With so many jazz guitar songs out there, knowing which ones to learn first may seem somewhat daunting.
Here we’ve selected ten great jazz tunes that cover a broad range of tempos and styles, as well as suggesting some recommended listening for each.
Picked for a range of abilities, we started off with some classic, easy jazz guitar songs but included a couple of more advanced ones at the end, for more complex jazz improvisation workouts!
Hopefully these 10 songs serve as a good starting point for you on your guitar journey, wherever you are right now!
Written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein for the 1939 musical ‘Very Warm for May’, the jazz standard ‘All the Things You Are‘ is one of the most popular jazz guitar songs having been recorded and performed countless times.
One of the reasons for its success and longevity is its functional harmonic structure, with ‘A’ sections being based on chords moving in the interval of 4ths, and a bridge that consists of two ‘II-V-I’ chord progressions before returning to a variation on the first A section with a ‘tag’ at the end.
There are several fantastic recordings by jazz guitar players that immediately come to mind when recommending versions to check out.
Looking for jazz guitar solos on this tune as inspiration?
Check out Wes Montgomery’s up-tempo interpretation from a rare live recording at The Half Note, Jim Hall’s duo recording in 3/4 time with fellow jazz guitar master Pat Metheny, and Grant Green’s version from his trio record ‘Standards’.
Written by the Hungarian/French team of Joseph Kosma and Jacques Prevert (English lyrics later added by Johnny Mercer) ‘Autumn Leaves’ is one of the most popular jazz songs of all time.
It’s an essential one to know, and a great one for beginner jazz guitarists to learn about chord melody and building a solo.
There are countless fantastic recordings of ‘Autumn Leaves’, but we particularly recommend Cannonball Adderley’s seminal rendition on his album ‘Sometihn’ Else’, Wynton Kelly’s arrangement from ‘Wynton Kelly!’ and jazz guitarist, Jim Hall’s live duo performance with Ron Carter from ‘Alone Together’.
On Green Dolphin Street
Whilst Bronislaw Kaper’s ‘On Green Dolphin Street’ wasn’t a huge hit on its initial release in 1947, it has been taken on by jazz musicians for its interesting harmonic movement that alternates between 8 bars of a floating pedal (great for practicing your pentatonic scale!) and 8 bars of rapid chord changes.
Ahmad Jamal recorded a fantastic version in 1956 (found on Count ‘Em 88), but it is Miles Davis’ 1958 performance with John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley and Bill Evans that popularised the tune amongst musicians and it was a jazz song that he would experiment with for years to come.
Jazz guitarists looking for versions of this standard should check out Jim Hall’s performance on Gary Burton’s 1963 album ‘Something’s Coming!’ as well as Grant Green’s quartet take with Sonny Clark, recorded in 1962.
Take the ‘A’ Train
Written by long-term collaborator Billy Strayhorn, ‘Take The A Train’ was adopted by the Duke Ellington orchestra and used as the band’s theme tune after Strayhorn presented it to Ellington in 1940.
With lyrics inspired by the directions that Strayhorn needed to follow for his first meeting with Ellington (directions that included the title of the song ‘Take The A Train’), it was an immediate hit and stayed in the charts for seven weeks.
Check out the joyful melody that lands strongly on the flat fifth in the second bar, and the uplifting bridge that starts on chord IV.
‘Take The A train’ is as popular with jazz musicians today as it ever was, and it’s considered essential learning for those wanting to get into jazz guitar.
For those seeking guitar-based inspiration, check out Kenny Burrell’s version on ‘Ellington is Forever’ (Burrell was allegedly Ellington’s favourite guitarist).
Named after the mountain that overlooks Rio de Janeiro, ‘Corcovado’ or ‘Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars’ (English lyrics written by Gene Lees) is a Bossa Nova composition by the great Brazilian songwriter Antonio Carlos Jobim.
Jobim’s tranquil composition with its soothing melodic phrases that move up and down in whole tones is a great one for guitarists to learn as an introduction to bossa nova guitar playing and is frequently called at jam sessions.
The most famous version of ‘Corcovado‘ can be found on Stan Getz’s hugely popular ‘Getz/Gilberto’ album, though we also recommend listening to the composer himself performing it in 1960 (which can be found on ‘The Legendary Joao Gilberto’, a Bossa Nova classic).
Duke Ellington’s ‘Cotton Tail’ is an up-tempo 32 bar AABA composition based on the chord progression to George Gerswhin’s ‘I Got Rhythm’ (known as ‘rhythm changes’).
