a commitment. Well, if that isn’t the most off-putting thing I’ve ever read about wanting to study jazz guitar. I’m going to let you into a little secret. I haven’t spent that much time studying jazz guitar and I can still gig and improvise, and I have a whole website about it.

So I think this is really, really misleading, this point of view. But it’s a pervasive point of view that you hear about when it comes to studying jazz in general, that it’s really for people that want to do nothing else in their lives and they need to spend their whole day on it, it’s the most completely overwhelming form of music to study, but this simply is not the case.

I think we need to talk about what your goals are as a jazz guitarist. Sure, do you want to be like the next West Montgomery? Then probably, yes, you do need to spend a large part of your life refining your style. But you don’t need to get to that level to still enjoy playing jazz to competently solo and play in the band and do gigs and all that sort of thing, you don’t need that much time.

I think it’s a kind of a psychological thing. If you think something takes a certain amount of time, you’ll find it will. So, the way we think about something kind of creates our reality. I think when you read something like this, you got to take it with a grain of salt and put it in context. So don’t get me wrong, jazz is a vast topic and that’s kind of what I like about it. There’s so many different players with each of their individual kind of slant and approaches on improvisation and composing.

I think that’s what makes it so wonderful to study, is this kind of vastness. There’s pretty much something for everyone, because it’s very different to other styles. Every great player really does have their unique kind of feel and approach and improvisation concepts that they tend to focus on. But I think that’s where the first thing about learning jazz is a bit misleading, is to qualify as someone that can play jazz, you need to know how to solo in the style of Pat Martino, in the style of Joe Pass, in the style of Emily Remler, in the style of Barney Kessel and 150 other great jazz guitarists before you’ve kind of got this qualification that you’re allowed to then gig or make music.

That’s really not the case. You don’t need to have such a wide expansive influences to simply make great music. Think differently, I think. That’s what Steve Jobs said, think different. What about just trying to make great music with what you have right now? Sound like you. This is the thing. A few years ago, I was teaching a lot of kind of one-on-one individual lessons online and I was meeting a lot of amateur players from all around the world and helping them with their jazz. I always got them to start on this little exercise.

I actually did a video on this on my YouTube channel a few weeks ago, and it was about basically how to solo with five notes only, okay? So it was just five notes from a blues scale, that was it. But I got them to just start improvising with those five notes with that single scale over a simple chord progression. Now what’s interesting about doing that exercise with hundreds of players is that I’ve never heard someone play that exercise the same way twice. Everyone, even at the very start of their jazz journey, has something unique that they can say with the material.

So you have to trust yourself that, as a human being, you are an artist, you have that artistic drive inside you and that you can make a powerful musical statement very quickly. You don’t have to wait till you’re qualified and you kind of learn every single theory trick in the book and every single substitution, and you have transcribed all the things that you should transcribe. That’s a load of rubbish, basically. You can start making good music right now.

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  • Key improvisation concepts and techniques for soloing, and classic licks and example solos that relate to each tune, so you can continue to expand your jazz vocabulary and have more options when it comes to soloing.
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I also think that just having a limited set of inspiration can actually be a springboard of creativity anyway. Wes Montgomery spent a lot of time transcribing Charlie Christian. He was just obsessed with Charlie Christian. He would learn every single solo by Charlie Christian. I don’t know if he extensively did other transcriptions from other players, but once he’d kind of got that main influence, then he used that as a springboard to enhance his own playing as Wes Montgomery, okay?

So, you don’t need to study every single player out there to still have a solid understanding of jazz and a solid feel for the core approaches. So I think that’s where you have to be a bit selective. It’s kind of ironic that if you feel like you have to be a walking dictionary of jazz, you’ll find that it’s actually harder to be creative ironically, because you’re sort of locked in superficially studying too much stuff, rather than going deep and narrow on a couple of players that you really like.

I think you need to start thinking as an artist. Even from the outset as a beginner player, rather than thinking of yourself as a student that has to fill your brain up with so much knowledge, you definitely need a bit of that, but then how do I then turn that into a musical statement that’s uniquely my own? That kind of changes the whole nature of the study of jazz guitar. You can start to feel like you’re more making a creative statement, rather than just parroting something that’s been done by other people.

