Can you play guitar in a jazz band? You definitely can.
The guitar has been an important part of both traditional and modern jazz ensembles over the years.
Playing guitar in a jazz band can be a challenge to get right at first, especially if most of your experience is from other styles, like rock, blues, country, really anything other than jazz.
It can be very easy at first to get overwhelmed or discouraged, and it can seem like none of your other guitar skills transfer over.
There are going to be a lot of new chords that you feel like you've never seen before.
The strumming patterns that you bring with you from your other styles don't sound quite right.
Your guitar sound might stick out like a sore thumb when the band is playing.
In this lesson, we're going to take a look at how to play guitar in a jazz band from a technical standpoint.
We'll look at the equipment you may need to get, and how to use the equipment that you already have to get a good jazz sound.
We’ll look at the types of chords you need to use and give you links to good resources you can rely on.
We’ll look at the comping and strumming patterns you’ll need for playing jazz and again, provide links to good lessons you can use.
And we'll also talk about how listening is the most important thing for you to do to be successful playing guitar in a jazz band.
Let's get started.
Jazz Guitar Equipment
You don't need any special equipment to play jazz on a guitar. You can use whatever guitar, amplifier, picks, and strings you already have.
There are some adjustments you can make to get a more traditional jazz guitar sound, certain types of guitars that can help you get a really traditional sound, and tweaks you can make to your setup with picks, strings, and amplifier choices.
So technically, you can play jazz on any guitar. Jazz as a style of music, not a type of instrument. There is no need to go out and buy a new guitar for jazz unless you really want to.
There are some situations where a more traditional looking “jazz guitar” might be expected by some people.
Even in these situations, the guitar you use doesn't really matter as long as you are getting the right sound and feel.
But let’s take a look at some of the more traditional jazz situations for a minute.
If you're trying to play in a traditional jazz band, like in a school setting or a community band that's playing traditional Big Band jazz, you might want to look into what we call an archtop guitar or a semi hollow guitar.
These are going to work better visually, and be easier to get the right sound in that scenario.
Partially this is because these guitar types are what people have used historically in these situations, and partially because (for right or wrong) people tend to hear what they see in jazz band situations.
So if someone sees you playing a Flying V guitar, they might automatically assume that you’re not really playing jazz.
However if the same person see you playing an archtop guitar with f holes, it’s likely that they're going to think that you are playing jazz.
You could be playing the exact same music in both of these situations, but the sad truth is that some people will make assumptions about your playing ability based on the type of instrument you are holding, regardless of how you play.
That being said, you should play on whatever instrument you have, and are comfortable playing on.
Solid bodied guitars are becoming more and more common in jazz bands, and we’ll take a look at some equipment set up considerations later on.
Outside of the jazz band scenario, solid body guitars are becoming more and more common to use.
If you're using a solid body guitar and want to go for a little bit more traditional sound, you need to spend some time playing with and learning how to set up your electronics for the sound you're looking for.
In general, you want to use your neck pickup on a solid body guitar where if you have a Stratocaster or strat style guitar, with three single coil pickups, you're going to want to use the neck and mid in combination.
What that's going to do is give you some of the more mellow sound from the neck pickup, but also cancel out the hum that oftentimes will come from using just one single coil pickup.
As far as your tone controls, if the knob is set all the way on 10, it is going to be a little bit bright using a solid body guitar.
I like to start with the tone knob set at around 4 and play with it from there.
If it sounds a little too muddy, turn it up a little bit. If it sounds a little bit too bright, turn it down a little bit. 4 is a fairly safe starting point to go from.
And if you're serious about this, whether you're playing on a solid body or an archtop or a semi hollow guitar, you need to spend time listening to good jazz guitar players - and seeing if you can tweak your electronics a little bit to get closer to the sound that your favorite guitar players are using.
Right, there's no magic number or setting that's going to work for everybody.
But if you spend time listening and trying to generate similar sounds to people you like to listen to, you're going to be heading in the right direction.
Another area that can have an effect on your tone is your strings. Heavier strings are generally going to sound better for jazz band, especially if you’re looking for a traditional big band jazz sound.
Most guitars are going to come strung with a .09 string as the high E string size. This is going to give you a very thin and very bright sound.
You're gonna want to size up to at least a .11 as the high E string size, especially if you are playing on a solid body guitar.
