Ear Training 101 for Jazz Guitarists

Ok friends – here are two of the ways in which I’ve focused on testing and training myself to improve my ear over the years. There’s no substitute for learning and improving your memory by repetition so always include a good healthy dose of reps in any exercise or practice routine.

First, I would work on relative pitch training (i.e. being able to tell the intervallic distance of a ‘given note’ to a ‘known, played’ note). Start with interval training.


  • Use your instrument to pitch test your ear, firstly by establishing a tonic note (try one lower on the instrument). Sing this note as accurately as possible.
  • Use this as your ROOT note, the note against which you will compare all others.
  • Now choose a scale – an easy and familiar one is best. Slowly play each tone of your chosen scale in stepwise (consecutive) fashion, singing each note, as close as you can to the correct pitches of each tone as you play them. It’s a good idea to use ‘the major scale’ or another scale you are very familiar with at this point.
  • Next, try interpolating the root with each note separately (so play root, 2nd, root, 3rd, root 4th etc). Again sing each note as you do this exercise.
  • Go up and down the scale several times, singing and playing at the same time (or if you’re having trouble pitching correctly, play just before you sing each note).
  • Next you could try playing and singing the root then the other scale tones in random order. You may wish to focus on the important chord tones from your scale at this point; i.e. the 3rd, 7th, 5th and 8ve. Ensure you are playing root-interval.
  • Now try playing the root and SINGING (only) a given note of the scale. After you have attempted the note, actually finger and play it with your fret-board hand, and see how close you are to the note in pitch accuracy.
  • Repeat the steps above but this time play through all the flattened or sharpened (enharmonic) notes of your chosen scale.

The key is to memorise each individual sound; likening it to a familiar melody is also a good way to do it (or learn the interval song).

I recall my Mum singing something along the lines of ‘Momma’s little baby likes shortbread, shortbread…’ when I was 4 or 5 – that nursery rhyme features a major 6th interval which has stuck with me since then! You must get a feeling for each interval type. Learn simple (up to one octave) intervals first, then compound (between the octave above and the 2nd8ve above) intervals.

Work on this for 10 – 20 minutes at some point every time you sit down to a practice session.

Next I would work on identifying chords. This is great for general transcribing and also for interacting with other accompanists / soloists (voice the singer in!).


  • Start with common forms (voicings) of the four triad chords – major, minor, diminished and augmented triads. Be sure not to confuse these with 7th chords, especially the diminished and augmented chord types. Be able to play these in a few different positions – fingering may be tricky for higher position diminished and augmented chords.
  • Record a series of these different chord types consecutively, with each chord played twice and held for a few seconds. Leave spacing between each different chord type and ensure you record enough so that you cannot memorise them. At this point you can use ANY root note, so be tricky here – use tritone movements, major and minor 3rds, semitones, 4th and 5th leaps etc. You don’t have to know the interval to know the chord type – but if you’ve spent a lot of time with the first set of exercises above (on interval ear training) you should be able to work out how the roots of a progression are moving!
  • Listen back to the recording without your instrument and write down what you think each chord type is. Check with your instrument on how many you guessed correctly. Be sure to play ONLY root position chords, or if inverted chords are used, make sure the lowest note is the TONIC. Rootless inversions will be confusing to try and hear / guess.
  • Before long, you will be able to recognise each sound individually, and eventually, you will ‘hear’ the chord types even in a progression where the roots of the chords move in an uncommon manner. It is important to test yourself in as many ways as you can.

Repeat these steps but now play 7th chords in root (or drop 2, common to guitar) positions. Use ma7, mi7, 7, m7(b5), mi(ma7), dim7 and aug(ma7) 7th chords.

Move on to more advanced chords when you’re ready – extended chords (9ths / 11th/13ths), altered dominants etc. Everything is learn-able; you just need to hear it lots, work on your relationship with each sound then with a progression of sounds (both intervals and chords).

Get simple tunes you’ve heard before but don’t know the chords to and try and guess what they are by using relative pitch. Work your way up to complex tunes / jazz / tunes / big band arrangements; always get the bass note first; maybe use the guitar to pitch the starting chord; then try and work out progressions in small chunks without your instrument. You will improve with time, patient practice and repetition!

