Sight Reading Jazz Melodies the Easy Way

The most important factor when learning how to sight read jazz is the application of the two fundamentals of pitch and rhythm reading within practical jazz material. Students must be able to sight read and perform musical pieces in a manner that is stylistically relevant to the context of jazz music. To this end, jazz repertoire is regularly used as a source of many different types of sight reading exercises and examples, but also for the study of jazz melody, harmony and rhythm in a practical sense. In short, songs are the format which often yields the best ideas and holds the most interest for students.

So choose a set of 20 jazz tunes with simple melodies (see the blog on standards – all of these tunes would be great!) to cover for your first jazz melody sight reading exercises. Keep these simple rules in mind when practicing:

  • Use a metronome
  • Do not ever stop or skip back or pause the time or tempo of the song. Get to the end of the chart!
  • Play incredibly slowly if you are having trouble with the technical element of identifying either the pitch or rhythm of the piece.
  • Do not memorise the tune. Play it once through then move on to the next piece.
  • Treat it like an exercise (in music); if there are very difficult passages you may wish to isolate these and loop or repeat them until you can visually identify the written  music.
  • Play in the simplest positions you possibly can – this is aided by a quick one minute scan of the chart which will give you some basic (and crucial) info on the piece at hand: identify the key centre, look for pitch register, locate the lowest and highest written notes and find them on the guitar. Look for and mark in pencil, any accidentals. Look for and mark any large intervallic leaps, tricky rhythms and rehearsal marks. Highlight repeat dots.
  • The key is not to memorise the entire piece; the key lies in accurately identifying moments of music and being able to string them together in a literate manner.

There are two learning areas in sight reading: The area or ‘fundamental’ of Pitch and the area or ‘fundamental’ of Rhythm. These two fundamentals are divided below into sub-topics that relate to specialized aspects of each broader group, which will give students relevance and overall structure to the implementation of particular exercises. Make sure you work on both aspects of sight reading in a studious, thorough manner:

æ  Fundamental of Pitch reading: Students must accurately identify note pitches on the treble clef then find and play them on the guitar using ‘positional’ techniques. (Further broken down in to sub-topics):

  • Key centres and positions
  • Consecutive scale tones
  • 3rds and Arpeggios
  • 4ths, 5ths, 6ths, 7ths and larger intervallic leaps
  • Accidentals and Chromatics
  • Chord Symbols and Written chords
  • Articulations and dynamic markings
  • Guitar oriented articulations, i.e. Picking, bending, slides, HO / PO, Pre-bends

æ  Fundamental of Rhythm reading: Students must accurately identify and perform rhythmical events as they occur along a timeline onto the guitar. (Further broken down in to sub-topics):

  • Subdivisions and The Rhythm Scale (Or Pyramid)
  • 8th notes, swung and straight (the main staple)
  • Jazz Phrasing – Attacks per measure (from ‘melodic rhythms for sight reading – Berklee)
  • Odd meter
  • Tempo applications

In terms of material you might research:

  • Sight reading pitch exercises / short pieces / etudes
  • Classical pieces (look for continuous rhythms so that pitch is the focus– i.e. parts of Bach Partitas and Sonatas etc)
  • Sight reading chords as symbols / chords with accents, big band style chart arrangements
  • Sight reading Melodies from real book, extracted melodies only (no chords)
  • Rhythm reading (8th notes, 16ths, triplet 8ths, swung and straight feels).
  • Specific sight reading exercises for dynamics and articulation.
  • Studies in recognising chords as notation (intervallic studies, common drop 2 voicings etc)
  • Written material to support the student’s sight reading studies.
  • Sight singing – rhythms, pitches.
  • Stylistic applications – reading and performing a set piece in different styles / feels.
  • Interpretation of written material, rhythmic comping patterns, melodic embellishment.

I have listed below some materials I used recently to help research a paper on developing a University Sight Reading Curriculum that may be of use to students:

For the purposes of studying existing materials on sight reading for jazz guitar, I researched many books* that had been created as a means to improve pitch and rhythm reading, books that focused on jazz studies for guitar or books of note that had been referred to me as a great general source of study, concepts or exercises for music literacy.

Some titles I have included as a set of sources for jazz repertoire in the form of lead sheets.

A short discourse on my findings with reasons for including the material contained within each book in my studies is outlined after each title.

