Jazz is one of the most daunting genres for many guitarists to play, and for good reason — jazz often incorporates rapid chord changes and shifts between different keys, along with a heavy focus on improvisation. If you want to play jazz on guitar, it’s absolutely essential that you learn how to improvise over standard jazz chord progressions like ii-V-I sequences, that a jazz musician plays often.
But beyond the improvisation, one of the other things that turns many players off from jazz is the library of standards. Jazz standards are classic songs which are known well by a jazz musician. They’re often old tunes, composed from the 1930s through the 1970s, and they’re set up to allow plenty of room for players to improvise over the changes.
Jazz standards are also the tunes called most often at jazz jam sessions — if you’re planning to play at some jam sessions soon, make sure to check out our comprehensive guide on how to play at jam sessions as well!
Beyond their use in jam sessions, though, jazz standards are simply some of the most popular songs in the history of jazz. Learning how to play the “heads” of jazz standards and solo over the chord changes is a rite of passage for jazz guitarists everywhere. The more standards you know, the more comfortable you’ll be when practicing on your own or playing gigs and jam sessions with others — and the techniques you can learn by playing jazz standards will serve you well in all genres of jazz, like learning how to play gypsy jazz guitar, as well as other styles of music altogether.
This guide will teach you some of the most popular jazz standards you should know if you want to learn how to play jazz guitar. The standards we’ve included here range from easy enough for jazz beginners to play, all the way up to some complex bebop standards that might require years of practice for new jazz guitarists to play!
Beginner Jazz Standards
If you’ve never played jazz songs on guitar before, these are some great tunes to start with! The term “beginner jazz standard” sounds like an oxymoron to many players, because jazz has developed a reputation as esoteric and extremely complex. These standards, however, are easy enough for most players with a bit of practice to get a hold of.
They don’t feature as many chord changes as the intermediate and advanced standards on our list, and when they do change chords they tend to follow predictable progressions (like the classic ii-V-I sequence). These changes make it much easier for new and inexperienced players to improvise consistently as well as play the rhythm.
To help you get an even better feel for beginner jazz standards, we’ve included a couple of tunes on this list that you can play even if you’ve never played jazz before! These don’t feature as many chord changes, but they’re still classic songs and will sound great at jam sessions and gigs.
After you’ve gotten a few songs under your belt, feel free to progress to some of the tunes listed towards the end of the beginner section — these have more changes between chords, and some of them move at faster tempos. The increased speed can make them more difficult to play over, but the underlying principles to solo over these progressions are simple. As you practice and get more comfortable improvising over slow songs, you can build up the tempo and begin to work on faster improvisational tunes.
Chitlins con Carne
This classic jazz musician standard, first recorded by Kenny Burrell for his 1963 album Midnight Blue, is a great choice for beginners to learn as their first jazz standard. It’s a basic 12-bar blues in C minor, with just three chords and an easy, repeating format. The head of the song stays entirely in the C blues scale, which makes it simple for beginners to pick up without needing to learn any difficult fingering or scale forms. You can also solo over this tune using only the blues scale — listen to how Burrell does it in the video above! If you want to learn more about how to play through the blues scale music, make sure to check out our article here explaining how to practice and improvise in the blues scale.
As we mentioned above, “Chitlins con Carne” is a simple 12-bar blues in C minor. That means that it only utilizes the I, IV, and V chords of jazz musicians: in this case, a C minor, F7, and G7. For a jazzier sound and to better match the chord shapes that Burrell plays in the original recording, most players play a Cmin9, F9, and G9 for each of these chords. These are all basic extended chords, which incorporate the ninth note of a given chord to add a bit more dissonance and a darker, moodier tone. To learn to play more dissonant chords, check out this in-depth guide at the link.
If you’ve never played extended chords before or if you’re not sure how you can use extended chords to improve the character of your jazz guitar playing, make sure to look at our guide on how to play extended chords. Beyond ninth chords (dominant ninth chords, major ninth chords, and minor ninth chords), our guide will also break down the different types of eleventh and thirteenth chords and their combinations.Knowing how to play these extended chords and how to substitute given chords out for similar shapes will give you the ability to play more complex jazz standards as you progress in your skills. You can also check out our article on major chord inversions for more related information!
First written and recorded by saxophonist Joe Henderson, “Recorda Me” is a great transition song for guitarists who are just learning how to play over chord changes but still enjoy soloing for longer periods using just one or two scales. The tune is built around a long section that stays on just A minor and C minor, and then a second section which runs down stepwise through four different ii-V-I progressions.
The ii-V-I chord progression is absolutely essential for jazz musicians to know; the two-bar ii-V-I sequences that crop up in this tune are a bit fast for some new players, but they make for great practice. Take a listen to the tune above to get a better feel for the sound and style.
