Jazz Guitar Lesson with Jason Shadrick: How I Learn Tunes

While I was in graduate school, I had to develop a method of learning all the tunes that were thrown at me at a daily basis. In an earlier post, I outlined a method I learned from Jody Fisher on learning the chords to a tune. In this post, I am focusing my attention now to the melodic side of working through the raw harmonic material found in many jazz tunes.

I have created a worksheet that outlines a ten step process. You can download the worksheet here. I have used the example of a 12 bar jazz blues in Bb as an example.

Remember, this is only one way to do this. If anyone has other ideas, please share them in the comments

1. Roots – It is essential that you learn the root movement of the tune you are working on. This will aid in memory retention of the chords and ear training. If you can internalize the sound of the roots of all the chords, the melody will make more sense.

2. Guide Tones – Guide tones are the essence of any chord progression. There are usually two main versions of a guide tone line. The first one begins on the 3rd of the chord and the second one begins on the 7th. Learn to connect these notes in a variety of ways both melodically and rhythmically. Voice Leading is an important aspect in the improvisations of the jazz masters.

3. Arpeggios from the Root – In this step we are branching out to cover all the notes in a given chord. Essentially if you stick to these you won’t hit any wrong notes, but I find it more challenging to make interesting phrases from these. Experiment with different rhythms and inversions with these arpeggios.

4. Guide Tone Arpeggios – Once you internalize a few different guide tone lines in addition to the arpeggios from the roots, you can begin to connect these in a melodic way. This is the first step in gaining some facility over a particular progression. I practiced this A LOT.

5. Construct a Bassline – This step is the first that requires some improvisation. In college I would write out several of these over a tune and then mix and match them to find one I liked. The whole idea here is to create a melody using only quarter notes that works with the harmony.

6. Continous Motion – I first heard about this exercise from a David Baker book. The general idea is to play as slow as necessary in order to play continuous eighth notes over a progression. This exercise develops fluidity and helps you develop the sense of keeping your place in a progression.

7. Little Scale Exercise – David Berkman’s Book “The Jazz Musicians Guide to Creative Practicing” was a great help with this step. Start on any note within the scale or arpeggio of the first chord and go up and down the span of a 5th by only chaning the qualities of the notes as needed.

8. 3579 Digital Exercise – This concept I worked on from a book by the saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi. This is partial to the guide tone arpeggios we looked at earlier, but now involving extensions. It works great over altered dominant chords.

9. Alternate Triads – For each chord, I chose another basic triad that would work harmonically and composed a line using only those notes. It is a great way to breath new life into a progression that you feel stuck with. You can also include upper structure triads as well.

10. Diatonic 4th Arpeggios – These will add a distinctly modern sound to your lines. For guitarists and pianists, I would develop quartal voicings based on these lines.

As with any exercise, you want to mix up the approaches to keep the listener guessing. I look forward to hearing your approaches.

You can check out more great articles at Jason Shadrick’s blog.

About Lyle Robinson 353 Articles
Lyle Robinson is the owner/creator/publisher and editor of Jazz Guitar Life, an online magazine dedicated to the Jazz Guitar and its community of fine players worldwide.


  1. These tips are GREAT! So thorough and to me, very fresh. Step by step and fun to do. Thanks for the (fantastically specific) inspiration.

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