Bibliography: Author, Title, Year, Publisher

Leavitt, William          ‘Melodic Rhythms for Guitar

1969                Berklee Press

This was a major source of materials in the form of written exercises that focused on rhythms common to jazz music. The exercises were written mostly in 4/4 and dealt predominantly with the 8th note staple rhythm, musical aspects that dominated earlier bebop-based jazz repertoire. Through the use of syncopated 8ths, ties and rests (over an underpinning current of the 8th note rhythm), melodic lines created from scalar and arpeggiotic ideas became more varied and by extension, were given a deeper sense of interest and melodic possibility. So this book became a central aspect in terms of melodic rhythm based materials and introduced me to the concept of ‘attacks per measure’, where all possible rhythmic displacements of a set of 8th note ‘rhythm amounts’ are applied back into popular harmonic progressions as taken from repertoire common to the jazz canon. This concept when practiced ensured that students would eventually be aware of how every possible combination of common rhythms in 4/4 appears as dots and more importantly, actually sounds as music.

Leavitt, William          ‘Reading Studies for Guitar

1979                Berklee Press

I have used this book mainly as a resource for supplementary studies for positional guitar sight reading and the introduction of the foundational elements of reading in all major keys, fingerings for scales, arpeggios, reading of written (notated) chords and various common rhythmic forms.

I have included examples from this book in the ‘Supplementary Materials’ folders of my Course Packs and in a few cases as material for beginner students (MUS170, 171, 270) to study for the basic musical elements noted above. Two important ideas were reinforced by the material presented in this book; musical studies for sight reading should not be familiar or become memorised; sight reading exercises should be relevant to the stylistic context you are working towards, especially in light of the fact that there is limited time to study and teach sight reading materials.

Leavitt, William          ‘Advanced Reading Studies for Guitar’

1981             Berklee Press

This book is used to further augment the ‘Supplementary Materials’ Course Pack folders. The material covered in this book focused more pointedly on higher register playing, difficult key centres, odd meter and more complex rhythms.

Metheny, Pat              ‘Guitar Etudes’           

2011                Hal Leonard

I found the etudes in this book to be of great musical importance to creative thinking; although they made good sight reading studies (being strongly melodic, which is a regular feature of Pat Metheny’s playing style, compositions and improvisations) the real gem was in the foreword, where Pat states: ‘I have always searched for ways to combine a physical workout with the spontaneous creation of harmonic and melodic material’. All of the etudes are improvised and many of the step-wise, consecutive 8th note passages make for good reading and great insight into how to improvise lines from scales, patterns, arpeggios and inherently melodic pitch structures. Even though Pat states that these exercises were used more for warming up before concerts and performances, the central idea – that the tools, mindset and conceptual ideas behind improvisation can be practiced and ‘warmed up’, is a great one for all students of creative music to identify with.

Finnerty, Barry            ‘The Serious Jazz Book II’

2008                Sher music Co.

I took 8 pages of great sample exercises from this book, although it could easily have been many more. The exercises in this book are developed around chords, arpeggios, melody and playing strong tones on strong beats (lots of 3-7, guide tone, and melodic leading examples). A great melody based insight into soloing, using methodical exercises.

Chaffee, Gary                    ‘Rhythm and Meter Patterns’

1976                       G. C. Music

I used samples from this book of advanced rhythmic patterns and meter for the later Course Packs (271 and 370). The book deals with many different combinations of complex systems for subdivision which is useful for those students interested in modern composition.

Jazz Repertoire Lead Sheet Sources:

Sher, Chuck                        ‘The New Real Books (Ed. I, II and III)’

Sher Music Co.

Leonard, Hal                      ‘The Real books volumes I, II and III’

Hal Leonard

I referenced both these books on many occasions for examples of lead sheets for jazz repertoire.  This material was utilised in the ‘Jazz Materials’ Folder of the Course Packs.

Classical Repertoire Sources:

Bach, Johann Sebastian                 ‘Partitas and Sonatas for Solo Violin’

I took 3 extended passages from these pages for study by advanced students (extra curricular or supplementary studies). Despite the music being of classical origin or nature, I felt the melodic and harmonic principles contained within to be so crucial to creative musicians; bold, definitive, beautiful, brilliant, structured, dynamic and alluding to the most interesting elements of counterpoint, modulation, chordal arpeggiation and rhythmic, lyrical melodies.

I had also been informed by many students of jazz who had studied at institutes of reputable nature (one example being the New School in NY), that Bach’s compositions held great musical insight for serious students of any genre.

In addition I found that the pitch register of these particular pieces was very ‘playable’ on the guitar, being written for solo violin.

*In addition to these texts and compendiums I researched the internet at length, using Wikipedia and YouTube to source written materials and sonic examples. I also borrowed from Olivier Holland and Ron Samsom’s rhythmic course packs for Bass and Drums (respectively) as well as excerpts from online open-sources that I had collected over years of studying.


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