To solo over “Recorda Me,” you can use the A minor and C minor pentatonic scales for the first two chord changes, or the A and C blues scales. Then, you can use arpeggios or modal scales to solo over each chord in the ii-V-I progressions as they run down the guitar. It might be helpful in this case to find a “through line” of notes that work for each of those chords and are close to each other on the fretboard. Start out slowly by just playing one or two notes over each chord, and embellish your ideas over time.
Once you’ve gotten a bit more familiar with playing over chord changes — particularly ii-V-I sequences — you can progress to songs built entirely around these sorts of chord changes. “Autumn Leaves” is one of those songs; it’s an incredibly popular standard for beginner jazz players to learn because the chords change relatively slowly and cycle through multiple keys close to each other on the fretboard.
“Autumn Leaves” has been recorded by hundreds of different jazz artists over the decade, but the most famous guitar recording might be the one by Jim Hall and Ron Carter. While this version is played a bit faster than some other recordings of the tune, it’s a great example of how to play smoothly and fluidly over chord changes. Check it out in the video above!
Intermediate Jazz Standards
After you feel comfortable improvising songs, particularly over changing chords, you’ll be ready to move on to these intermediate jazz standards. While these aren’t the hardest tunes around, they’re more complex than beginner jazz standards, and they offer more opportunities for fast and creative playing, particularly on the guitar.
Four on Six
This Wes Montgomery classic isn’t actually a difficult tune in terms of chord changes: it follows a broadly similar structure to “Recorda Me,” with long stretches spent in G minor and then descending ii-V runs for the other half of each cycle. What sets “Four on Six” apart is the tempo. At over 200 beats per minute, it take some time to get used to! As you build your ideas, don’t be afraid to go slowly and surely until you feel more comfortable picking up the speed.
To hear an outstanding recording of “Four on Six,” check out the audio of Wes performing the song live up above. This recording, taken from his outstanding album “Smokin’ at the Half Note,” is widely regarded as one of the greatest recordings (and albums) in the history of jazz guitar songs.
Written and recorded by Dexter Gordon for his 1963 album Go, the “Cheese Cake” songs utilize ii-V-I progressions as well as moves between different chords and keys for a more interesting feel. The laid-back swing tempo of the song makes it a great way to practice changing chords outside of traditional ii-V-I sequences.
The tune stays in the key of C minor for most of its duration, as well as key shifts through F and other keys in the A section. This is also the first tune we’ve listed to have both an A and a B section — this means that the entire head, in AABA form, stretches for 64 bars long! This allows you more time to stretch out your improvisational ideas, but it also means that you’ll need to remember two sets of chords to switch between both sections fluidly.
Thankfully, the B section is a simple descending theme of ii-V-I progressions, so it’s a great way to practice for players who aren’t familiar with songs with multiple sections. To get a better feel for the way this works in the song, listen to the original recording above!
A Night in Tunisia
This Dizzy Gillespie tune is one of the most famous standards in jazz history, with plenty of iconic recordings over the years. Many jazz greats have taken this tune as an opportunity to play incredibly tight, fast passages — particularly on horns. If you’re just an intermediate player, though, there’s no need to worry about playing as fast as you can. The tempo and chord changes allow you plenty of time to get your feet under you and play smooth, relaxed phrases instead.
For a version of the tune by Dizzy Gillespie himself, take a look at the audio above. The tune in the songs focuses around repeated chord changes between Eb9 and D minor during the head, with a B section that introduces a couple of other chords into the mix. While the swung trills might be difficult for beginners to get the hang of, it’s a great tune for intermediate and advanced players to practice their time feel and changes playing with.
Advanced Jazz Standards
These standards are some of the most difficult — and famous — tunes in the history of jazz. While they might be very difficult for players to attempt without years of practice, when played right they sound incredible. Many of these are “milestone” standards, and being able to play over them fluidly has become something of a rite of passage in the jazz community. Read on ahead to see just a couple of these famous tunes and songs!
This John Coltrane tune is named because he reportedly gave his session players just a moment’s notice to play with him after handing out charts with the chord changes. If you listen to the song in the video above, you’ll realize just how difficult that it is to do!
“Moment’s Notice,” like many classic jazz standards, involves rapid chord changes throughout the whole form; usually there are two to a ba, alternating between the I, IV, V, and other chords of different keys. What makes this specific tune so difficult is that the chords move “sideways,” rather than up and down the neck. It can be very challenging for many guitar players to get the hang of comping on this tune!
Originally played by Charlie Parker, “Donna Lee” has for decades been a rite of passage for many jazz musicians. The head is filled chock-full with notes to hit, and the chord changes come at such a rapid pace that it’s a challenge even for many advanced players to keep up with. If you want to attempt playing this tune, make sure that you have fast fingers!
