Premier Guitar features affiliate links to help support our content. We may earn a commission on any affiliated purchases.

A Jazz Guitar Major: Pros and Cons

This is the time when many younger guitar players are finalizing plans for formal music study in the fall

As we wrap up another school year, this is the time when many younger guitar players are finalizing plans for formal music study in the fall. Thinking back to my own experience of going through this process, I remember that in the ‘80s jazz studies programs had barely made an entrance into formal college music programs. More often than not, if you could study jazz guitar at all, the jazz band (usually there was only one) and jazz courses were considered part-time or electives to the “real” course of study, which was classical music or music education. Often, study of jazz was not allowed any credits. Clearly, at that time and in many academic circles, jazz was frowned upon or granted tacit acceptance, as one might toward a disreputable family member.

We have come some distance since then, and jazz programs (and jazz guitar as a major) have slowly but surely climbed the ladder of respectability and acceptance in many colleges and universities. More resources are being invested in jazz programs than ever before: scholarships, clinics, more full-time faculty, guest artist performances and better performance opportunities for the students. With the passage of time jazz has gained greater acceptance as a legitimate art form (the slow journey towards this acceptance is in itself ironic, since jazz music is actually one of the few original American art forms). It is this newfound legitimacy, combined with evolving trends in musical interests in the U.S., which has resulted in jazz actually relocating and finding a home in institutions of higher learning.

Is all of this good for jazz as an art form and for jazz guitar as an instrument of study? As we might answer for any evolutionary path – yes and no. It was inevitable that blues, ragtime, dixieland, and jazz music would be formally documented and studied in higher education, since these artistic styles are important cultural parts of our country’s history and development. There is now a commitment to preserve these art forms, which is of course a positive thing. There are innumerable doctoral studies and graduate programs in ethnomusicology, jazz studies, and performance, and one can study from artistic, historical, or cultural perspectives. Our identity as Americans and our history of racial struggles have broadened through study of this music. Many new and productive players are born from these programs. All of these are positive developments.

The cons of all this? We risk producing a type of player that is far removed from the “ear” (and heart) player of those that performed 50 to 80 years ago. The player of today stands a greater risk of having learned the music through an intellectual, academic process: you practice these scales, perform exercises for these juries, work for a grade, play one song on a formal recital, memorize these chords, etc. In an earlier period of jazz music’s history, the songs were memorized because the player loved both the music and the instrument, and wanted to express him/herself. Improvisation was based on what was heard, and most importantly, was based on the melody itself (rather than basing improvisation on what scales we “know” will fit over a given chord). The risk today is that many of the “mass-produced” college players sound alike and have missed the intangible something that moves one in the direction of expressing a uniquely individual style.

This has become an ongoing discussion between myself and some of my colleagues in the New England area, as we process where we came from in the early days of formalized jazz training and where we are heading in our jazz guitar playing (and teaching).

Nevertheless, if you are looking into formal, academic jazz guitar study, here are some thoughts to be cognizant of:

What is the background and interest of the instructor you will be working with? Can you take a sample or trial lesson before commiting to the program? A guitar professor who is steeped in traditional bebop jazz guitar will have different expectations of the student than an instructor schooled in a broader, more eclectic, more “modern” vein.

What kind of ear training (aural skills) emphasis does the school have and how is it carried out? This may be the one most important aspect of learning and playing jazz. Playing jazz – if we value its historical performance approach – is based on playing by ear. Therefore, serious practitioners need to study the music in a fashion that promotes “ear to hand skills.” In this approach, any idea we hear in our head first can then be translated to the guitar. Sight singing, study of intervals (and where they are on the guitar), performance memorization of melodies, and singing the solos of the masters are all approaches that should be included in a serious jazz guitar program. Ask if your prospective college will give you this!

Does the location of the school afford opportunities to do real playing outside the school? The more “real life” you can make the whole experience, the more your playing will advance. Does the school promise performance opportunities and multiple combos/ensembles?

For those desiring a career in jazz guitar, there are tough, and exciting, decisions ahead.

Jim Bastian
A clinician and jazz educator, Jim Bastian is a 10 year veteran of teaching guitar in higher education. Jim holds two masters degrees and has published 6 jazz studies texts, including the best-selling How to Play Chordal Bebop Lines, for Guitar (available from Jamey Aebersold). He actively performs on both guitar and bass on the East Coast. An avid collector and trader in the vintage market, you can visit Jim’s store at premierguitar. (dealer: IslandFunhouse).