Learning the Jazz Violin

March 1, 2004 at 06:44 PM · Stephane Grappelli was the greatest Jazz violinist who ever lived in my opinion. He started when he was 12 and taught himself everything... so what the heck is wrong with me?

Why is Jazz so hard to learn? Is it because I am not letting myself just go? I know its not because I'm classically trained, i've only been playing 1 year and 2 months so i'm not at all classically trained. Can you guys give me some tips on improvising? And what's the overall secret to plaing Jazz, anybody know?

Replies (43)

March 1, 2004 at 06:57 PM · If you've only been playing for a little over a year then I would suggest that you probably need more time to master the techniques of your instrument before you move on to Grappelli style improvising. Some of these basic techniques would be: bow control (in all parts of the bow), basic intonation, shifting, vibrato.

As with classical studies, scales and arpegios are essential--after all, that's what music is made up of. But while classical players are only required to learn major and minor, jazz players are also required to learn the common modes and the blues scales in all keys (not to mention some more exotic ones such as whole tone and octatonic).

While classical players might stay on 1 key for a 1-7 days, a jazz player might pick a certain type of scale (lydian for example) and play it in all keys without stopping--by going around the circle of 5ths.

If these terms are unfamiliar to you then you probably need to do a little reading and/or get some advice from more advanced players.

David Baker has written some very good books on Improvization and that may be a good start. For starters try "Jazz Improvisation: A Complete Guide For All Musicians"

He began as a trombone player (I think) but an injury forced him to give it up and now he plays jazz cello. His books are geared towards any instrument and--I'm not sure but--I think they may even have some advice specific to string players.

Good luck!

March 1, 2004 at 11:20 PM · I agree with Peter . Jazz requires a solid technic. Besides instrument,you should study harmony jazz basis. Once you know chords you can play songs adding arpegios on long duration notes then transpose melody then add foreign notes to the chord using swing rythm ie strong beats are 2 and 4. Cheer up

March 2, 2004 at 06:04 PM · Thanks guys for your responses.

March 3, 2004 at 12:17 AM · don't think too much when playing jazz

March 3, 2004 at 04:48 PM · I think many professional jazz musicians would take issue with that statement Patrick.

March 3, 2004 at 04:56 PM · It's not so much about learning, I think like 40/50% has to be in yourself, your soul.

I think I am wrong in one way though, because Giles Apap - French violinist. He is classical, but has been taught jazz violin I think.

Have you heard his Mozart - G major concerto, 3rd mov? He makes up his own cadenza! But, it has every style of the Mozart 3rd mov theme in it. For example, Jazzy, Irish, Indian, Blues, he whistles the tune, and plucks the accompaniment. You just got to see it, it's sooo good!!!

March 3, 2004 at 05:27 PM · Don't know if I want to...

March 3, 2004 at 05:34 PM · Gilles Apap,Didier Lockwood ,Catherine Lara and so on have a solid classic background. Improvisation does not mean play rashly. it requires a talent of composer along with technic. The "be yourself" is actually a deep and mature thinking

March 3, 2004 at 08:36 PM · I think alot of professional "jazz" musicians would understand what I'm saying peter, it's all about how you get from one not to the next.

March 3, 2004 at 10:02 PM · I think what you mean, Patrick, is "Forget how you were taught to think and think differently". The thinking required during improv is really a whole different ball game from that of performing, say, a concerto, or unaccompanied Bach. A lot of it is reaction - informed reaction, if you will. I don't know much about it so I can't go into it - I just know that if I'm improvising, I'm definitely not using my brain in the same way I would if I were playing something I have memorised.

March 4, 2004 at 04:02 AM · Great thread. I think we classical peeps can learnfrom jazz musicians, as many of them have far better musicianship than classical folk.

Many of my close friends are serious jazz musicians. They know theory inside and out, know how to count, know their instrument inside and out, can change keys with syncopation and still develop an interesting melody at the same time. They also have the strongest practice ethic I have ever seen. While they seem laid-back about virtually everything else, they are monsters when it came to practicing scales, listening to jazz, eating and sleeping and drinking it. Not to say this is totally desirable for all violinists, but you see where I'm going...

Jasmine, if you are equipped for it, a good book for learning your way around the fingerboard is Slonimsky's book of finger patterns and scales. Aside from that, it would help to really start learning scales and theory, aspiring towards fluency.

