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10 Standards for Transitioning from Blues/Rock to Jazz Guitar



Guitarist Bobby Broom shares his top standards when transitioning from blues/rock to jazz guitar.

This is by no means meant to be a definitive list, but rather, one that represents some of the tunes that most early jazz students encounter during their progression from nascent to intermediate. Of course, like I heard Wayne Shorter once said, “It’s not the tune…” Meaning, any musical composition is only as good as what you make of it. That said, the idea of ‘easy’ isn’t really relevant here. These tunes were the way that I encountered melodies, their accompanying harmony, common chord progression, song forms, etc. They were also the material that I and so many others first encountered when learning to improvise. After learning the first ten (some from this list and/or others), one is bound to encounter similarities of some sort in the next ten tunes and so on, as their repertoire develops.

Above Photo Credit: Bart Marantz

Satin Doll

Contains common chord progressions such as the 

  • ii  – V – I (during the bridge)
  • ii – V and iii – VI7 alt progressions 
  • the dominant ii chord and the tritone substitution as 2 5 1 substitute

It also includes the modulation to the key a 4th above the original tonic key, a most popular harmonic occurrence in American song.

Autumn Leaves

This song’s melody is supported by harmonic make up that is centered around the ii – V – I progression in a major and its relative minor tonalities. It’s good to see this basic music theory at work in song. If a fledgling improviser is paying attention, they may discover something in the theory that will allow them greater use of their developing jazz language in the relative minor ii – V – I situation.

Blue Bossa

Again, modulation to the iv chord, but this time in a minor tonality and within the section of the song, rather than as a new section of the song in a completely different harmonic tonal center. The 1 to 4 chord motion happens to occur in a lot of tunes… like most hymns, folk music, the blues (which is folk music) and in so many American popular songs.

It’s also good to hear the actual modulation to the major key, a half step above the tonic minor chord. Arriving there via its ii–V, which is a minor 3rd above the tonic minor key (Cmi7/Ebmi7) is also a rather common occurrence and so, valuable ear food.

Tune Up

This tune provides good exercise for hearing and playing through ii–V–Is in three different keys. It allows the beginning to intermediate improviser the chance to realize the use of symmetry, to become aware of redundancy and to learn to create and connect melodic lines within their solos.


A staple and necessary folk song form, the blues carried with it a dilemma for this young improviser. How and when to integrate the “blues language” and “jazz language” in order to sound balanced and authentic in a jazz sense? Detail-wise, the blues offers the chance to contend with 2–5s (both major and minor), turn-arounds and other common harmonic progression and bass motion.


This is an American standard that may receive eye rolls when called at a jam session. But it’s an important one for earlier levels to understand and be able to play, as well as for “more advanced” players to be able to make something of. Some songs beg for an improviser to sing through their instrument and this is one of those.

All of Me

This tune introduces the secondary dominant chord progression, asking your ear to hear, understand and be able to make the sound of a dominant chord as an improviser. It also asks a soloist to highlight distinctions between dominant and minor chords of the same tonic note. It also contains the classic A B A C form. Lastly, it includes the extended turn-around: 

IV maj – iv minor – iii – VI7 – ii – V – I. This progression shows up in a lot of other tunes.

On Green Dolphin Street

After we’ve dealt with a variety of shorter, common chord progressions, we begin to advance to longer, extended combinations.

In this tune one encounters: 

  • same root major and minor chords 
  • a revisiting of II7 – bII7 – Imaj7 (a la “Satin Doll”) and/or 
    • hybrid or slash chords, F/Eb – E/Eb…
  • a revisiting of 2–5 (1)s, again occurring up a minor 3rd  from the original, tonic key.
  • a lengthy and advanced chord progression in the last 8 bars of the tune, sometimes called “Benny Golson changes,” referencing the jazz saxophone master’s composition, “Whisper Not.”

Stella By Starlight

Stella includes

  • Intro to the diminished 1 chord (in the original version harmony)
  • 2 – 5s that don’t resolve (in the updated and more common version harmony)
  • V chord Cadence substitutions
  • Chord motion that corresponds to its melody in a very unique way
  • Sequential minor ii – V progressions

Rhythm changes

The other staple song form in American culture, rhythm changes poses its own specific challenges. It requires the player to navigate changes that occur on every two beats of the measure. This asks the improviser to both, make cogent statements every two beats and to seamlessly connect one statement to the next. In order to begin having success improvising on rhythm changes, one must confront certain issues with honesty and integrity such as: melody making, phrase editing, note choice, understanding harmonic choices or variables, transcription and some degree of memorization of lines.

Check out our cover story on Bobby Broom.

Bobby Broom


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