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Learn to play jazz on your own - step by step guide

We usually think about jazz as a formal study at a university such as Berkelee or Oberlin. Or perhaps, as more of an understudy or apprenticeship, where an upcoming student learns directly from a master. And don’t get me wrong, having a great teacher will really help in your study, but it’s not strictly required for you to become an accomplished player. In this article I’ll break down an approach to learning jazz on your own, at home, without a teacher.

Can you teach yourself to play jazz without a teacher? Jazz is a topic you can teach yourself at home. You’ll need a collection of jazz albums, your instrument, a comprehensive plan and some discipline to get yourself on the right track.

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Required equipment to teach yourself jazz at home #

Teaching yourself jazz at home requires a few essential pieces of equipment:

  • Instrument / Location: You will need access to an instrument to play, of course, but you'll also need a quiet place to practice. You won't sound good when you are practicing, and if you know others can hear you it can demotivate you from the hard work. It's not very entertaining to listen to either, so those around you will appreciate the courtesy as well.
  • Metronome: The metronome is your best friend and your worst enemy. Without a metronome you cannot develop a good sense of time. It should be turned on much more than it is off.
  • Recording Device: You'll need a way to record your own playing so that you can listen back with a critical ear and make adjustments. This is also important for self-encouragement, in order to recognize your own improvement. Most of my students use their smart phone.
  • Lead Sheets: A collection of lead sheets for standards you want to learn to play. I recommend buying a copy of The Real Book.
  • Backing Tracks: This is a compliment to your metronome. Playing along with prepared backing tracks helps you create a good sense of time, but also a sense of style. Consider using a software program like iRealPro, which has a huge library of backing tracks available for download.
  • Jazz Recordings: Listening to jazz is a critically important part of learning to play. It helps you develop a solid swing feel, learn new phrases, and inspire you to learn new challenges. Plus, its fun!
  • Practice Journal: Good practice is proactive practice. You will want to set a plan for your practice session before you start, and record how you feel along the way. We have a free practice journal available for download that you can use.

A step by step approach to learning jazz #

In my interview with Jeremy Siskind we talked about the difficulties of picking up jazz as a beginner. "There's no such thing as a step by step jazz method" he says, "everyone must find their own way."

I get where Jeremy is coming from. The "destination" of successfully learning jazz is blurry and subjective. There's always changes and improvements to make to improve your own playing ability. And unlike classical music, there’s isn’t a defined moment where you finish learning a piece.

With that in mind, we must define our own goal. By giving ourselves a concrete destination, we can create a step by step plan to get there and celebrate our completion.

Step 1: Measure your current playing ability #

All journeys to learn something new must have both a starting point as well as a destination. To put a plan in motion, we must first identify our own playing ability.

This is a critical step, and it's important that you are brutally honest with yourself. Learning jazz requires building one skill on top of another. If you have an inflated sense of your own abilities you'll become frustrated with your lack of progress, burn out, and avoid practicing.

There's no shame in having more to learn. Learn to enjoy the journey, and you will actually look forward to finding those gaps in your playing. You will find excitement in developing new ways to fill those gaps.

Start your journey by turning on your recorder and playing through a handful of things you already know. This could be anything: classical pieces, scales, jazz arrangements, etc.

Then, step away from the instrument and listen back to your recording. Use a critical ear and take notes in your practice journal about what you hear.

  • How is my timing? Too fast? Too slow? Was it steady?
  • Did I know the changes and form of the tune?
  • Were my notes precise, accurate and in-tune?
  • Was my rhythm precise and intentional?
  • Did my articulation come across as intended? Crisp & clear? Muddy?
  • Did I create sufficient contrast? Between short and loud? Long and short? Mellow and sharp? High and low?

This is your punch list of things to practice that we will use in step 3 to develop a practice program.

Step 2: Identify your most inspiring recording artists #

Over time you are going to discover your own style of playing. But for now, we’re going to allow ourselves to be inspired by the sounds of the greats. That will help us build up techniques and skills, which we’ll apply to create our own sound over time.

Who do you enjoy listening to? Does anyone make you say to yourself, “wow, I really wish I could sound like that?” Make a list of at least 5-6 different artists.

Take this time to discover some new artists you aren't as familiar with. How do they relate to your favorites? If you have access to a streaming service, check out some of the jazz playlists to discover new music.

At this point don’t worry if your list is too ambitious. I put Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner and John Coltrane on mine, and I’m still a few hundred years of practice away of sounding like them! But, there are techniques I’ve picked up from their playing, and that’s all we’re looking to accomplish at this point.

Step 3: Map out jazz techniques you'd like to learn #

Having identified some artists we aspire to learn from, it's time to deconstruct their characteristics and trademarks.

Pick one of your artists from the previous section and put on one of your favorite tracks. Listen with your full focus, and pay attention to small things. What do you hear?

Pay close attention to:

  • Tempo / Feel
  • Articulation
  • Phrasing
  • Rhythm
  • Voicings
  • Pitch range

You should pick out a single idea from these observations as something you'd like to introduce in your own playing.

As an example, check out our article on playing like Red Garland. In that article we break down his famous comping pattern. It's a small idea with a big impact. You are looking for similar techniques.

Step 4: Listen intently to related recordings #

Before we jump into learning to incorporate this technique into our own playing, lets develop our understanding of the idea by listening even more. I want you to listen to several more recordings by your selected artist, and see if you can pinpoint how your selected technique is used in these new tunes.

How does the technique change at different tempos, styles? Are there any differences between using it on the head of a tune vs. the solos?

Can you identify another artist using a similar technique in their playing (these guys borrow from each other... a lot!)

Step 5: Practice your selected technique in isolation #

Okay, it's finally to sit with our instrument and incorporate what we've observed into our playing.

Before we can use it in a tune, we need to build comfort with the idea in isolation. We're going to do that by designing an exercise to practice.

It'll be up to you to create your own exercise, as the type of exercise depends on the technique. But, here are some tips to help you get started:

  • Does the technique require you to train your physical motor skills? Consider an exercise that starts slow and increases tempo.
  • Does the technique involve pitches (voicings, line cliches, etc)? If so, develop an exercise that puts the technique in all keys.
  • Is the technique rhythmic? Practice at various tempos, and starting at different areas of each measure.

The exercise you create is just for you and you really can't do anything wrong here. So, don't be afraid to be simple, silly or monotonous.

I'd like to note that this step can take days or even weeks to become natural and comfortable. Don't be discouraged, hard work takes time.

Step 6: Apply the techniques to your favorite tunes #

The time has finally arrived to apply your new technique into your playing of actual tunes.

One mistake I see students make at this point is that they just play through a tune they are comfortable with and try to "wing it" by inserting the technique on the fly. At this point you probably have the ability to pull that off rather convincingly, but I would encourage you to take the time to be intentional.

Pause before you play, and take a few moments to plan where this technique would be applicable in the context of a tune. Then, proceed playing the tune and insert that technique at precisely the moment you planned.

I also like to "overplay" the technique at this point. I insert that technique into literally every single place it could possibly fit. You'd never do this on a gig, but it can help you discover more ways to use the technique than you originally thought.

Once you've run this through a variety of tunes you'll start to incorporate it naturally into your playing. At that point, find another technique and go through the process again.

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