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Published on April 18th, 2012 | by Sam


Jazz Guitar Intros

Whenever you play a jazz gig you’ll need a bunch of different ways to set up and start tunes.  The history of jazz is full of great ideas and if you do some searching through the recordings you’ll find a wealth of stuff.  Once you get some of your repertoire together, it’s time to add intros to your tunes.

Intro Essentials

Intros need to do one or more of three of things.  They need to:

  1. Set up the groove or feel of the song.
  2. Set up the key of the tune.
  3. Prepare a listener for the tune (think of a verse for standards-it gives the setting).


Players use different methods or vehicles to accomplish this.  Here are some ideas on what devices you can use to introduce a song.

  • Use a melodic or rhythmic fragment of the tune
  • Use a verse to a standard
  • Play a phrase of chords using the groove to the tune
  • Use a harmonic fragment of the tune
  • Write a melody that compliments the tune
  • Use a “stock” intro (more below)
  • Use a commonly played intro (like Miles’ intro to “Bye Bye Blackbird”)
  • Some tunes have intros that were either written with the tune-“Take the A Train”- or intros that have become so common for that tune that you must know them- “All the Things You Are”.


How to Find Great Recorded Intros

I always used to cringe when people would tell me to go listen to records and give no specific advice on where to find something-like an intro.  So here are a few specific (and general) ideas on where to find this stuff.

  • Nat King Cole Trio The Complete Capitol Recordings

This quintessential guitar/piano/bass trio plays a ton of standards.  They’re always in the pocket and both Nat and the guitarists (Oscar Moore & Irving Ashby) play great intros to just about every tune.  You’ll also find some great standards you may not know.

  • Joe Pass and Ella Fitzgerald  

These two have recorded several (I can’t find an exact number due to compilations etc) albums of duo stuff.  They’re all just swinging as a duo can get.  And if you know Joe Pass, you know he’s one of the best class jazz guitarists.

  • Big Band Recordings-specifically Count Basie and Duke Ellington

I chose Duke and the Count because they both represent two of the devices that players use in intros.  Duke typically writes complimentary intros that don’t necessarily echo anything in the tune, but do a great job of setting the vibe and feel of the tune.  Count Basie uses more stock intro ideas-like iii-VI-ii-V for example.  They also set the song up, but by establishing the key and swing feel.


The Intros

Here are a few intros that you can try.  Start by playing them as written. Then start to come up with your own variations-either slight variations by editing what is there, or use the basic idea to come up with something completely different.

“A Foggy Day”-Joe Pass/Ella Fitzgerald

Joe Pass has a knack for intros (duh!).  He’s actually got a knack for everything in jazz!  Here is a short intro played on “A Foggy Day” in his first duet record with Ella Fitzgerald.  Notice that he clearly plays a simple ii-V, ending on a 7b9 chord, which very easily sets up the key (F major in this case).  Rhythmically he plays it very rubato, another device for intros.

“Ellis in Wonderland”-Herb Ellis

Herb Ellis is a guitarist I personally overlooked for years (I need to write about him sometime!) but have really re-discovered him in the past year or two.  He plays great classic jazz vocabulary. Here’s an intro to one of his own tunes.  This one climbs up the G major scale in 7th chords more or less.  He curiously plays an Eb/Db before ending on the V chord.  Very interesting sound and choice-though I don’t have the theory to explain why, I think it just sounds cool.

“It Never Entered My Mind”-Miles Davis/Red Garland

Pianist, Red Garland’s most famous intro (especially to jazz students) is from “Bye Bye Blackbird.”  This one though is just as recognizable.  It comes from the first great Miles Davis Quintets on the album Workin.  It is a great example of an intro that sets up the vibe of the tune more than focusing on the key or melody.  This is also a harmonic device-with the fifth of the chord moving up chromatically and then back down.  This can happen in the middle of tunes as well.  Typically you hear this more with minor chords, but it is very effective here.

“Just You, Just Me”-Nat King Cole

Nat King Cole’s trio was a hugely successful group in the 1940s and 1950s.  They are one of the quintessential jazz trios, featuring Oscar Moore on the guitar.  This intro sets up the key very well.  Many players use the common I-VI-II-V progression.  Nat uses the tritone sub on both V chords (subbing the bII) and the tritone sub on the VI chord-which ends up being the bIII chord.  The rhythm here is just a basic rhythm, you could come up with any rhythm you like here.


               “All of You”-Nat King Cole

“All of You” uses another harmonic device-the pedal tone.  He plays the fifth of the key below each of the chords used here.  The upper chords are the iii-, biii-, ii-,biii-.   Pedal tones are typically on the fifth degree of the home key which really sets up the I chord.

“I Can’t Stop Loving You”-Count Basie

The final intro comes from Count Basie.  Big Band recordings are great places to dig up classic jazz vocabulary-just check out my article in the March 2012 issue of Just Jazz Guitar Magazine.  This is a blues style intro-chromatically rising from the IV chord.  After the initial fermatas he goes straight to the ii-7, V7 and then finally uses the chromatically rising chords again-basically the last four bars of a blues progression.  The B diminished here isn’t really a diminished chord.  Well it technically is, but is more out the function of the bass part ascending chromatically instead of a full on diminished chord moment.


Your Intros

Let me know what you think!  What ideas do you use for intros?  What are some of your favorite intros to particular songs?


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6 Responses to Jazz Guitar Intros

  1. Pingback: Intros-how to - The Jazz Guitar Forum

  2. Matt says:

    Great article Sam, intros are a topic that not a lot of people talk about but should. My favorite intro is Ed Bickert playing on I’m Old Fashioned, so simple yet it sticks with you forever.


  3. Jamie says:

    Really enjoyed this article Sam. Great examples and very good practical advice, looking forward to more, thanks!

  4. Ivo says:

    Thanks Sam.

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