We can learn a thing or two from the jazz approach, in terms of memorizing/growing confident with the layout and feel of the fingerboard. It takes an excellent ear, study, and skill to jump from two to five and make it sound interesting and still know where you are in the piece.

Aside from knowing how to play with good tone and good intonation: learn theory and scales until you're fluent. Most jazz is not "free," but quite structured...and all the "improvisation" you hear are actually the artists' ideas based upon the melody, the harmony/chord that you're in.

(By the way, my sister's name is Jasmine.)

Best of luck,


March 4, 2004 at 07:53 AM · One thing no one's mentioned (i think, forgive me if it's been covered) ...LISTEN and Learn by ear. Take a simple django/stephane tune, just the "head" (main melody) and learn it by ear - not just note for note but with inflections, vibrato, tone imitation as well as you can muster. Then proceed to learn grapelli's solos this way. A "slow machine" can help a lot with this. This way you'll build a more interesting vocabulary than if you focus solely on scales and arpeggios. You'll also learn to hear the way the "changes" (chords) and melody work together, and how to anticipate harmonic structure.

In improvised music or in classical music, your ears are your most important asset. Train them well and you'll do great.

March 4, 2004 at 05:12 PM · Thanks all of you. Really good sugguestions. My friends tell me that if I lay jazz I'll be able to play anything, because jazz is so complex. I don't know if that is true, but I am going to try and conquer it.

March 4, 2004 at 08:03 PM · Conquer jazz? That's an interesting concept. Personally, I don't think there's any point playing jazz unless it's something you love. I don't want to be mean, but you haven't mentioned that aspect of your interest in jazz at all. Sure, jazz is an incredibly complex, deep, varied thing, which you can study for years and years, but if you ain't crazy about it why bother?

And I don't think it's true what your friends say, about being able to play anything at all if you can play jazz. Music doesn't quite work that way.

March 5, 2004 at 07:17 PM · jazz isn't to be learned in the classroom, maybe to get you started, but conversation between musicians while playing teaches you much more than a book and music theory..

March 6, 2004 at 04:30 AM · Like many things, that first 20 years of hard work really helps. Don't expect to be able to comprehend the highly structured improvisational nature of jazz quickly.

March 6, 2004 at 05:57 PM · true, there are different approaches to jazz, this is just mine

July 13, 2004 at 10:42 AM · oh man you guyz , sometimes you have to let it go and just let music be music. Just 10 years ago , Gilles Apap couldn't even improvise to a simple russian melody ,he had to slow down old gypsy tapes ,and copy the riffs ,just to play that stuff. Now you consider him a jazz master?

Also Cathrine Lara is a horrible example of what jazz violin could be ,next you'll be quoting Jean Luc Ponty and calling him "gods gift to the violin".No people ,learn some classical and then play along with a White Stripes cd ,or blues ,cuz thats how u learn to play...by playing ,not talking about it.All of your talk reminds me why I left the Paris Conservatory to begin with.I say listen to Ivry Gitlis when he jams with The Rolling Stones or Misha Bodnar of that Punk/classical/comedy /circus group Béla Lugosi.They know the true meaning of playing with feeling ,or at least balls.And can improvise without having to use rules or get respect from the dead.Also

they use sexy nude people in their acts. Thats just more fun. best regards,


July 13, 2004 at 02:44 PM · Hi,
Jasmine, learning to play jazz on the violin will enhance your technique and your musicality immensely. Most responses to your post have dealt with improvisation. In my experience, getting jazz music to sound right is hard in itself, even if the melody is simple and you don't deviate from the written music and go into the realm of improvisation.
My teacher says that bowing technique is of supreme importance for the right sound. It won't do just to listen to a piece and then imitating it, because you first have to learn how to create the sounds. Therefore, my teacher will put in all the bowings for me and insists that I play it just like that.
A top flight artist like Grapelli of course has all this at the tips of his fingers and can go along because all the instrumental technique and musical theory has become second nature to him.
However, to start from the bottom, find somebody who'll show you the basic bowing techniques and the rhythmic peculiarities slowly, patiently and in detail. Playing jazz requires the proverbial approach of the duck: smooth on the surface but paddling like hell underneath. Just like Kismet puts it so aptly: it takes a lot of very focused discipline to make it seem easy.
I still have a very long way to travel on the road, but I find it very enjoyable and rewarding.