For the archtop and the semi hollow guitar options however, I prefer a .12, or maybe even a .13 for the high E string.
The .13 high E might be a little bit heavy at first, but in general - thicker strings mean better tone. Personally, I've had good luck with .12 as my high E string size.
The type of strings you use also has an impact on your tone. As far as the type of strings that are used, the main two types are round wound, and flat wound strings.
Round wound strings are most likely what are on your guitar right now - this is the type of string that normally comes on most guitars when you buy them.
What you have is a round wire wrapped around a solid wire for your thicker strings - usually 3rd or 4th through 6th string. (1st and 2nd strings are unwound - just the straight wire. Sometimes this applies to the 3rd string as well.)
And then you have flat wound strings. Flat wound strings are going to sound a little more traditional for jazz and a little bit warmer.
So they're going to have a mellower sound and because they have a flat ribbon rather than a round wire wrapped around the core of the string.
You're not going to have any squeaking as you shift your hand from position to position with flat wound strings.
It is going to cost you some of the higher frequencies that you're used to getting if you've been playing with roundwound strings forever, and that's going to cost you a little bit of volume - so you're just going to have to adapt your tone and volume settings a little bit to get the same sound you're used to.
Again, roundwound strings are what most guitars come with. And I've found that if you were playing pieces and songs that require effects like chorus, roundwound strings are going to work a little bit better for you.
I feel like they express the guitar effects a little bit better because of the wider range of frequencies.
It's always a balance, and it’s important to do what's best with the situation.
If you’re using a lot of effects, maybe roundwound strings are the answer. If you’re playing a lot of traditional big band jazz, you should probably try out flat wound strings to see if you like them.
Sometimes I'll use a guitar specifically with roundwound strings if I know I'm using a lot of effects.
If I'm playing something where I know I'm playing a little more traditional style, I have guitars that are set up specifically with flat wound strings for that situation.
The kind of guitar pick you use is another piece of the guitar tone puzzle.
As far as guitar picks there are all kinds of sizes, shapes, thicknesses and materials for guitar picks and you can honestly go crazy trying to find the perfect setup for you.
Most of the time, the difference in sound between two different kinds of picks is going to be small enough that anyone listening to you is not going to be able to tell.
In general the pick you use most of the time is going to be for personal preference.
The difference between two different materials isn't going to project very much into the audience or your bandmates.
That being said, in general I like to go for a 1.5 mm to a 2.5 mm pick.
The thickness of a pick does make a difference in your sound and accuracy.
The 1.5mm to 2mm thickness is going to give you a better tone and it's going to give you better control over your pick because the pick isn't going to bend or flex as much as you play.
The surface area and the shape of the pick can all come down to your preference as well as the material, but I think it is important to go for a thicker guitar pick for tone and technique.
As far as amplifiers, I tend to look for the simplest amplifier I can possibly find.
Specifically, I look for minimal built-in effects.
Most amps today are going to have some kind of effect built into it and it's not always a bad thing. Reverb and overdrive or distortion are pretty standard features on amplifiers you’re likely to end up using.
But I'm always looking for as little to mess with as possible, which often translates to as little to go wrong on the gig as possible or in a rehearsal.
Amplifiers designed for acoustic instruments are generally great for your traditional jazz band situations. They tend to have a cleaner signal and a little bit less to mess with other than your standard equalization controls.
Some of the classic fender models have also been a long time standard for this style of music as well. I just would encourage you to look for amplifiers without a bunch of built in presets and effects if possible.
As we're looking at the sound output of the amps, more watts generally equates to more power and possible volume.
Where a bigger speaker size is going to mean more air gets moved which also contributes to your volume and to tone.
So we want to consider our watts and speaker size. Generally more is going to be better as far as giving you the ability to be heard along with a big band.
But you also need to balance your volume and tone needs with the realities of carrying the amplifier.
I generally use some pretty lightweight amps.
The Henriksen Jazzamp is very good at putting out a solid amount of volume with good tone while also being a lightweight amplifier.
I also like the ZT amplification, lunchbox amp which is pretty small and light - but also loud enough to be heard when playing in larger ensembles.
Jazz Guitar Chords And Listening
Your chords, comping patterns, and listening skills are going to be more important to your jazz guitar playing than your equipment will be.