Scrapple from the Apple
Another tune originally composed by Charlie Parker, this song has become a favorite of saxophone players throughout the decades. It mixes a quick, slinky offbeat head with fast chord changes and a rhythmic vamp for extra flair. Dexter Gordon’s version from his 1963 album Our Man in Paris is a particular standout, which you can look at above — but guitar players might also want to check out Jim Hall’s live version from 1975!
How to Learn Jazz Standards
Even if you hear a jazz standard played a few times, that doesn’t mean you know the tune! Many musicians skim through jazz standards by just memorizing how to play the melody and then moving on to the next song, without taking much time (if any) to practice soloing over the chord changes.
To really learn a jazz standard, it’s just as important to practice soloing songs over the chord changes as it is to learn how to play the melody! This requires a knowledge of keys, chords, and basic music theory to do effectively. If you need to brush up on your music theory, make sure to check out some of our guides on how to play in different key signatures!
Steps to Master a Standard
Once you have a lead sheet of a song in front of you, the first thing you should do is learn the melody to the tune. This is often referred to as the “head” of the song by jazz players, and it’s the first thing that a group of players will play when they call the tune at a gig or jam session. Because guitar is a single-note instrument, it’s often called on to play the head of the tune while other instruments play rhythm accompaniment — if you call a tune and don’t know how to play the melody flawlessly, you could get into trouble at your next jam.
To learn the melody, it’s often best to listen to the song played in a popular recording. Many famous jazz standards, like the ones on this list, are also popular enough that there are plenty of covers on sites like YouTube. If you’re struggling to get the notes down by ear, you can check out our guide on how to play guitar by ear. Afterwards, it might be helpful to watch a YouTube video of someone else playing the melody of the song on guitar. Study their finger positioning and the way they move across the fretboard, which will make it easier to play when you want to transcribe the melody.
As an aside, knowing how to read music can be a big help if you need to play a melody in a short timeframe. Most lead sheets — pages displaying the melody and chord changes of a song — are written in standard music notation, rather than guitar tablature. While tabs are far more intuitive for guitar players, jazz in general isn’t a genre centered around the guitar. That means that if you want to seriously play jazz, it’s a good idea to learn how to read music.
Once you know the melody well enough, you can turn your attention to the chord changes of the song. These might seem very difficult to learn, particularly in longer songs with an ABA or AABA format. Oftentimes, the easiest way to get a handle on the structure is to listen to the song being played. The head will follow these chord changes, and the solos usually will as well.
Listen for when the players change chords and which specific voicings they play — are they opting for small, voicings using extended chords high up on the instrument? Or are they playing fuller, more booming block chords like the chords you might use to play a song on acoustic guitar?
Even if you’re new to jazz and aren’t quite sure what every note is in each chord that you hear, it’s worth the time and effort to listen for the overall sound of the chords, whether they’re high or low. Understanding the feel of the chords can be as important as knowing the notes of the songs; altering the places you play the chords can create a big difference in the swing, pace, and time feel of the song.
Playing Jazz Standards Yourself
Once you’ve gotten an idea of how the rhythm players are playing the changes underneath the melody, you can go ahead and start to learn the chords yourself. If you’re starting out, look for simpler voicings that are easier to play and switch between quickly — these will help you play the song more fluidly, without as many breaks or pauses to change between chords.
As you learn the chords, don’t be afraid to change chords to similar-sounding ones that are easier to play! This is particularly true for extended chords, which are common in jazz. While your goal should be to master the extensions as they appear on the lead sheet (particularly because the written chords will often match the melody better with voice leading), for beginners switching to other similar sounding chords can help you play the songs fluidly without as much trouble.
This is particularly true of simple extended chords, like dominant ninth and minor ninth chords (notated as 9 and min9 chords, respectively). These are often easier to play than some more complex extensions, and while they don’t sound exactly like seventh, eleventh, or thirteenth chords, they’re close enough to get the job done if you need to play over fast chord changes on short notice. For more information on extended chords and how to play them, be sure to check out our complete guide to playing extended chords for guitarists.
Jens Larsen helps you learn to improvise over common jazz chord progressions using basic, familiar solo vocabulary!
Mastering Chord Changes & Improvising Jazz Standards
Once you’ve learned the chords, practice playing the changes to the songs at the speed of the original recording. It’s often helpful to learn songs at multiple tempos, because certain players will prefer to call songs at different speeds. Many standards, particularly the most famous ones, might be called as a slow ballad, a midtempo bossa, or even a fast barn-burner depending on the group of players you’re working with.
The last step to learning the chord changes for songs is to practice it in different keys. Most standards are usually rehearsed and called in just one key, which is generally practiced by musicians across all instruments. With some tunes, though, players on different instruments will learn them in different keys best suited for the quirks of their instrument.