July 13, 2004 at 04:09 PM · I think Regina Carter is the best jazz violinist I've heard. Not that her tone is so great, or she plays so fast. But she is an innovator, and is able to mimic other instruments while remaining violinistic. The thing that amazes me about is her phrasing, her finger patterns are like nothing else, completely original(well a lil' help from john blake, but ya know....). There's gotta be something in her bowing....cool stuff. Her jazz arrangements are some of the most creative among today's jazz artists. The violin really does deserve to be a jazz instrument in her hands

September 21, 2004 at 06:00 AM · Pat, you need to listen to John Blake, Christian Howes, Mark O'Connor, .....and Billy Contreras.

September 21, 2004 at 07:56 PM · Regarding jazz education...I once saw the late Bill Evans (pianist, not the sax player) give a clinic at North Texas State U. in Denton, a huge "jazz" school. He sat there and said that he didn't believe in jazz education per se...you could have heard a pin drop (and many jaws did drop). He continued to say that he learned to play his instrument by playing Bach and Bartok and that he learned improvisation by studying classical composition. It certainly worked well for him.

In defense of Jean Luc Ponty, his album Aurora is one of the best things to come out of all the "fusion" of the mid-70's, IMHO. I haven't followed much of his efforts since.

September 22, 2004 at 12:08 AM · Jazz is all improvisation. That automatically implies that an understanding of music theory plus loads of practice is mandatory.

As a guitarist, I spent ages trying to "work out" how to improvise. Unfortunately it's one of those things which takes years of practice in different backing scenarios + the ability to choose the right notes automatically (That's where the music theory is important - although for some it's innate).

The other beauty of jazz, is that so many different types of instruments can be used - and each has it's own style of solo. Quite often a technique to improve improvising is to "think like a different type of musician". For example Wes Montgomery (LEGENDARY guitarist) would try to solo like a piano player. Other guitarists would try to mimic horn players - i.e lots of single note phrases with brief stops when they take a "breath".

I don't play jazz violin because my technique and skill is not up to scratch yet - but when I do start it, having played and listened to jazz on other instruments undoubtedly is going to aid in my own phrasing.

So I reckon a great tip is to listen to other jazz musicians in addition to jazz violinists. I think stuff by Mike Stern, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker would be particularly adaptable to violin. Also, here's a good site for jazz violinist "Ian Cooper" - http://www.iancooper.com

September 22, 2004 at 02:03 AM · From Phil Kurian

Posted via on September 21, 2004 at 5:08 PM (MST)

Jazz is all improvisation....

That's not true, jazz is NOT all improvisation just as all improvisation is not jazz.

September 22, 2004 at 05:48 AM · just because JAzz musicians play every scale in every mode, doesn't mean we shouldn't. It would be a great idea for every classical musician to be able to play a major (or minor) scale starting on any note. Even if we don't ever play jazz, it should still be immensly helpful in our understanding of the key and will help with our tonality.

September 22, 2004 at 06:41 PM · dieder lockwood can run circles around most jazz violinists, but I hate his music and style. There is a jazz/gypsy violinist named florin nicalescu who is the most technically outstanding violinist of that realm I've ever heard I think he plays a bit with the birel lagrene project, I also heard him. Of course for some other violinists that are not as well known(they've been mentioned a few times on here) there is L. Subramaniam, you gotta hear him play the 24 caprices indian violin style!, and L. Shankar, he's played a bit with john mclaughlin and shakti, excellent.I don't know if they're jazz in the way we think jazz is, but they're approach to music is sure jazz-like

September 22, 2004 at 10:11 PM · the trick to playing jazz on the violin is to NOT listen to jazz violinists. listen to the piece itself. jazz comes from harmony and rhythm, not from copying a violinist's licks.

listen to how chord progressions move. most chords move in diatonic 4ths:

| Cmaj7 | Fmaj7 | Bm7b5 | Em7 | Am7 | Dm7 | G7 | Cmaj7 |

is an example of a perfect diatonic cycle.

to be honest, most jazz musicians only play through the last three chords which they call the ii Vs (2-5s)

| Dm7 | G7 | Cmaj7 |

but i included all 7 so you see how the cycle really works.

once you can hear how the chord changes move, then practice connecting chord tones.

in whole notes:

C | C | B | B | A | A | G | G |

is an example over the chords i showed you previously. tape these chords on piano and play the example i gave you over top to hear how voiceleading works.