It's always worth taking the time to make sure you're playing the right types of chords, using appropriate rhythms, and paying attention to how your playing sounds with the band.
Chords for jazz guitar are one of the most potentially overwhelming aspects of playing guitar in the jazz band.
And this is also one of the things that make some band leaders or other musicians hesitant to work with a guitar player.
Using the right types of chords is essential to making guitar work in a jazz band scenario, or in really any type of playing jazz whether you're in a small group, large ensemble, or playing with a duo.
You need to have the right kinds of chords under your fingers. There have been times where people have been playing the correct chord, but their structure is off.
So they're playing more of a barre chord like you would use in rock or country music, and they end up sounding wrong. It’s important to know how to play the right kind of chord finger patterns for jazz if you want to sound good in this style.
So using the right types of chords is going to be really important.
Any kind of power chord is going to be a big no unless specifically called for. You’re not too likely to encounter those types of chords playing traditional jazz, so you can just generally assume you shouldn't use them.
Open chords and most of the barre chords you already know also aren't going to work, at least not the way you’re playing them right now. These things are going to clash with the sound and they're going to be difficult to modify as you go through the music.
So it's gonna be important for you to learn some basic jazz guitar chords and figure out how to use them. Click here to see our building jazz guitar chords article.
Once you read the article linked above, you’ll know that with a few modifications you're going to be able to use some of the information you already have.
You just need to modify your chord shapes a little bit and use them in a different way so you can make sure that you're actually playing appropriate chords for what's called for on the page.
All right, and once you learn the chords that are going to work for jazz, use them exclusively for a while.
This is going to help you really get these new chord shapes into your chord vocabulary. So get going learning the chords that are going to work for you - buy a jazz guitar chord book or buy our jazz guitar chords course here to get started.
Most of the strumming patterns guitar players know coming into a jazz band aren't appropriate for jazz.
If you're playing the strumming, same strumming and rhythm patterns for jazz that you do in rock or country, there is a 99% chance you're doing it wrong.
So take the time to learn some good comping rhythms you can use to play your chords, and back up the band, soloist, and melody appropriately.
You're probably going to be doing less strumming than you're used to, and that's okay.
You don't need to fill up every beat of music with your own strumming in this style. Any time you explore a new style of music, you are going to have to find a new approach.
If you were to start out by learning only jazz and move into playing country for example, you would end up needing to learn new strumming patterns for country music.
Check out our lesson on comping rhythms here to get yourself started.
Click here to buy our course Jazz Guitar Survival Guide: Chords And Comping.
Listening And Sensitivity
To be successful playing guitar in a jazz band, your most important pieces of equipment are going to be your ears and your brain.
Good listening can tell you a lot about what you need to do and about what is going on around you in the band.
As you listen and observe, you're gonna gain more experience. This experience is what's gonna let you start making adjustments to your playing and sound before they become issues.
You'll start to know ahead of time if there's a particular rhythm you should be using. You'll start to have an idea of the types of chords that are going to sound good in this particular song.
You'll start to make sure your guitar and amp sound right without having to play a few notes first by looking at your settings.
It’s important to let go of the idea that you can jump into playing jazz and be good at it right away. You’re going to make mistakes - that is how you learn.
By listening and paying attention, you're going to learn a lot about how what you are playing sounds. This is one of the most important things for making guitar work in the jazz band.
Aside from listening to your own playing, listening the great jazz guitar players is essential. Listening to the Count Basie orchestra and the Duke Ellington Orchestra is essential.
You need to listen to jazz if you're going to be able to successfully play jazz. If you’re serious about playing jazz guitar, you should spend a serious amount of time listening to jazz - whether an album has guitar on it or not.
Can You Play Guitar In A Jazz Band?
With a little work, you can definitely play guitar in a jazz band.
You can use the equipment you already have, especially if you make a few easy changes to your setup and settings.
You can learn a few appropriate jazz guitar chords and rhythms and start to use them in your playing, and that's going to make you sound a lot better in a jazz context.
And you can keep your ears open and pay attention to how things sound as you play them. Also, be sure to be listening to jazz outside of your rehearsal and practice time so you can absorb the style.
Remember to keep at it.
The more you play jazz, the more you play these chords, the more you play these rhythms, the better you're going to get and the more playing opportunities you're going to have.
Check out these lessons to learn more:
Step By Step Guide