So when it says here five years of study, averaging around two or more hours a day are required to get up and running as a player. I know that that’s patently wrong, because I have, for example, I have a course called The Fundamentals of Jazz Guitar Improvisation in my Fret Dojo Academy membership programme. The course is structured for about a block of 10 weeks, for about 45 minutes of practise, five days a week.

By the end of that programme, and I’ve run this for a few years now, I’ve seen people do videos where they’ll be good enough to go and get a gig with the music that they’ve learned, okay? So I know that that’s not true. Once again, your mindset is everything. If you think something will take 10 years to get good, or if you think you need at least three hours a day to be able to even just play a simple song, then it will take that long. But question everything, that’s what I’ve learned. Because early on in my kind of journey with jazz, I definitely thought like that, because that’s what everyone was saying. But then when you realise that maybe that there’s another way to do it, then a whole lot of other possibilities can open up for you.

So there’s other things in here, like there are a large number of standards, songs and pieces that every jazz player knows that they can play and improvise on, all of these must be learned. Now, that’s not true. I don’t know every jazz standard, but the set lists that I do have, I know really well. If I’m collaborating on a project with someone and they want to do a few standard tunes, and some of them I would know, some of them I don’t. It doesn’t really matter.

If you know the core concepts of how to improvise over the main progressions that are featured over and over again in jazz, it means that you can solo over hundreds of tunes and do reasonably well. Once again, you don’t need to be a walking dictionary of jazz standards. I was actually talking to Howard Alden once about that and he thought it’s not like you have to learn every jazz standard. Definitely learn the main ones that you might find come up and up again depending on where you gig or where you go to a jam session or whatever, learn those ones. But then, just learn ones one at a time, or better still, compose your own standards, make your own music.

So I know I have a different point of view to some of the other guys out there, but I think definitely it’s important to learn jazz standards. In my membership, every month we’re focusing on a new jazz standard to kind of learn some of the important chord progressions and soloing approaches, and a bit of transcriptions and things like that. But it’s not like you have to learn 500 of these things to be able to do a gig. Again, it’s just simply not true.

Now here’s another point about, I’m quoting from the article here. “Although there was going to be a repetition of patterns as we go about learning all this musical material, there’s still a tremendous amount of material to study. Many great players have filled large volumes with the material they practise and have published it for other players to study. So, you can fill a room with such material and have a lifetime of study ahead of you, which is very fortunate if you love this sort of thing.”

Now again, I don’t think creative soloing necessarily comes from a large amount of material, I think creative soloing comes from actually placing limits on your material. So selecting the key approaches, the most important ones, and then going really deep on that. Not just filling your head with all this stuff that you … because when you improvise, you need to be able to spontaneously in a very natural way, kind of talk with this music, you don’t want to kind of just superficially learn a whole bunch of different stuff.

Of course, jazz is a bit of a lifetime journey, but you shouldn’t mix that together with having to feel like you need to spend a lifetime before being able to perform. So, let’s just step back a bit. You can effectively solo, learning how to solo over major 2-5-1s, minor 2-5-1s, a few secondary dominant sort of approaches, tritone substitutions, and a couple of arpeggio by substitutions or something like that.

If you can have that material, that will keep you going for a very long time, okay? That really doesn’t take that long to learn. It’s all about being selective and kind of having material that’s what I call high frequency, so stuff that’s very relevant to a lot of different songs, okay? So if you can have that kind of collection of material that’s very applicable to a wide variety of situations, then you’ll find that very quickly you can start to make sense of this kind of game of improvisation.

Now my membership programme, actually, kind of has that. I’ve documented the main approaches that are worth looking for and we work those over a variety of exercises and the most important standards. Then you can go for your life from there and apply them to a whole bunch of different tunes.

So I’m going to kind of say something a bit controversial here, I don’t think actually jazz is hard at all. Nothing in jazz is necessarily hard when it comes to learning the concepts of improvisation, it’s more a case of uncovering the most efficient and effective approaches. So it’s more a case of finding them that’s the tricky part. It’s not necessarily doing them or learning them, but it’s kind of sorting the weak from the chaff and learning the most essential aspects and approaches, and kind of techniques for learning soloing. So none of it is actually hard, it’s just something that you learn.

So having high frequency material, having a good mindset, having the understanding that if you’re consistent in your practise and leveraging that kind of inertia that happens when you start to practise, not necessarily a long time every day, but a little bit every day and being very focused on your material, you can get wonderful results.