Sight Reading Jazz Melodies the Easy Way

The most important factor when learning how to sight read jazz is the application of the two fundamentals of pitch and rhythm reading within practical jazz material. Students must be able to sight read and perform musical pieces in a manner that is stylistically relevant to the context of jazz music. To this end, jazz repertoire is regularly used as a source of many different types of sight reading exercises and examples, but also for the study of jazz melody, harmony and rhythm in a practical sense. In short, songs are the format which often yields the best ideas and holds the most interest for students.

So choose a set of 20 jazz tunes with simple melodies (see the blog on standards – all of these tunes would be great!) to cover for your first jazz melody sight reading exercises. Keep these simple rules in mind when practicing:

  • Use a metronome
  • Do not ever stop or skip back or pause the time or tempo of the song. Get to the end of the chart!
  • Play incredibly slowly if you are having trouble with the technical element of identifying either the pitch or rhythm of the piece.
  • Do not memorise the tune. Play it once through then move on to the next piece.
  • Treat it like an exercise (in music); if there are very difficult passages you may wish to isolate these and loop or repeat them until you can visually identify the written  music.
  • Play in the simplest positions you possibly can – this is aided by a quick one minute scan of the chart which will give you some basic (and crucial) info on the piece at hand: identify the key centre, look for pitch register, locate the lowest and highest written notes and find them on the guitar. Look for and mark in pencil, any accidentals. Look for and mark any large intervallic leaps, tricky rhythms and rehearsal marks. Highlight repeat dots.
  • The key is not to memorise the entire piece; the key lies in accurately identifying moments of music and being able to string them together in a literate manner.

There are two learning areas in sight reading: The area or ‘fundamental’ of Pitch and the area or ‘fundamental’ of Rhythm. These two fundamentals are divided below into sub-topics that relate to specialized aspects of each broader group, which will give students relevance and overall structure to the implementation of particular exercises. Make sure you work on both aspects of sight reading in a studious, thorough manner:

æ  Fundamental of Pitch reading: Students must accurately identify note pitches on the treble clef then find and play them on the guitar using ‘positional’ techniques. (Further broken down in to sub-topics):

  • Key centres and positions
  • Consecutive scale tones
  • 3rds and Arpeggios
  • 4ths, 5ths, 6ths, 7ths and larger intervallic leaps
  • Accidentals and Chromatics
  • Chord Symbols and Written chords
  • Articulations and dynamic markings
  • Guitar oriented articulations, i.e. Picking, bending, slides, HO / PO, Pre-bends

æ  Fundamental of Rhythm reading: Students must accurately identify and perform rhythmical events as they occur along a timeline onto the guitar. (Further broken down in to sub-topics):

  • Subdivisions and The Rhythm Scale (Or Pyramid)
  • 8th notes, swung and straight (the main staple)
  • Jazz Phrasing – Attacks per measure (from ‘melodic rhythms for sight reading – Berklee)
  • Odd meter
  • Tempo applications

In terms of material you might research:

  • Sight reading pitch exercises / short pieces / etudes
  • Classical pieces (look for continuous rhythms so that pitch is the focus– i.e. parts of Bach Partitas and Sonatas etc)
  • Sight reading chords as symbols / chords with accents, big band style chart arrangements
  • Sight reading Melodies from real book, extracted melodies only (no chords)
  • Rhythm reading (8th notes, 16ths, triplet 8ths, swung and straight feels).
  • Specific sight reading exercises for dynamics and articulation.
  • Studies in recognising chords as notation (intervallic studies, common drop 2 voicings etc)
  • Written material to support the student’s sight reading studies.
  • Sight singing – rhythms, pitches.
  • Stylistic applications – reading and performing a set piece in different styles / feels.
  • Interpretation of written material, rhythmic comping patterns, melodic embellishment.

I have listed below some materials I used recently to help research a paper on developing a University Sight Reading Curriculum that may be of use to students:

For the purposes of studying existing materials on sight reading for jazz guitar, I researched many books* that had been created as a means to improve pitch and rhythm reading, books that focused on jazz studies for guitar or books of note that had been referred to me as a great general source of study, concepts or exercises for music literacy.