from there, move on to what bassists call 'walking' by adding other chord tones to the voicelead notes in half notes or quarter notes.

in half notes:

C G | C A | B D | B G | A C | C A | G F | E G |

in quarter notes:

C E G B | C E A C | D B D F | D B G B | A C E G | A C A C | B D G F | E G B G |

from there, you change the chord tones and voiceleading and play different inversions of arpeggios.

in modern jazz and bebop/gypsy jazz, you often avoid playing the tonic but instead play the 9th chord without the root. in other words, when you see Cmaj7, you play notes found in Cmaj9 but you omit the C, making Em7 instead. in my example from above, you'd accomplish the same effect by starting your chords on bar one and the walking patterns i showed you would start on bar 4 simultaneously. that's how you begin to get that jazz 'sound'.

there are other things you can do such as playing substitute chords, coltrane cycles, and upper structure chords, but that's more advanced. keep it simple and learn what you can handle at first until you are ready for more stuff.

conclusion: jazz improvisation is based on the same principle as studying figured bass in baroque music except the chords are different (they have 7ths and 9ths) and you swing the rhythms more. oh yeah, you play a lot more arpeggios a lot faster than they did in corelli's orchestras!

if you want to learn how to build great jazz solos, listen to lots of music by joe henderson and sonny rollins. also, django reinhardt had some amazing solos and bill evans has never played a bad note on record. of course john coltrane was the greatest soloist who ever lived. modern players with great taste are brad mehldau and benny green. mark o'connor is a great jazz player and so is gilles apap. these players' solos make sense to classical musicians because they are based on thematic variations. a lot of other jazz musicians simply run through scales and arpeggios and while it may be impressive, it isn't always musical to do such things. the melody should always come first.

if you don't understand what i'm talking about, buy the book improvising method for piano by martial solal. he has a mikrokosmos-style way of building from simple jazz improvising to complicated playing. you can do the exercises on violin and he has a playalong CD with the book so you hear how the changes work.

hope that helps.

September 22, 2004 at 11:58 PM · well..thats one way..to look at it

September 22, 2004 at 11:59 PM · although to say alot of other jazz musicians just play scales and arpeggio's is kinda lame..and not true. Also, I wouldnt' consider gilles apap, or mark o connor "jazz musicians"

September 23, 2004 at 01:59 AM · Good post, dw. I'd like to add to the Recommended Listening list: Firstly, Jacques Loussier's Play Bach, to get an idea of how classical and jazz styles can relate to each other. Secondly, Kind of Blue by Miles Davis, which is often cited as the definitive jazz improvisation album.

Jasmine, you asked about the 'secret' of playing jazz... The one thing I find hardest to cope with - that will ensure I will never be a bona fide jazz musician - is the trick of playing slightly behind the beat. It goes against everything we are taught as classical musicians.

September 23, 2004 at 02:11 AM · lossier is cool, also Chucho Valdez a KILLER latin jazz pianist combines latin jazz and classical tunes in a cd called Fantasia Cubana, and no..its not cheesy, he's technically as good as anyone I've heard

October 13, 2004 at 01:12 AM · Listen a lot to jazz.

Play along with records: don't be afraid to make mistakes.

Yes, study theory, but as Patrick said above, don't think too much about it when you are playing.

Absorb in study, let go in playing.

Trust that you will play things that fit, and trust that eventually you will be able to adjust things that clash so quickly that no one notices them except you.

Good luck


October 13, 2004 at 02:29 PM · You might check out "Jazz Violin," by Matt Glaser and Stephane Grappelli. It's got a lot of transcriptions and useful stuff. Published by Oak Publications.

October 14, 2004 at 10:47 AM · Martin Nogaard's "Jazz fiddle wizard" is very good.


October 14, 2004 at 06:01 PM · hey graham, nice to see you here!!..if anyone knows this its you

October 16, 2004 at 12:33 PM · Hi Patrick!

Yes, I have been coming back here to get some inspiration for new practice approaches, and techniques. IT NEVER ENDS!!!

I have a serious recording session wed 20th, and over the past couple of months have been brushing up certain technical things.

It is a duo violin improvisation session (so is not really off topic!) and will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in January. I will let people know more nearer the time.


