I'm pre-noting this with my background as I understand it is easy to see why this could be a repeat question and I do not want to do this. I have an extensive background in music theory, I've taught myself piano to a high level, I sing to a high level and I compose. All of the previous questions I've seen relating to this are to do with "beginners" in which people recommend learning chords/music/theory/basic scales. I can do this kind of stuff already with ease and hence I'm looking for a more in-depth answer.

I can play a fair few chords already but nothing too hard. What I'm really aiming for is the kind of style Jacob Collier plays guitar in, jazz but also the noodling-improvisatory nature of guitar rather than just "pop song chords" which most "guitar beginners" are just looking to do. So I'd appreciate somebody with a background in jazz guitar to answer this question, thank you.

  • I feel there's a dearth of material of this kind, but there'll be much I don't know. .
    – PeterJ
    Commented Jun 16, 2019 at 11:06

3 Answers 3


I'm a professional guitarist (with a jazz background), and I also play piano. What I'm reading into your question isn't a problem of "what should I learn", but "how can I apply what I already know?"

The two instruments are very different in their approaches. On the piano you've got one key for each pitch, but on the guitar you can get the same pitch on different strings. As a result, the application of the theory you know is straightforward on the piano, but on the guitar you need to visualize things differently.

Guitarists (in general) think in terms of 'shapes' - if you learn a chord voicing or a scale fingering, you can immediately play it in all 12 keys by moving it up or down the fretboard. If there are no open strings, a dominant 7th chord fingering will always produce a dominant 7th chord sound.

On the piano you can look at a chord and know which note is the third. On the guitar you have to think about which string is carrying the third in a voicing. Move it down a fret and you get a m7 chord - move it up and you get a sus7.

So in terms of getting a grip on chord voicings, learn the common inversions. For example, an F7 chord can be voiced 1x121x, 5x354x, 8x786x, or 11-x-10-10-10-x. (There are lots of other possible ways to voice it, but that gives you the root position and one of each inversion.)

Then for each of your basic voicings learn which note is on each string. 1x121x is R-b7-3-5 under your fingers. Grasp that for each voicing and forming a 7+ chord is o big deal - it's 1x122x. The m7 is 1x111x, and so on. But when you move to the next inversion, 5x354x is 3-R-5-b7. Making that aug7 chord means raising the 3rd string instead of the 2nd; each voicing is different, but the same principles apply to all of them.

For the noodling around part, learn the pentatonic fingerings first. Because of the way guitars are tuned, you'll have two notes on each string in any position, so there are only five fingerings. You can then add two notes to those patterns to form the major scale... but in most positions you're going to be stretching for one or more of the additional notes, which gives you more fingering options.

Being able to read standard notation on the guitar will really help with applying the theory you already know. For my students who already play another instrument I typically use the Berklee books - book 1 takes you through the basics of the "low neck", book 2 takes one key at a time through all the positions, and book 3 focuses on one position at a time in different keys. But since the guitar has more fingering options for any given note than the piano, be prepared for a longer learning curve.

  • The 4th para. is somewhat confusing. As in where did 7th come from.
    – Tim
    Commented Jun 16, 2019 at 6:40
  • @Tim - in the previous paragraph I said a dominant 7th fingering always produces a dominant 7th sound. So if you identify which string in that fingering carries the 3rd of the chord, moving that note up or down gives you a voicing for sus7 or m7
    – Tom Serb
    Commented Jun 16, 2019 at 11:36
  • Merging the two paras would make that thought continuous.
    – Tim
    Commented Jun 16, 2019 at 11:48

If you're looking for more advanced jazz guitar stuff, I'd start with learning the seventh-chord voicings on the four highest-pitched strings, or at least how to make the shapes. I think that would be a good framework from which to start venturing into your own sound, as seventh chords are at the heart of a lot of jazz music. They're easy to play around with, too, due to their relative size allowing for more extra ornamentation.

But even more important is this question. Ask yourself: What do I like about jazz guitar? You mentioned Jacob Collier's guitar style; try to put a finger on some things he does that you like (is it his alternate tunings? His rhythm-driven grooves? Something else?). Or maybe you have some ideas already about what you want to sound like. Either way, you already have a good musical knowledge from piano. You just need to discover your own guitar-playing style, and I'm pretty sure that learning standard open chords and major scales is going to get you nowhere.

As far as technique goes, you should probably learn how to do hammer-ons, pick-offs, slides, vibrato, and maybe some other basic articulations. These will help you develop your phrasing (as a pianist, "phrasing" is mostly volume and timing. It's much more complex on guitar).

Finally, you said you like that noodling-improvisation sound. Well, noodle! Spend a lot of time just messing around with the guitar. Discover what you can do with it! I think that while learning seventh chord voicings could be a big help for you, you're going to teach yourself most of what you want to learn about how to play things. You aren't concerned with sounding like a typical guitarist, so I see very little value in starting from square one and learning the very basics. Your music theory knowledge should allow you to bypass the beginner steps of guitar (but you'll still have to get used to the new instrument, so this'll take some time).


If you really are a 'high level pianist' and have an 'extensive' background in music theory, the guitar will seem quite EASY to you. That's what it was for me. What I mean is that you think it's more difficult than it really is (for a classical pianist). I started as an electric guitarist, then after years I started practicing classical piano and completely neglected the guitar. When I returned to guitar, I made huge leaps easily, in a very short time. In less than 3 years I had mastered BOTH electric guitar in my chosen styles, as well as classical guitar. However, let's remember that I did NOT start on guitar as a beginner guitarist, so in your case it will take longer.

The guitar seems hard to you now, principally because the fretboard, as oppose as the piano's keyboard , is counterintuitive. Obviously, it won't be TOO easy, but certainly easy enough, if you know exactly what to do and how to do it. Obviously it is impossible to explain these things here; it would be like trying to describe how to master tae kwon do by writing a couple of paragraphs about it.

As for your question about improvisation (if it's 'noodling', it's mediocre improvisation, in my opinion just a waste of time), look no further than Frank Gambale's book called 'Improvisation Made Easier'. It's not an 'easy' book but it's easy enough.

Why do I say it's easy for a classical pianist, to be a modern guitarist? Here's an example: an high level pianist can learn to play Bach fugues at the piano. An high level modern guitarist, can, say, improvise good solos over a backing track. Or writing songs and pieces. All good stuff, but learning to play Bach fugues at the piano is another level entirely. If learning to play like George Benson is difficult, then learning to play Bach fugues at the piano is insane. This is also true of piano music such as that by Chopin or Liszt, as you know.

What I am really saying is: you seem to be a bit intimidated by the guitar, but I assure you that there's no reasons to. If you follow a good and effective method you should be able to master it in less than 2 years. And I mean master it. Obviously I can't explain the process here in a page, and if anyone can, then that's no method. In general, my advice would be asking: 'did you teach yourself classical piano?' The probably answer is 'no'. Then I would say: 'Then don't teach yourself the guitar either'. The moral of the story is that too many people are confident that they can 'teach themselves', but even in the best of cases, it's going to take 7 times longer. Some geniuses of the guitar, like Joe Pass or Allan Holdsworth, taught themselves. But for the rest of us, who are no geniuses, teaching oneself is a waste of time, even in the best of cases. In other words, find some good teachers and learn the thing fast. It's really simple. That's what I would do. No reason wasting time, life is short, and we all get older far faster than we will notice. Good luck.

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