“Autumn Leaves,” on our list above, is a great example. This tune is often played in G minor, though many players learn it in E minor and some even play it in A minor as well! Learning songs in two or three of these keys will help you be prepared if and when somebody calls the tune in an unusual key.
Thankfully, once you know the chord changes to a tune it’s often very easy to transpose it between keys! The actual changes between chords stay the same, just the positions will shift up or down the neck of your guitar, depending on which chords you’re switching between. Devoting even an hour to learning some tunes in different keys can pay massive dividends for when you go to jam sessions or other gigs where you’ll need to play tunes immediately after hearing them.
Beyond learning the chord changes, learning how to improvise a solo is the final step in learning a jazz standard. This is the most difficult part of learning songs by far, but it can also be the most rewarding — particularly once you’re able to play smoothly without losing the form or struggling to play over changes!
Learning Chord Changes
Before we discuss learning how to solo over a jazz standard, though, it’s important that you know how to play over basic chord changes! It’s not necessary to be able to solo fluently over any and all sequences of changes — even jazz greats can sometimes struggle with rapid sequences of chord changes!
The important thing is that you’re comfortable improvising over simple progressions. While many guitarists approach jazz without ever having soloed before using multiple scales, it’s helpful if you know how to switch between different scales in your improvisations already. If you’re comfortable switching between different scales, it will be much easier to keep up with the chord changes in some of these classic jazz standards.
For more information on basic improvisation, make sure to check out some of our other how-to guides. We have articles walking you through the basics of the blues scale and minor pentatonic scale, as well as guides on how to improvise on guitar in general — this guide looks at guitar improvisation through a broader lens, and it’s great for players who have little to no experience whatsoever with creating their own solos on the fly.
The key to improvising over jazz standards is to know the chord changes well — as long as you’re confident in the form, it will be much easier to improvise consistently and impressively! With just a bit of knowledge of the melody, it becomes much easier to find the right notes to use in your solo, as well.
The best way to start out improvising over these standards is to play the melody over the chord progression, while slightly altering or changing the rhythm and notes each time. The more creative you get with the spacing and feel of the head, the better! Altering the melody is simply part of the process of creating your very own improvised solos over the track.
As you get more confident improvising, you can begin turning your attention to scales, modes, and arpeggios. These can sound daunting to beginner improvisors, but thankfully once you practice them for a little bit they become much easier to grasp!
The important thing to remember is to look out for common chord sequences: the ii-V-I progression is the most common three-chord sequence in jazz, and it crops up in hundreds of famous standards. Once you recognize sequences like this, you can apply a set of scales to them and improvise easily over the changes.
For ii-V-I sequences, for example, you can choose to improvise with a different scale over each chord (usually following the root of the chord and the tonality — major or minor — of the sound), or you can simply use a scale associated with the I chord at the end of the three-chord progression. Once again, learning to play arpeggios will be useful here, because they allow you to outline chords more quickly than full scales while still coming across with the distinctive sound of those chords.
To get a more in-depth look at how to improvise over ii-V-I sequences, make sure once again to check out our article on jazz guitar essentials: improvising over ii-V-I chord progressions. Knowing how to play a solo over these sorts of chords is one of the foundations of playing well over jazz standards.
Chord substitutions are a common technique that you’ll need to learn to improvise effectively over less common progressions.
Beyond ii-V-I Chord Progressions
Outside of stock progressions like the ii-V-I, the biggest trick to improvising convincingly is to outline the notes of each chord. This means playing the notes that are in the chord voicings you might use to accompany a soloist, while particularly accenting the notes that change from one chord to the next (these are often called the “chord tones”). Listen to the melody of each standard to hear how the sound shifts between different chords — oftentimes, the melody will follow the chord tones across the changes of the chord progression.
Even if you can’t play a hundred notes per beat, if you can outline the chords you’ll be able to create the feeling of melodic movement through your solo. This is often referred to by many jazz musicians as “playing the changes,” because your improvisation in this manner takes the chord changes into account and highlights the unique sound of each chord.
Once you know the general framework of how to improvise over jazz standards, the rest is all up to you! Practice is the best, most consistent way to improve your playing over jazz standards. The more you work at comping the rhythm successfully and improvising fluidly over the chord changes in the solo section, the better you will get.
It’s particularly important for jazz standards to stick with it, even if you don’t see many signs of progress at first! Jazz is one of the most technically advanced genres around for guitar players, and it takes a significant amount of effort to become good at. Perseverance and dedication, though, are the two best tools to help you improve: if you consistently devote time to practicing your improvisation and rhythm skills over jazz standards, you will improve!
If you’re looking for a great place to find lots of jazz standards, it might be worth checking out an edition of the Real Book. This book, published in multiple editions since the 1960s, contains lead sheets for hundreds of jazz standards. These can help you learn to play lead guitar and rhythm chords as well. Different editions contain different tunes, so make sure to look around and find an edition you like before you purchase it.