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3 Ways You Have to Analyze Jazz Standards Chord Progressions

Jazz standards are a key piece of being a confident jazz musician. But being confident while playing jazz standards can be another thing entirely. And while some people tend to shy away from theory and just go by ear, there are several big benefits to analyzing standards.

When you analyze standards, you’ll be able to comfortably solo through the changes, while also finding it easier to memorize and move with the changes. And while some of our strategies may seem easy or obvious, stick with us through this one—you’re probably not doing them in-depth enough and understanding the full value.

Before we get going, if you want to learn more about playing over standards or dive deeper into any of the tunes and exercises from this blog, be sure to check out our PDF package, Standards Analysis, where we go through this process with 50 jazz standards you need to know.

Now let’s jump right in!


Knowing the arpeggios

The best place to start with a tune is to deeply understand the harmony. And while guitarists and pianists are already playing the chords, for horn players, it can be easy to skate by without really understanding the harmony and just soloing in the key.

The first thing we’re going to analyze is the chord tones of each chord. And the shedding fear (the fear of practicing exercises or topics that you know will make you better due to a fear of practicing content that makes you uncomfortable at first) that’s associated with that is with arpeggios. Some people actually shy away from practicing arpeggios, but it’s crucial to understand how a tune works.

By playing the arpeggios against each chord in a tune, horn players can test how well they actually know the tune.

Many people shy away from practicing this or think that they’re beyond this, but nobody is beyond this—seriously. In fact, this is the first thing Chad does when he’s learning a new tune—he plays through the arpeggios and really learns the chord changes.

We’re going to check out an example from our Standards Analysis PDF package, called “The Days of Drinks and Flowers.” You’ll probably recognize the changes. With this one, you’ll see we have all the arpeggios written out, 1, 3, 5, and 7.

Using arpeggios for a solo on a jazz standard chord progression
Arpeggios on a standard chord progression

And this is the exercise you want to be doing with any song. It’s super simple, but it’s the one you have to do. And one of the best ways to memorize arpeggios is for you to read them first—most people are visual learners, but even for those who aren’t, it’s helpful to still have the visual representation as a guide.

Chord scales

So now that you have the arpeggios under your fingers, you’ll probably want a little more zest for your solos. If you’re just playing arpeggios over the chords, you may feel like your solos are a little plain and predictable.

That’s where scales come in. But a lot of times, scales can get a bad rap, too. When a player is soloing in an unmelodic way, critical listeners may say it sounds like they’re just playing scales and pushing buttons. But to an experienced jazz musician, you may tell this player they’re actually not using enough scales! The real issue is that you don’t have the ability to play the scales in the right places.

Now to be clear, Chad doesn’t think strictly in terms of scales when improvising. But when he learns a new song, he makes sure to know what all the scales in each chord are and what each chord is, because that really allows you to play a melodic line.

And if you analyze a Charlie Parker solo, or some from Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane, or Hank Mobley, you’ll see there’s this picture perfect voice leading using scales from one bar to another. Beat 4 into beat 1 is always this perfect voice leading to make the line flow. And believe it or not, it’s not all chromaticism that makes it sound good. But if you want to learn more about chromaticism, check out our blogs on approach notes and enclosures. But a lot of what you’ll hear from legends are just scale notes.

Using chord scales on a jazz standard progression solo