Jazz Violin: Practical Tips & Techniques
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 10 min read


  1. Select the right violin
  2. Practice bowing techniques
  3. Learn jazz scales and modes
  4. Develop your ear training
  5. Explore jazz improvisation
  6. Study jazz violin legends
  7. Join a jazz ensemble
  8. Incorporate jazz phrasing
  9. Play with swing rhythm
  10. Perform regularly

So, you've caught the jazz bug and now you want to dance those strings to a different tune—specifically, jazz. Well, you're in the right place. Here, we'll show you how to play violin for jazz in a refreshingly simple yet detailed manner. From selecting the appropriate violin to mastering swing rhythm, this blog has you covered. Let's kick things off with the first step: picking the right violin.

Select the right violin

The violin you choose can make a significant difference in your jazz playing journey. No, you don't need a special jazz violin. But the right one can certainly make your learning experience smoother, and heck, even a bit more fun. Here's what you need to know:

  • Size matters: Yes, even when it comes to violins. If the violin is too large or too small, you might struggle with string spacing and finger positions. Most adults usually go for full-sized (4/4) violins, but if you're on the younger side or have smaller hands, a 3/4 or a 7/8 could be a better fit.
  • Quality Craftsmanship: You don't need a Stradivarius to play jazz—but a well-made violin is critical. Look for a violin with a solid wooden body (usually maple or spruce), and a bow made from horsehair. This ensures good sound resonance and smooth bowing, both key to nailing that jazz sound.
  • Don't ignore the strings: Jazz requires a rich, warm tone. While most standard violin strings can do the job, you might want to consider jazz-specific strings for that extra oomph. Brands like D'Addario and Thomastik-Infeld have jazz strings that can add depth to your sound.
  • Setup: This is how your violin is arranged—everything from the bridge's height to the type of tailpiece used. A well-set-up violin can greatly enhance your playing experience and sound. You might want to consider getting your violin set up by a professional to ensure it's done right.

Remember, the best violin for you is the one that feels comfortable and sounds good to your ears. So, take your time, try out different options, and don't be afraid to ask questions. After all, this is the first step in learning how to play violin for jazz.

Practice bowing techniques

Once you have the right violin in your hands, it's time to get down to the nitty-gritty: bowing techniques. For jazz violinists, bowing techniques are like spices for a chef—they add flavor to your music. And just like a chef, you need to know when and how to use them. Let's explore a few essential ones:

  • Legato: This is a smooth, flowing technique where notes are connected without any breaks. Great for slow, soulful jazz melodies—it's like honey dripping off a spoon.
  • Staccato: This technique involves playing notes sharply and detached. Think of it as the dash of pepper in your jazz piece: potent, striking, and unforgettable.
  • Spiccato: This is when you allow the bow to bounce lightly on the strings. It adds a lively, energetic feel to your music—perfect for those groovy tunes.
  • Col legno: A unique technique where you play with the back of the bow. It creates a distinctive, percussive sound—just the thing for when you want to add a surprise element to your performance.

While these techniques can add a lot of flavor to your jazz playing, remember not to overdo them. The key to learning how to play violin for jazz is knowing how to balance these techniques to create a harmonious yet distinctive sound. Practice them individually, then mix and match to see how they can work together in a jazz context. And remember, practice makes perfect—so keep that bow moving!

Learn jazz scales and modes

Alright, you've got some bowing techniques under your belt. Now, let's take a step into the colorful world of jazz scales and modes. These are the building blocks of jazz and understanding them can really elevate your playing.

Start by learning the Major and Minor scales. They're the bread and butter of most musical styles, jazz included. Once you're comfortable with these, it's time to venture into jazz-specific scales, the most common being the Dominant Bebop and Major Bebop scales. These scales, with their added chromatic notes, can give your performance that quintessential jazz vibe.

Now, let's talk about modes. In essence, modes are scales starting on different notes, each with its own unique flavor. The two most commonly used modes in jazz are the Dorian and Mixolydian modes. The Dorian mode is often used for minor chords, while the Mixolydian mode is a go-to for dominant seventh chords.