So once I actually taught a Saxophonist over Skype. Even though I don’t play saxophone, but this person was struggling a bit to learn to improvise, and was in a situation where they had to play a lot of gigs in that style and it was stressing them out. Now I had to listen to what they had to say, and from the outset this person was saying, “I just can’t improvise, I’m a terrible improvisor,” and all that sort of thing. That was actually creating the reality of this person, okay? So, I had to really unpick that in the lesson.

After a while, she started to realise, “Hang on, maybe I can do this.” I showed her a few techniques from that Fundamentals of Jazz Improvisation course that’s on my site. But seriously, it only took about 20 minutes and she was playing a really cool natural sounding solo using some great pentatonic approaches and some blues, and she couldn’t believe her own playing. So it was mainly the mental block of thinking she couldn’t do it, and I had to just convince her that she could.

So people just need to start, okay? Make great music right now, don’t wait to feel like you have to have some qualification from someone else to get better at this stuff. I wouldn’t pay much attention to the sentiments in this article. I’m sorry I’ve kind of dished this person a bit in his podcast, but it really highlighted that kind of attitude that creates so much mental blocks in people’s abilities to just get started, and to start to make great music and start to enjoy this wonderful music that’s jazz with other people.

All right, guys. Well, let me know what you thought about this topic today and I’d love to get a bit of feedback. Either people that agree with me or even people that don’t agree with me, I’m interested to hear your thoughts and read them on my site. Please post a comment if you get to my site there. Yeah, I look forward to catching up with you in the next episode.

We’ve got some pretty cool stuff coming up in the Fret Dojo. I’ve got a great live session with Carl Orr that’s going to be on in a few weeks time in the membership, and he’s going to be talking about comping in a duo setting and some cool techniques for that. So that’s something that we haven’t focused a lot on yet in the Fret Dojo, so make sure you look out for that. Make sure you sign them up to my email list, I have lots of stuff coming out all the time, videos, new podcasts, and new courses as well.

So, okay guys, well, my name’s Greg O’Rourke. Great to chat with you today and I look forward to catching up with you in the next episode of Fret Dojo. Bye for now.

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  1. Joseph Wasielewski

    Good reminder that you can make something difficult/impossible or inspire someone to have fun and be creative!

  2. Jack

    Greg, your comments are encouraging.
    Jack Dickinson

  3. Alfred Bellanti

    This podcast was very encouraging. I have tried your 5 note improvisation with modest success. I like the idea of mindset and often feel like a victim of the ‘can’t do it” mindset. I am glad you present us with a more positive minset.

  4. Richard H

    Very useful mentoring, Greg. Your approach to teaching makes a lot of sense.

  5. Benton Howie

    Thanks for slaying some dragons. I like your approach to teaching, although I have some trepidation about moving forward. But, move forward I will. I am a very talented writer. I love using the huge vocabulary in the English language and configure it in virtually endless ways to convey thoughts and paint pictures. I would love to be able to do the same on guitar.

  6. John O'Donnell

    Hi Greg
    Just wanted to say that I purchased your Jazz Improvisation course last week. I’ve only started the first module and I am blown away by how I feel about my playing and especially my practice routine and motivation. I’ve never thought of myself as a Jazz guitarist before but in the module it asked to play the melody of Summertime using the minor pentatonic scale. I was surprised how easy it was and before I new it I was playing lots of melodies of tune s that I heard trios playing in bars and restaurants that I used to work in years ago. I was amazed how all this stuff just came tumbling out including lots of twiddley bits. I won’t say That I was technically great but I really enjoyed what was happening and I was certainly in the zone. Reading your podcast really rang true for me. I think that is where I’ve been for the last 40years. I can talk good guitar but now I’m ready to walk the talk. Cheers and thanks for the inspiration John

  7. joseph vogelpohl

    you may think im’t crazy but i am almost 85 and i started taking jazz guitar lessons

  8. Peter Fallows

    Somewhat agree. If you STUDY jazz without being a natural improvisor it will take your whole life. Menuhin could play ANYTHING if written down but could never improvise to save his life. John Williams can play classical guitar but is crap at blues ( much to wooden). Jazz guitarists like blues guitarists WANT TO IMPROVISE


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