Some titles I have included as a set of sources for jazz repertoire in the form of lead sheets.

A short discourse on my findings with reasons for including the material contained within each book in my studies is outlined after each title.

Bibliography: Author, Title, Year, Publisher

Leavitt, William          ‘Melodic Rhythms for Guitar

1969                Berklee Press

This was a major source of materials in the form of written exercises that focused on rhythms common to jazz music. The exercises were written mostly in 4/4 and dealt predominantly with the 8th note staple rhythm, musical aspects that dominated earlier bebop-based jazz repertoire. Through the use of syncopated 8ths, ties and rests (over an underpinning current of the 8th note rhythm), melodic lines created from scalar and arpeggiotic ideas became more varied and by extension, were given a deeper sense of interest and melodic possibility. So this book became a central aspect in terms of melodic rhythm based materials and introduced me to the concept of ‘attacks per measure’, where all possible rhythmic displacements of a set of 8th note ‘rhythm amounts’ are applied back into popular harmonic progressions as taken from repertoire common to the jazz canon. This concept when practiced ensured that students would eventually be aware of how every possible combination of common rhythms in 4/4 appears as dots and more importantly, actually sounds as music.

Leavitt, William          ‘Reading Studies for Guitar

1979                Berklee Press

I have used this book mainly as a resource for supplementary studies for positional guitar sight reading and the introduction of the foundational elements of reading in all major keys, fingerings for scales, arpeggios, reading of written (notated) chords and various common rhythmic forms.

I have included examples from this book in the ‘Supplementary Materials’ folders of my Course Packs and in a few cases as material for beginner students (MUS170, 171, 270) to study for the basic musical elements noted above. Two important ideas were reinforced by the material presented in this book; musical studies for sight reading should not be familiar or become memorised; sight reading exercises should be relevant to the stylistic context you are working towards, especially in light of the fact that there is limited time to study and teach sight reading materials.

Leavitt, William          ‘Advanced Reading Studies for Guitar’

1981             Berklee Press

This book is used to further augment the ‘Supplementary Materials’ Course Pack folders. The material covered in this book focused more pointedly on higher register playing, difficult key centres, odd meter and more complex rhythms.

Metheny, Pat              ‘Guitar Etudes’           

2011                Hal Leonard

I found the etudes in this book to be of great musical importance to creative thinking; although they made good sight reading studies (being strongly melodic, which is a regular feature of Pat Metheny’s playing style, compositions and improvisations) the real gem was in the foreword, where Pat states: ‘I have always searched for ways to combine a physical workout with the spontaneous creation of harmonic and melodic material’. All of the etudes are improvised and many of the step-wise, consecutive 8th note passages make for good reading and great insight into how to improvise lines from scales, patterns, arpeggios and inherently melodic pitch structures. Even though Pat states that these exercises were used more for warming up before concerts and performances, the central idea – that the tools, mindset and conceptual ideas behind improvisation can be practiced and ‘warmed up’, is a great one for all students of creative music to identify with.

Finnerty, Barry            ‘The Serious Jazz Book II’

2008                Sher music Co.

I took 8 pages of great sample exercises from this book, although it could easily have been many more. The exercises in this book are developed around chords, arpeggios, melody and playing strong tones on strong beats (lots of 3-7, guide tone, and melodic leading examples). A great melody based insight into soloing, using methodical exercises.

Chaffee, Gary                    ‘Rhythm and Meter Patterns’

1976                       G. C. Music

I used samples from this book of advanced rhythmic patterns and meter for the later Course Packs (271 and 370). The book deals with many different combinations of complex systems for subdivision which is useful for those students interested in modern composition.

Jazz Repertoire Lead Sheet Sources:

Sher, Chuck                        ‘The New Real Books (Ed. I, II and III)’

Sher Music Co.

Leonard, Hal                      ‘The Real books volumes I, II and III’

Hal Leonard

I referenced both these books on many occasions for examples of lead sheets for jazz repertoire.  This material was utilised in the ‘Jazz Materials’ Folder of the Course Packs.

