Beginner's Guide: 5 Essential Jazz Cello Tips
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 6 min read


  1. Practice the Blues Scale
  2. Try Swinging Your Rhythms
  3. Listen to Great Jazz Cellists
  4. Improvise with Arpeggios
  5. Practice with Jazz Standards

Ready to jazz up your cello playing? Perfect! This beginner's guide is here to help you make that smooth transition from classical to jazz. With these five essential tips, you'll soon be exploring the exciting world of jazz music, bending your strings to the blues scales, and improvising like a pro. So, let's dive right into our first tip on how to play cello for jazz: practicing the blues scale.

Practice the Blues Scale

First things first, let's talk about the blues scale. It's a significant stepping stone for any budding jazz musician, including cellists. This special scale will drive your cello into the heart of jazz music — the blues.

Understanding the Blues Scale

The blues scale is a six-note scale, which is a variation of the minor pentatonic scale. It's key ingredients are: the root, minor third, fourth, diminished fifth (also known as the blue note), fifth, and minor seventh. For example, in C, it would look like this: C, Eb, F, Gb, G, Bb, and then back to C. So, when you're practicing, remember to give that blue note some extra love!

How to Practice the Blues Scale on Your Cello

  • Start Slow: Begin your practice at a slow pace. This will help you become familiar with the scale and its unique intervals. Speed is not your friend in the early stages.
  • Use a Metronome: A metronome is a tool that helps you keep time. It’s like a clock for your music, keeping your rhythm steady as you practice the blues scale.
  • Explore Different Keys: Once you are comfortable with one key, switch to another. This will help you understand how the blues scale translates across different keys.

Putting in the time to master the blues scale will provide a solid foundation for your jazz cello journey. Once you've got it down, you'll be ready to add some swing to your rhythms — but let's save that for the next section.

Try Swinging Your Rhythms

As you continue on with how to play cello for jazz, you'll quickly discover that rhythm is everything. And in jazz, that rhythm often swings. Swinging your rhythms is like adding a little dance to your music—it makes everything bounce!

What Does it Mean to Swing a Rhythm?

Swing rhythm is a specific form of syncopation where you play the first note of a pair longer than the second. So instead of counting evenly "one-and-two-and", it’s more like "ONE-and-two-AND". It gives your rhythm a unique, bouncing feel that's characteristic of jazz music.

Practicing Swing Rhythm on Your Cello

  1. Make it Uneven: Start by playing pairs of eighth notes. Instead of making them equal, emphasize the first note and shorten the second. This will give you the basic swing feel.
  2. Tap Your Foot: Try tapping your foot to the beat as you play. This can help you internalize the swing rhythm and keep it consistent.
  3. Use a Swing Rhythm Metronome: These are available online or as phone apps. They can help you maintain the swing rhythm as you practice.

Now that you've got the swing of things, you're well on your way to mastering the cello in the jazz genre. But there's more to learn, like the importance of listening to great jazz cellists as part of your musical journey. But that's a song for the next section.

Listen to Great Jazz Cellists

Music, like any language, is learned not only by speaking (or playing) but also by listening. When it comes to learning how to play cello for jazz, tuning into the tracks of iconic jazz cellists can offer a world of inspiration and practical learning.

Why Listen to Jazz Cellists?

Listening to accomplished jazz cellists serves a two-fold purpose. Firstly, it provides a rich source of inspiration. Jazz is all about feeling and expression, and hearing how masters of the genre communicate their musical ideas can spark your creativity. Secondly, it offers a practical way to understand jazz techniques and styles in action. It's like having a masterclass at your fingertips.

Who to Listen to?

You might be thinking, "Great, I'm ready to listen. But where do I start?" Here are a few jazz cellists who have left an indelible mark on the genre:

  1. Ron Carter: Known for his work with the Miles Davis Quintet, Carter has a rich, melodic style that's worth exploring.
  2. Fred Katz: As one of the first cellists to lead a jazz group, Katz's work will give you a sense of the cello's potential in jazz.
  3. Erik Friedlander: A contemporary cellist, Friedlander blends jazz with classical techniques to create a unique sound.

Remember, the goal isn't to copy these artists, but to understand their techniques, feel their rhythm, and let their music influence your unique style. Ready to take the next step? Let's talk about improvising with arpeggios.

Improvise with Arpeggios

Now that you've got your ear trained to the melodies and rhythms of the jazz greats, it's time to grab your cello and dive into the deep pool of improvisation. One of the most straightforward ways to start your improvisation journey is by experimenting with arpeggios.

What are Arpeggios?

Arpeggios are simply the notes of a chord played one after the other, instead of all at once. They're the building blocks of many a jazz solo and can help you create a melodic line that fits perfectly over the chord changes.

How to Play Arpeggios on the Cello?

Playing arpeggios on the cello isn't all that different from playing scales. Here's a simple step-by-step guide:

  1. Step 1: Start by choosing a chord. If you're not sure which one to pick, a C Major chord is a safe bet for beginners.
  2. Step 2: Identify the notes in the chord. In the case of C Major, these would be C, E, and G.
  3. Step 3: Play these notes one at a time, starting from the lowest and moving to the highest.

Easy, right? But remember, the magic of jazz lies not just in the notes you play, but in how you play them. Try different rhythms, dynamics, and articulations to make your arpeggios swing.

Making Music with Arpeggios

While arpeggios can be a helpful tool in your jazz toolbox, they're not a one-size-fits-all solution. The real fun begins when you start weaving them into your solos, creating musical phrases that express your ideas and feelings. So how about picking up your cello and giving it a try? After all, the next jazz standard is waiting for you.

Practice with Jazz Standards

After you've got a hang of the blues scale, swinging rhythms, and improvisation with arpeggios, it's time to apply your skills in a real-world scenario. And what better way to do it than by practicing with jazz standards? The timeless melodies, complex harmonies, and infectious grooves of these classics provide the perfect playground for any aspiring jazz cellist.

What are Jazz Standards?

Jazz standards are musical compositions that have become widely known, recorded, and performed by jazz artists. They form the backbone of the jazz repertoire and include songs from Broadway theatre, musicals, and even the Great American Songbook. Some popular jazz standards you might recognize include "Autumn Leaves," "Blue Skies," and "Summertime."

How to Play Jazz Standards on the Cello?

Learning to play jazz standards on the cello can seem like a daunting task, but it doesn't have to be. Here's a simple strategy:

  1. Step 1: Choose a jazz standard. Start with something simple and gradually move to more complex pieces.
  2. Step 2: Listen to different versions of the standard. Pay attention to how different musicians interpret the same piece of music.
  3. Step 3: Learn the melody by heart. This will help you understand the structure of the song.
  4. Step 4: Start improvising! Use the techniques you've learned, like arpeggios and the blues scale, to create your own solos.

Remember, the goal is not to play the standard perfectly, but to use it as a platform to express your musical ideas and develop your own unique voice on the cello.

Keep the Beat Going

Practicing with jazz standards is a lifelong journey, and there's always something new to discover. So, why not pick up your cello and start exploring the rich world of jazz standards today? As you dive deeper into the world of jazz, you'll find that the question isn't so much "how to play cello for jazz?" but rather "how can I express myself through the language of jazz on the cello?"

If you're eager to continue your journey into the world of jazz cello, don't miss the workshop 'How to Get Better at What You Do - Go from Good to Great!' by Debbie Knox-Hewson. This workshop offers invaluable advice and techniques to help you improve not only your jazz cello skills but also your overall musicianship and artistry. Take your playing to the next level and become the best version of yourself as a musician!