This harmonic sequence was an immediate hit with jazz musicians in the 1930’s due to how easily the chord changes could be altered and substituted and spawned countless compositions using Gershwin’s chord changes as a template.
Learning how to navigate through a rhythm changes is seen as a must amongst jazz guitar players, and we recommend ‘Cotton Tail’ as a great place to start.
The intricate melody line full of chromaticism is fun to play on the guitar, and once you’ve learnt the basic sequence, it opens the door to learn countless other rhythm changes ‘heads’.
Written during World War II soon after the German occupation of Paris, Nuages is arguably the most famous composition from guitarist and father of gypsy jazz, Django Reinhardt.
It sold extremely well upon release, with its dreamy and sentimental melody prompting wistful thoughts of a better time, and continues to be popular up to the present day.
The impressionistic and distinctly European sound-world that Reinhardt creates with ‘Nuages’ demonstrated that he had a new conception of jazz, one that distanced itself from merely imitating role models in America and further cemented Django Reinhardt’s position as one of the great stars of jazz guitar.
Whilst this tune is perhaps most popular with acoustic guitarists, it can work equally well on electric guitar, as demonstrated on Allan Holdsworth’s album ‘None Too Soon’.
We recommend listening to Paul Desmond’s version found on ‘Pure Desmond’ as well.
West Coast Blues
Learning the blues (or its moody cousin the minor blues) is a classic starting point for many jazz musicians.
The simplicity of the traditional form means there are a huge number of songs, arrangements and variations to pick from.
‘West Coast Blues’ is a great choice when it comes to jazz guitar songs, not least because it was written by the legendary guitarist Wes Montgomery himself.
There’s also a twist: it’s somewhat dusguised as a 24-bar blues sequence in 3/4 time.
The descending chromatic II-V chord change in bars 11-16 add a more modern touch to the traditional blues form, as does the ‘Tadd Dameron’ turnaround at the end of the form.
But whilst it allows the advanced improvisor the opportunity to dive into the details of the jazz chords, the beginner guitarist can still do great things over this progression using just a blues scale.
West Coast Blues was first recorded by the guitarist on his seminal 1960 album ‘The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery’.
Considered by many to be his greatest achievement, the album features three original compositions, two of which (‘West Coast Blues’ and ‘Four on Six’) have become jazz standards.
As always, we recommend going straight to the source and checking out Wes Montgomery’s original recording, before listening to subsequent recordings that he, as well as others, made.
Whilst there is some discrepancy as to exactly when it was written (some argue it being as early as 1935), ‘Round Midnight’ is a composition by jazz musician Thelonious Monk, that to this day remains one of the most performed and recorded jazz standards in existence.
Urged to record it by fellow pianist Bud Powell, Cootie Williams and his orchestra were the first to do so in 1944, with lyrics added in 1949 by Bernie Hanighen.
Dizzy Gillespie added a famous introduction and cadenza in 1946 (that Monk later added to the song), and Miles Davis’ recording of the song on his 1956 ‘Round About Midnight’ LP also played a large part in bringing Monk’s composition to the attention of the listening public.
Whilst it follows a conventional AABA form, the piece is full of intricate and characterful corners, typical of Monk’s writing style, which is why we’ve included it in this list of top jazz guitar songs.
Jive Coffee is a composition by modern jazz guitar player Peter Bernstein.
Based on the pre-existing chord changes of Vincent Youmans’ ‘Tea for Two’, Bernstein writes his melody in a 5/4 time signature, breathing new life into a much-loved harmonic chord progression.
First recorded by Bernstein, Larry Goldings (organ) and Bill Stewart (drums) in 1991, the piece starts with a deeply groovy four-bar vamp that modulates up a semitone for the start of the melody (a vamp that returns after the head, and between solos).
Whilst 5/4 is not a particularly common time signature in jazz music (the bars are divided into three beats followed by two similar to Paul Desmond’s ‘Take Five’) Bernstein improvises with total freedom and typically strong melodic ideas.
It’s a masterpiece in how to improvise over odd time signatures and the song provides the basis for jazz guitarists to practice the same skill themselves.
Where to next?
There are countless more standards out there that are perfect for honing your skills as a jazz guitarist.
If you’re looking to focus on improvisation, you can read more about the scales and jazz chords which form the basis of many great guitar solos.
Let us know in the comments section which jazz guitar songs you would include in the list.
If you enjoyed this article, why not take a look at our list of the ten best jazz guitarists of all time or get inspired by reading our interview with one of the modern jazz guitar greats, Kurt Rosenwinkel .
You can discover loads more by checking out our jazz guitar section.