Many times, beginner students will ask me what I consider to be the best jazz guitar tunes to play on guitar. Reducing content down to numbered lists like this is never an easy task, but I would like to offer up what I consider to be some of the best ones to start out with and my reasons why. Additionally, I will provide you with some considerations for how to take the most advantage of the guitar over each of these tunes. I will mostly be discussing coming up with solo chord melody arrangements here. For the purposes of this lesson, it is understood that you know a little bit of theory and the notes on the fretboard. You can still get something out of it otherwise, but it is a good idea to review those things before jumping in here.
Stella by Starlight
Stella by Starlight is a tune that was originally composed by Victor Young for the 1944 film, “The Uninvited”. Lyrics were later added by Ned Washington in 1946. This is one of the most played and also one of my favorite standards around. It has got a very beautiful melody and, harmonically, it provides a slew of ii V I progressions in different keys that you can take advantage of all over the neck. Additionally, there is a nice dominant section in the middle where you can take really explore since there is so much space and dominant chords are practically fair game! My favorite solo guitar version of this is actually one I came across on YouTube by guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel.
Days of Wine and Roses
As is the case with many of these older standards, this tune was composed by Henry Mancini in 1962 for a movie with the same name. The lyrics were written by Johnny Mercer. I first fell in love with Days of Wine and Roses when I heard Wes Montgomery’s version of it. I highly recommend it! Anyway, this tune is great practice on the guitar because the melody is pretty wide with plenty of lovely intervallic leaps. Because of the limitations of having 6 strings, this forces you to have to come up with solutions for how to handle this material while still providing harmonic material. You also run into a tritone sub in the first few bars as well as some unusually placed ii V progressions.
Composed in 1945, this tune was composed by Joseph Kosma, a French-Hungarian composer for a ballet. Johnny Mercer wrote the lyrics. Autumn Leaves is often one of the first jazz standards anyone ever learns on the instrument. The tune lays out pretty nicely on the fretboard as the progressions are mostly cycling in 4ths. Here, you are also introduced to differentiating between a minor ii V progression where the ii chord is a m7b5 and the dominant chord is altered going to a minor tonic chord, while the normal ii V progression is simply m7 to a normal dominant going to a major tonic chord. As overplayed as this tune is, it is really a beautiful song and there is no reason why you can’t make it sound fresh! I would recommend Barney Kessel’s version from his 1968 recording. While this is a trio recording, he does offer up a wonderful solo guitar arrangement of the melody. There is some really deep harmonic content here that from which any player can learn.
Beautiful Love was composed in 1931 by Victor Young, Wayne King, and Egbert Van Alstyne and lyrics were written by Haven Gillespie. It has made appearances in several films and is one of the most popular jazz standards today. Once again, here is another tune that mixes minor ii V progressions and normal ones. You will notice this is the case with many of the older standards. In fact, as you continue studying this music, you will notice that there are trends compositionally as much as improvisationally. Throughout the different periods, composers make use of similar devices as their peers, but I digress. Beautiful love has some interesting movement going on including a dominant IV chord where it returns to the top of the form. I really love this live version I found on YouTube by Joe Pass. It seems to be from some sort of jazz festival in 1991.
Misty is a standard composed in 1954 by pianist Erroll Garner. The lyrics for this tune were later added by Johnny Burke. There have been a number of famous recordings of this tune by singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. This song presents unique challenges for solo guitar with regard to the interval range and the way the chords lay out on guitar. Whereas you might normally leave the top two strings for the melody, it is easier to make use of that third string and perhaps use some two and three-note voicings in place of more expansive ones. Remember, melody is king! I really love Ella’s version of this tune, but for guitar, my pick must go to Wes Montgomery once again. In fact, I believe that is the first time I heard this tune played on guitar.
For any beginner, I believe these tunes present some of the more interesting challenges that you should be tackling early on. I also chose these as they are not particularly busy, rhythmically speaking. Here, you can take your time and explore the melodic and harmonic possibilities of each song. When things get faster and busier, it can become very difficult to balance everything which is another challenge altogether. When you feel more comfortable with this kind of material, you can try playing in different settings with different tunes. Call a friend over and call some unusual tunes. Figure them out together and come up with different ways to play them. I hope you enjoyed this and possibly found some suggestions to begin your jazz guitar quest!
About the Author
Marc-Andre Seguin is the webmaster, “brains behind” and teacher on JazzGuitarLessons.net, the #1 online resource for learning how to play jazz guitar. He draws from his experience both as a professional jazz guitarist and professional jazz teacher to help thousands of people from all around the world learn the craft of jazz guitar.