Jazz theory builds on the fundamentals of music and lays the foundation for how jazz is constructed. These fantastic books for jazz theory can be applied anywhere, but nearly all of them are specifically designed for guitar which means that not only will the methods behind it be explained, but they will also illustrate the shapes and patterns that are exclusive to the instrument as well.
Table of Contents
What Is Jazz Theory?
In short, jazz theory refers to the notes and ideas that give the genre its characteristic sound. I understand that jazz is a loose term, just like metal, and it includes several different subgenres, such as Smooth, Free, Fusion, Modal, etc. However, each of them still follows rules that expand on basic music theory such as:
- Scales and modes (Jazz utilizes many different scales to create melodic phrases)
- Harmony (the chords and progressions that Jazz is built upon – the genre as a whole is known for its use of 7th and other extended chords)
- Rhythm (Jazz can vary wildly in terms of rhythm – some can swing, follow the 12-bar blues, while others may be heavily syncopated)
In my opinion, jazz harmony is the most important thing you should become familiar with. Without its famous chords and the classy licks that come from them, jazz wouldn’t be as we know it.
Therefore, it’s imperative that you have a solid understanding of classical harmony first since it adds to it significantly. For example, if you don’t know how a triad is built, and you don’t know your other intervals, you might become lost when it talks about building 7th and extended chords.
Chords also can help dictate what scales and modes you should be using. It’s helpful to learn many scales, but if you don’t know how to apply them, you’re missing on an important piece of the puzzle. This is true for all genres, not just jazz.
Nonetheless, these books will teach you everything you need to know about jazz guitar theory, so you can build up your musical knowledge and take your playing and improvisation to the next level. Learning the style can be extremely challenging and intricate, but with some studying through these best guitar books, you will be just fine.
The Jazz Guitar Chord Compilation by Joseph Alexander
This jazz guitar book is excellent because it is actually a collection of three different volumes which are:
- Jazz Chords in Context
- Jazz Guitar Chord Mastery
- Voice Leading Jazz Guitar
Each of these books on jazz guitar is written by Joseph Alexander, whom I’ve reviewed in the past for books on basic guitar theory. I really appreciate his way of explaining things, which is clear, concise, but also detailed, which is important when trying to teach people a new topic or build on previous ones.
This compilation also follows a logical progression which also helps with its readability and makes a difficult subject easier to grasp. It even begins with the fundamentals of building chords in case you need a refresher. After this, it will steadily become more advanced.
I especially enjoyed the volume on voice leading. Chords can be arranged differently, and their notes can also be swapped around, and that’s where voicing comes in. A Cmaj7 chord can have a G as the bass note and have an E at the top, and it will still be the same chord, but it will sound different. With voice leading, you can create melodic ideas through your chord progressions, based on how you stack the pitches.
Even with these slight alterations, you can make a huge difference, and once you learn more about how jazz chords are built, you’ll be able to manipulate chords any way you wish!
Overall, I also think this book for jazz guitar is an excellent value, and you get a lot of information out of it. Audio examples to accompany your learning can be found at Joseph Alexander’s site, www.fundamental-changes.com, and you’ll be able to execute what you’ve learned and also understand their context.
The Jazz Guitar Handbook by Rod Fogg
Rod Fogg’s book on jazz guitar theory has a broad approach to the style; while the previous one was mainly about chords, this one goes over everything you want to know about jazz guitar playing.
There is some overlap with Joseph Alexander’s book, and this one does get quite advanced, and while that one offers a lot of detail on one aspect of jazz theory, this one is more of a jack-of-all-trades publication so to speak. It’s suitable for all levels, and it comprehensively goes over a wide range of topics that are relevant to the jazz sound.
Therefore, you get a taste of:
- Soloing Concepts
- Different styles within the genre
The fact that it goes over many different subgenres of jazz is something that I really appreciate about this one. Like metal, subgenres can vary greatly, so it’s good to become familiar with different ones. Not all jazz is the same, and you may even have your preferences!
I also believe that books that take the time to go over the history of things are incredibly underrated and it’s useful to learn about the players that were responsible for shaping a significant form of music, which is also one of this text’s strong points.
This jazz guitar course provides you with plenty of exercises so you can practice the material and also includes a CD that gives you backing tracks to play along with. As mentioned before, knowing context is incredibly important, so being able to implement the concepts to real musical examples is crucial for mastering jazz guitar.
Creative Chord Substitution for Jazz Guitar by Eddie Arkin
Understanding the essential jazz chords and solo over them is one thing, but being able to manipulate harmony to create brilliant musical ideas is another skill altogether.
Changing the voicing of the chords by rearranging the order of the pitches in them is one way to do this; however, this book emphasizes substitutions as a way to vary your chord progressions.