Knowing your scales and modes is like having a map when exploring how to play violin for jazz. With them, you can navigate through the intricate landscape of jazz music, find your way around chord progressions, and express your musical ideas more effectively. Remember to practice them daily, either as warm-up exercises or in your improvisation sessions. Happy playing!

Develop your ear training

Next on our journey of learning how to play violin for jazz is developing your ear training. Why, you ask? Well, jazz is often about improvisation and spontaneity. This means you'll need to have a good ear to pick up on changes, follow along with complex tunes, and even add your own unique spin.

Start by listening to jazz music—lots of it. This will help you become familiar with the common chord progressions, rhythms, and melodic patterns. You'll start to recognize the distinctive sound of a flatted fifth or the sweet longing of a major seventh.

Next, practice identifying intervals. An interval is the distance between two notes. For example, a "perfect fifth" is the interval from C to G. Get to know these musical distances like old friends. There are many online resources and apps like Perfect Ear or EarMaster to help you with this.

Finally, experiment with transcription. This is a fancy word for listening to a piece of music and writing it down note-for-note. Start with short, simple melodies and gradually work your way up to more complex pieces. This kind of practice can do wonders for your playing and will certainly enhance your understanding of how to play violin for jazz.

Remember, developing your ear takes time. Be patient with yourself, keep practicing, and soon enough you'll be amazed at how your listening skills have improved. Good luck!

Explore jazz improvisation

Once you've got your ear training up to speed, it's time to dive into the deep end of jazz violin: improvisation. Now, improvisation might sound like a big, scary word but, in reality, it's simply about letting your creative juices flow and having fun.

Start by getting comfortable with a few basic jazz scales. The blues scale, the Mixolydian scale, and the Dorian scale are all good places to start. Practice these scales up and down, backward and forward, until they feel like second nature.

Then, try to improvise simple melodies over a backing track or a standard jazz progression. Your goal here isn't to play the flashiest or the fastest, but rather to play something that sounds good to your ear. Building your improvisation skills is a lot like building a conversation—you need to listen, respond, and add your own thoughts in a way that makes sense.

And remember, improvisation is all about exploration and experimentation. There's no such thing as a wrong note, just unexpected ones. So, don't be afraid to make mistakes. They are, after all, the stepping stones to mastering how to play violin for jazz.

Lastly, don't forget to enjoy the journey. Jazz is all about expression, so let your violin speak and tell your story. Happy improvising!

Study jazz violin legends

Learning how to play violin for jazz isn't just about mastering scales and techniques. It's also about getting inspired by the greats. The world of jazz violin has been graced with many legendary figures who've left an indelible mark on the genre. Studying their styles and techniques can sharpen your musical instincts and fuel your creativity.

Consider, for instance, Stephane Grappelli. Known as the "grandfather of jazz violin," Grappelli's vibrant playing style and innovative improvisations have influenced countless musicians. Listen closely to his recordings—how does he use the bow? How does he phrase his lines? What scales does he favor?

Then there's Jean-Luc Ponty, a trailblazer who brought the electric violin into the jazz mainstream. His fusion of jazz with rock and classical elements opened up new possibilities for the instrument. Listening to his music, you can learn how to weave different musical threads into your own playing.

And let's not forget Regina Carter, a contemporary jazz violinist known for her expressive, soulful performances. Carter's music is a testament to the power of storytelling in jazz. Her style can teach you how to convey emotions and narratives through your instrument.

So, if you're serious about learning how to play violin for jazz, make sure to study the masters. Their music can reveal a world of concepts, ideas, and techniques that you won't find in any textbook.

Join a jazz ensemble

Joining a jazz ensemble is another key step in your journey of mastering how to play violin for jazz. Why is that so? Well, jazz, at its core, is all about interaction and collaboration. It's a conversation set to music, and like any conversation, it's best when there are others to contribute.

Being part of a jazz ensemble lets you experience this musical conversation first-hand. You'll have the chance to engage with other instruments, respond to different musical ideas, and contribute your own. This kind of interaction can really help you grow as a jazz violinist.