December 20, 2004 at 08:54 PM · Although training scales, and triads movements over II-V-I chord progresions in all keys is a good idea for getting proffiencey and speed, it does not make you an improviser.

Most people find it hard to find a band that will practice 2-3 hours a day with you or longer while you are improving your solos.
Solution: Band in a box is a program that allows you to write the chords, and enter the style, and it will play the rythm section. It can make a pretty good improvisation too, if you run out of ideas. It is stronlgy recommended for anybody who wants to practice improvisation. Pgmusic.com also sell various courses in improvisation.

Violin jazz musicians: Don't forget Stuff Smith.

December 22, 2004 at 01:07 PM · ole has already mentioned Band in a Box. I have used it before and I highly recommend it! It can create accompaniments in tonnes of different styles. And you can play along with it until you fall asleep, something that no human band would be willing to do.

As far as jazz theory book goes, I think "The Jazz Piano Book" by Mark Levine is quite comprehensive. It's written for the piano but jazz is jazz. I think he also has another book on jazz theory but I'm sure what the title is. (Now, I must admit that I am not a jazz violinist but I have improvised from lead sheets playing in pop bands.)

A fake book of the standard (jazz or otherwise) tunes is a great source for practising. (BTW, did anyone mention that some jazz musicians practise 11 hours a day?)

Besides the I-IV-VII-III-IV-II-V-I progression being quite common, the twelve-bar blues cannot be ignored by any aspiring jazz musicians.

In any case, you don't need to have mastered the hundreds of scales to start improvising convincingly. You can do a lot with just the pentatonic scale AND staying in the first position. In fact, I suggest trying to improvise using only two notes at the beginning: tonic and dominant and concentrate on playing with groove. Swing whenever you can. This is where the Band in a Box is helpful. Type in your favorite chord sequence. Set the style to jazz/swing. Set the tempo to something comfortable. And swing along with those two notes! Once you feel completely comfortable improvising like this, add in the notes in the pentatonic. Gradually, you'll naturally add in neighboring notes as your fingers learn to move as fast as you think.

Once that feels comfortable, you can add all the modes and scales you can find in the world, including fingered octaves, thirds, fourths, fifths, sixths, ninths, tenths, triple-stops, quadruple-stops, etc. As you see, the sky is pretty much the limit as far as technical ability is concerned. But the nice thing is you can start improvising right now.

December 22, 2004 at 10:40 PM · jazzers blowing arpeggios? i hear it ALL the time, especially from fusion players and students.

mark o'connor studied under grapelli for years. if that doesn't make him a hot jazz violinist, then exactly what would that make him?

as for gilles apap, he is beyond style so the argument is a waste of time.

December 23, 2004 at 02:47 AM · ...as for gilles apap, he is beyond style...

Beyond or without? Sorry, couldn't resist.

I would say the same about O'Connor. He defies classification. We should all be so diverse.

December 23, 2004 at 04:03 AM · I would say learning jazz music is all about feeling the music. Since jazz is improvisational.

December 23, 2004 at 03:36 PM · >>mark o'connor studied under grapelli for years. if that doesn't make him a hot jazz violinist, then exactly what would that make him?<<

A hot bluegrasser who wants to learn jazz.

Not at all the same thing: it's like a native English speaker wanting to learn French, and going to a Frenchman for lessons (couldn't resist!)

I think you have to separate learning "jazz" from the instrument you play it on. You don't learn "jazz violin", you learn jazz, and happen to use a fiddle.

All the scale knowledge and chord theory as well as the rhythmic approach, is common to all instruments in jazz. These are the shared features that make it "jazz".

Most important is the rhythmic feel. That you can really only get through listening and feeling what other great players do.

As DW said above, it's probably best to listen to instrumentalists other than violinists to get this.

As for the notes, they are the same ones you use in classical music, so a good classical technique is a great help.

I tend to think intervalically rather than note by note. That means I hear the distance to the next note rather than thinking "I want a D now". That also helps with on-the-fly transposition. I don't learn tunes in loads of keys, but if I know a tune well I can usually play it in any key.

I don't really know how I developed that skill. I think it just comes from the interval approach, so you understand contours rather than lists of note names.


December 24, 2004 at 06:40 PM · >>All the scale knowledge and chord theory as well as the rhythmic approach, is common to all instruments in jazz. These are the shared features that make it "jazz".<<

I should add that the best drummers I know also play some piano, usually MUCH better than I do.


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