I've played mostly blues/rock guitar for several years and I can improvise blues/rock in any key fairly easily, as far as theory is concerned I know only the major scale, and major/minor pentatonic. I've been looking into learning jazz guitar, but I can't find anywhere that gives advice on how to improvise a jazz solo for someone that doesn't know the notes of every scale, arpeggio and every chord, which scales/modes fit over which chords, how to switch at ease between scales and modes with each individual chord change etc.
So I'm basically wondering if it's possible to learn basic jazz improvisation without having a gigantic bulk of theory knowledge at your disposal, and if that is possible, if anyone here could point me in the right direction, thank you.
lots of hard work. including the theoretical knowledge (how to analyze a lead sheet) and the sight reading (not 100% necessary, but you'll have to learn how to read well sooner or later) you will need to absorb the jazz language and the tradition to not sound dull.
so 50% of the work will be listening and transcribing/analyzing how other jazz players play on common changes to absorb the language.
the other 50% is practicing improv by playing/finding your own lines in all 12 keys and across all the fretboard

you will need to know your basic 7ths chords (major7, minor7, dom7, min7flat5, dim7) and how to add alterations so you can start comping also

there is no concise method for learn jazz improvisation, most books are bad and will just throw you 1000 different scales and fingerings and show you some licks.
the most structured "method" ive come across so far was instructional stuff released by Jimmy Bruno. he has an interactive website for learning jazz guitar and some videos on youtube like this one:


id suggest you start learning jazz solos by ear at first, simple stuff like Miles Davis and Chet Baker
Last edited by SuperKid at Jun 4, 2014,
if you really want to learn jazz..listen to it,,it is so varied and crosses all styles of music..a study of diatonic harmony is almost a must today..this will be the foundation of your approach to improve. It will require a lot of practice to understand how to "flow over chord progressions"

find a good teacher of someone who can show you some of the basics or another guitarist who can play and is willing to "jam" with you.

this will be a far cry from blues/rock riffs..but you will find you will use them in your jazz explorations...listen to early George Benson, John Scofield and how they play over simple chords..Ami7 etc

play well

Jazz is, among other things, improvisations on the fly. Let me just say that playing jazz by ear is the top of the mountain, it's where you want to be, going there without the help of theory is harder than getting there without it, their both doable, it just depends on you.
The theory will help you make a map of the sounds that you are learning about.
Instead of going around and remembering sounds just by their sounds, you can label these things, which makes it easier to categorize and remember.
Bare with me here, but its like looking for a file on your computer while having a tidy file system vs a messy one.

Ok, Since you wanna learn by ear mostly, you're in luck, because jazz (at least traditional) is meant to be played by ear, and not by formulas.
You can (should) learn all the jazz standard melodies by ear if you cant read notation, and the harmony is written in chord symbols, so that shouldnt be too hard to learn either.
The "hard" part is going to be developing a good enough ear for music to improvise freely over a harmony, or no harmony.
So here are some things that are obligatory and im sure a lot of people will chime in with other helpful ideas.:

To learn jazz:
Listen to Jazz
Learn Jazz songs. (Standards + whatever you like)
Learn the vocabulary from recordings. (Learn solos, basslines, chord progressions, themes)
Learn about the history, players and sub-genres.

To Develop a good ear:
Sing, sing along with solos, sing jazz songs, improvise by singing alone, think of a note, then sing it. / Charlie Christians bandmates in benny goodmans band said that he used to be able to sing full Lester young solos, note for note/
Get to know the notes (single note and chords), how extensions sound, how notes sound over different chords, how progressions sound.
Play what you sing, and sing what you hear = Play what you hear. (transfer what you want to play, from your head to the instrument in real time.)
and ofc practice, practice, practice.
Last edited by Ignore at Jun 4, 2014,
This is all very useful advice, and thank you very much for the replies I really appreciate it. One follow up question: when you say (you collectively) to learn the songs by ear, do you mean the chords, the melodies or both? Transcribing a sax solo is fairly straight forward, but trying to determine which major 9th add 13th chord goes to which minor flat 5th seems like it would be a lot more difficult
for standards, you can learn most meoldies relatively easily by ear. For chords, grab a real book and read the chords, as there is no notation reading required for this.
But as you analyze guitar and piano players solo's you will hear chords there as well, as well as comping players using substitutes that are unique to these players, these you will have to figure out by ear. its a hard job but with practice and as you learn standards, as your ear gets better, you will learn to do this as well.