Classical Repertoire Sources:

Bach, Johann Sebastian                 ‘Partitas and Sonatas for Solo Violin’

I took 3 extended passages from these pages for study by advanced students (extra curricular or supplementary studies). Despite the music being of classical origin or nature, I felt the melodic and harmonic principles contained within to be so crucial to creative musicians; bold, definitive, beautiful, brilliant, structured, dynamic and alluding to the most interesting elements of counterpoint, modulation, chordal arpeggiation and rhythmic, lyrical melodies.

I had also been informed by many students of jazz who had studied at institutes of reputable nature (one example being the New School in NY), that Bach’s compositions held great musical insight for serious students of any genre.

In addition I found that the pitch register of these particular pieces was very ‘playable’ on the guitar, being written for solo violin.

Jazz Guitar Rhythm Changes Explained

Rhythm Changes

‘Rhythm Changes’ is the term given to the cyclic pattern of chords that underpinned the famous old standard ‘I got Rhythm’. Brilliant saxophonist Charlie Parker wrote many ‘contrafacts’ (same chords, different melody) over these progressions, most usually appearing in an AABA form – with slight manipulations of the basic harmony for melodic considerations.

The A Section(s)

I have attached a harmonic lead sheet (chords only) of a Rhythm Changes in Bb with a few included chord alterations. It is important to consider the harmony – the biggest part of which is made up of a cycle of chords taken directly from the key centre of the tune. These chords, in Roman Numerals are:


This is the A section (there are 3 A’s in one chorus!) of a Rhythm Changes and is also referred to as a Turnaround (See Core Lesson 25 on the 2-5-1-6 Turnaround for more info).

With 7th chord types attached the turnaround appears thus:

I(ma7) – vi(mi7) – ii(mi7) – V(dom7)

In order to create more ‘leading’ tensions and introduce a deeper sense of movement to this set of changes, a jazz musician will often superimpose a few common substitutions and alterations. After which, the exact same set of chords may end up looking something like this:

Note the alterations to the I chord (now a dom7) and the ii chord (now a 7[#9]). There are many changes that can be made without altering the prevailing sense of the harmonic movements, a few of which I have included in the attached PDF.

The B Section:

The other part of the tune (the B section or bridge), is a series of dominant chords set over two measures each, that start from D7 and cycle through 4th ’s to F7, i.e.:

|D7 | | G7 | | C7 | | F7 | |

This can be handled in many ways- treat each chord as if it were a Mixolydian, Lydian dominant or altered chord, place a iim7 chord in the initial bar of each dom7 chord so it reads thus:

|Am7 | D7 | Dm7 | G7| Gm7 | C7 | Cm7 | F7 |

Or one of my fave’s is to play wholetone scales based of each chord root (i.e. D wholetone for two bars then G wholetone scale for two bars etc).

Soloing Approaches:

There are two basic ways in which you can approach soloing over rhythm changes (R.C.): 1. Melodically without focus on the chords, OR 2. Playing the changes. Because R.C. is commonly called at gigs at faster tempos, it is a good idea to learn both approaches well. See Core Lesson 17 on ‘Playing the Changes’.

The first ‘melodic’ based approach is beautifully summed up on Jody Fisher’s interview / lesson with George Benson (part of which can be viewed here on YouTube – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rh9N0SjJJlc) where George mixes some amazing change playing, bebop lines and melodic blues lines. If you approach it like a blues you can use major or minor pentatonic lines to create
melodic pathways and ideas through the chords. You may also use the major scale, and dominant / Mixolydian scales for the majority of the changes.

The second ‘Change-based’ approach demands a lot of practice. This usually consists of building lines from patterns, scales, arpeggios, (and their inversions / retrogrades) that relate to each chord, then practicing joining them together in a musical fashion. Because the chords change every two beats and the tempo is usually quite fast, a large amount of practice is required to gain headway with this technique.

I have worked on both these techniques in great detail, analysed R.C studies and even written my own. If you can get your hands on the Steve Erquiaga Rhythm Changes it’s great! But there are a lot of transcriptions worth looking into and etudes worth checking out online.

Have fun and enjoy my takes on this classic tune!