My first jazz gig is coming up (in about 45 days) and rehearsals start tomorrow.

We are a quartet consisting of Bass, Drums, Guitar and Saxophone. I am used to playing with the rhythm section - drummer and bassist are close friends with a rock background, like me - but the alto saxophonist is really skilled and an experienced jazz musician.

I am somewhat new to jazz and we are going to play some standards in a popular jazz festival downtown.

My theory is good, but I want to be in shape for the concert. What are everyone's expectations in this context, and what can I practice to make sure both my comping and soloing skills meet them?

  • What are the expectations? Commented Mar 3, 2015 at 19:05
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    If you know all the tunes you're playing ahead of time, analyze the chords - see if you can find common scales among chords. You may find that a sheet with 16 chords in it might only need two scales, which may end up only being one scale shape that you can then transpose at the proper time to "catch" the changes. No one will knock you for playing simple. As others have said, it's when you try and do too much that will make you stick out and look foolish, especially when your sitting with someone who's got chops. Commented Mar 4, 2015 at 2:49
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    To tack on one more thing to everything else that's been said: spend every waking moment of the next 45 days LISTENING to as much classic jazz as you can get your hands on. Immerse yourself in the stylistic vocabulary and you will be far better off than you would be otherwise.
    – NReilingh
    Commented Mar 4, 2015 at 3:30
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    I'd spend some time on voice leading, in order to make the chord progressions sound cohesive. Commented Mar 4, 2015 at 9:21
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    I second @NReilingh's comment. If your theory is already good, listening is definitely the most important thing for you to be doing. Commented Mar 4, 2015 at 15:45

6 Answers 6


The admonition I run into again and again, attributed to such lights as Thelonius Monk and Louis Armstrong is "play the melody." Of course you will syncopate it, put a little ornamentation here and there, but simple is fine

That covers soloing pretty well, but what about comping? Guitarists with jazz chops rarely hang on the same voicing for more than a beat. They rarely play more than three strings at a time. If your chops are up to it, go crazy. But if (like me) you are approaching this from a rock and roll/blues background, just make economy your rule.

Don't feel you must play every accidental, and for sure, feel free to leave out the root from your chords. Your pal the bass man will keep you covered.

Less was never so much more than in your first jazz gigs. And if all this is old news to you, just have some fun. You are ready.

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    Within the ensemble, you may often rely upon the smaller, simpler "shell" chords, such as just the third and the seventh voices.
    – Kirk A
    Commented Mar 3, 2015 at 23:27

One golden rule. Play less. Lay out. Leave space. If there's someone in the group who CAN play jazz, allow him room to do it.

And have fun! Let the music go where it will. Don't rehearse it to death. If it's your turn to play a solo, the melody will be just fine.


As the only chordal instrument, you and you alone can play chords under the soloist. However, full-blooded chords may work well in blues/rock and roll, but only sometimes in jazz. The occasional number will benefit from nice 5 or 6 string chords - maybe arpeggiated, but since the bassist will be rooting and fifthing to a degree, you can find the other notes - usually the 3rds, fifths (altered sometimes) and 7ths. Throw 9ths in as well if you can. So 2,3 or 4 note chords are good. Not strummed 4 or 8 in a bar, though. Comping is about leaving that space for the soloist, don't forget. The good news here is that those small chord are easier to learn than big ones!!

At solo guitar time, things will go a little sparse, as the chordal/rhythmic aspect will be missing. Keep it simple and just remind everyone how the original tune was supposed to go! With some subtle changes to the rhythmic and note elements. Maybe the sax will join in on parts of that.

A nice way to do something slightly different is to 'trade fours'. Choose a piece which splits easily, and play four bars, then sax plays the next four, then you again, etc.

At the gig, try to smile sometimes - if the audience sees that, it will A. join in. B. think you're having fun. C. feel that you're confident - even if it's not totally true...yet. But try to relax - we all play better in that state of mind and body.


I was guitarist in a 3-person jazz combo, with bass and drums. I played a lot of melody and two-part harmony, with chords very occasionally thrown in. A good bass player will keep it interesting. To the extent that worked, a sax/bass/drums combo would also work. So in that light, consider yourself icing on the cake and...add flavor.


In addition to the good technical advice you're getting, I'd also suggest getting an idea of what your audience expects (e.g. my listening to past years' acts etc). "Jazz" covers a wide field, from wildly experimental collective improvisation to playing pop standards from 80 years ago, with some pretty solos added. "Downtown Jazz Festival" typically suggests the latter kind of scene, but even there, you have to figure out whether they want things loud, danceable, loungy, smooth, etc.


you've never played jazz before but you have a jazz gig coming up? I'm sorry to break it to you, but "theory" doesn't go far at all when it comes to playing jazz. You've got 45 days of practice - basically you need to learn the chord voicings on your guitar for comping. This would be most important thing, seeing as how you already have a sax player who knows how to play jazz. Play rhythm, let the sax player play lead. If you absolutely need to solo, then your best bet is to fall back on your rock roots, because if you try to bite off more than that it's not going to sound good. There's no way you can take theory, add 45 days, and be playing jazz. So you're going to have to fake it.


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