As you have probably guessed, when you substitute a chord you are swapping one for another that functions similarly to the original. For example, let’s take a take a simple I-IV-V7-IV chord progression in the key of C-major:
- Cmaj7 (C, E, G, B)
- Fmaj7 (F, A, C, E)
- G7 (G, B, D, F)
- and back to Fmaj7 (F, A, C, E)
Let’s experiment a little and substitute the 2nd and 4th chords in this progression for an Fsus2 chord (F-G-C) and an Fadd9 (F-A-C-G), respectively. These chords have two or three notes that are similar to the original Fmaj7 chords that were used, but these ones sound a lot different and have their own color.
Nonetheless, when you play them, these new chords behave similarly to the Fmaj7 – the 2nd chord transitions nicely to the G7 chord still, and then it has a nice resolve onto the Fadd9. We have effectively used substitution and jazzed up (pun intended!) an ordinary progression to create something more colorful and exciting while maintaining their original functions.
I wholeheartedly recommend this book to all guitarists, not just ones who want to study jazz, because learning substitutions is an amazing skill to apply to all types of compositions.
I do want to mention one thing though – I suggest that you have a grasp of intervals beforehand; otherwise, you’ll probably struggle with the material and not benefit from it. However, other books in this list briefly go over them. I also talk about them a fair bit in my guide to learning the notes on the fretboard.
Introduction to Jazz Guitar Soloing by Joe Elliott
Although chords are basically the spine of jazz music, the melodies and solos really drive the music forward, and that’s why improvisation is a significant part of the genre.
Having great phrasing is a way to communicate through your guitar, and this is something that can come with a lot of practice but “feel” also plays a major role in it as well.
For me, this is one of the best guitar books for jazz because it not only teaches you cool licks, but it also provides you with the scales that you need to know to become fluent with soloing. Having knowledge of chord tones will also make you a much better improviser.
Since this one is designed to help your jazz improv skills, it most definitely includes plenty of full-band backing tracks that give you the option to:
- Slow down the track without messing with the audio
- Change keys
- Set loops (pretty neat if you want to work with a certain section)
I think the information in the text is useful for beginners and experienced players alike. It begins by talking about basic concepts like key centers, chord tones, arpeggios, and gets harder from there. I also like that it explicitly tells you what to practice so you can apply what you’ve learned from the section without getting overwhelmed by everything else.
This is is also one of the most affordable jazz guitar theory books on this list, and if you’re curious about learning how to solo more effectively, this will make a fine addition to your repertoire. Additionally, the skills that you learn from here can be used in other forms of music too, not just jazz.
Rhythm First!: A Beginner’s Guide to Jazz Improvisation by Tom Kamp
This publication isn’t specific to the guitar – it’s written for all types of jazz instrumentalists, but the material in this publication should be extremely relevant to guitarists.
In jazz, feel and timing is crucial. The top players always knew how to play in the pocket, or just in or outside of it, depending on what the music called for. Through this book, beginners will become familiar with jazz rhythms and base his or her solos on that, rather than the scales and chords that other ones emphasize.
I always preach about the importance of rhythm, and it should never be neglected; having a great sense of rhythm will make any lead guitarist shine. It might sound harsh, but some musicians may argue that someone who can’t play in time is worse than misplaying pitches.
I don’t believe any is more important than another, and becoming proficient in all areas and covering your weaknesses is key to becoming the best guitarist that you can be.
Nonetheless, this book is very straightforward and is only based on the key of C, this allows you to:
- Focus on your timing skills
- Become creative through rhythm
- Have fun!
While having a ton of information at your disposal can be nice, this jazz book is a must-have because it doesn’t bombard you with it without being too sparse. I think it’s a nice change of pace and it’s good at what it’s supposed to do – develop your rhythm skills and apply it to the art of jazz improv.
With the right materials, learning jazz theory can be fun! Luckily for you, I have created this list that I know can be valuable assets to helping you learn, and eventually, master it. In my eyes, these are the best books for jazz guitar because they are so comprehensive, collectively.
These materials in this guide cover the main topics of harmony, soloing, and rhythm, which are all aspects that the pros have had a firm grasp on. By understanding these, your creativity and improvisation skills will directly improve as well.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be practicing these other skills! Most, if not all, of these excellent sources, provide you with backing tracks for you to jam along with and hone in on your ability to make jazz licks that flow nicely with the chords behind them.
I also recommend that you also try your hand at composing. I’ve always felt that it was easier to internalize what I’ve learned if I tried to make riffs with the new information. Over time, it will become part of you and your guitar style.
There’s a lot of great stuff to take in, and it will take time, but rewards of learning jazz guitar theory are substantial. Thankfully, these top jazz guitar books break the topic down nicely, and with consistent study and practice, your musicianship will evolve before your eyes. Stay cool!