Don't worry if you're not yet ready for a professional ensemble. There are plenty of community groups and school bands out there that welcome musicians of all levels. It's about the experience, not the expertise. You learn by doing, after all.

Plus, being part of an ensemble can be a lot of fun! It's a chance to make friends, share your love for jazz, and even create some beautiful music together. So, if you're serious about learning how to play violin for jazz, consider joining a jazz ensemble. It could be one of the best decisions you make on your musical journey.

Incorporate jazz phrasing

Once you're comfortable with the basics, it's time to start adding some jazz flavor to your violin playing. One way to do this is by incorporating jazz phrasing into your music. But what exactly is jazz phrasing? Simply put, it's the way we organize notes and rhythms to create a unique musical statement, much like forming sentences in a conversation.

So, how do you incorporate jazz phrasing into your violin playing? Here's a tip: listen to jazz. Yes, it's as simple — and as complex — as that. Jazz is a language, and like any language, the best way to learn it is by immersing yourself in it. Listen to how jazz musicians phrase their solos, how they play the same note differently each time, how they use silence as a musical element. These are all part of jazz phrasing.

But don't just listen — play along as well. Try to mimic the phrasing of your favorite jazz violinists. See how they shape their musical sentences and experiment with your own. Remember, jazz is all about expressing your individuality, so don't be afraid to add your personal touch.

As you continue exploring how to play violin for jazz, remember to keep experimenting with jazz phrasing. It might feel a bit strange at first, but with practice, it will become a natural part of your playing. And that's when the real fun begins.

Play with swing rhythm

If you've ever gotten the urge to tap your foot or snap your fingers to a jazz tune, you've experienced the infectious energy of swing rhythm. When it comes to understanding how to play violin for jazz, getting into the swing of things — quite literally — is key.

Swing rhythm is the heartbeat of jazz. It gives jazz its distinctive groove and feel. But what is it exactly? In a nutshell, swing rhythm is a rhythmic pattern that involves alternating long and short notes. It's this pattern that gives jazz its "swing."

Now, getting this rhythm right on your violin might seem tricky at first, but don’t worry. It's all about feeling the beat. Start by listening to some jazz music. Notice the rhythm, the groove, the swing. Feel the music. Can you hear that 'da-DUM, da-DUM' rhythm? That's the swing.

Once you've got the rhythm in your head, pick up your violin. Try playing a simple scale, but instead of playing the notes evenly, make every second note a bit shorter. Play 'da-DUM, da-DUM.' Congratulations, you're now playing with a swing rhythm!

Remember, when it comes to swing rhythm, it's not just about the notes you play — it's about how you play them. So keep practicing, keep listening, and soon enough, you'll be swinging like a jazz pro.

Perform regularly

So, you've been practicing how to play violin for jazz in your room, in your basement, maybe even in your bathroom for the excellent acoustics. But now comes the real deal: performing in front of others. Whether it's a crowd at a local jazz club, a group of friends, or even your pet cat, regular performance is an invaluable part of mastering jazz violin.

Think of regular performance as your personal testing ground. It's here where you truly put your skills to the test, where you can apply all the techniques, scales, and improvisations you've learned. But more than that, performing regularly gives you a chance to connect with your audience, to share the joy of jazz, and to get that all-important feedback.

Now, it's normal to feel a little nervous before a performance. But remember, every master was once a beginner. Every jazz legend started out with sweaty palms and a racing heart. So, take a deep breath, pick up your violin, and play your heart out. Who knows? Your next performance could be the one where everything clicks.

So, don't wait for the perfect moment. Start small, perhaps with a few friends or family members. As you gain confidence, you can graduate to larger audiences. The important thing is to keep performing, to keep sharing your music. Because the more you perform, the better you'll become at playing violin for jazz. And who knows, maybe one day, it could be your music making others tap their feet and snap their fingers to the rhythm!

If you enjoyed learning about Jazz Violin and want to improve your skills further, check out the workshop 'How to Get Better at What You Do - Go from Good to Great!' by Debbie Knox-Hewson. This workshop offers valuable insights and techniques that can be applied to various artistic disciplines, including Jazz Violin, helping you to enhance your performance and reach your full potential.