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Guitar Lesson, Jazz Basics

I've taught guitar for several decades, still finding new chord voicings!

Jazz guitar chords

Here are some first steps in learning jazz guitar chords and jazz standards. Some of these chords are also found in pop, soul and Latin music. In each case, a scale is shown that fits with the chords.

  • In the chord diagrams, the vertical 6 lines are the strings, the frets are horizontal lines
  • Watch for the fret number on the left of the diagram
  • The cross means don't play this string
  • Some of the chords are three-note chords - they sound better and are easier to play as well
  • Most jazz tunes are written around 2-5-1 or minor 2-5-1 chord sequences, so learning these chords will really help to understand the standards from an improvising or compositional point of view.
  • A 2-5-1 in C would be Dm, G7, C.
  • The iReal book app is worth getting, and then you can see how widespread the use of these chord progressions is. The backing tracks are ideal for practice.
  • It's almost impossible to find a jazz standard tune that doesn't use elements of these progressions.

Common jazz chords in C and Am


Blue Bossa, ii V I chords and minor ii V I

ii V I and minor ii V I chord sequences

A ii V I chord sequence is one of the most widely used chord progressions, in all kinds of music. In the key of C each chord is numbered from 1 to 7:

  • C = I
  • Dm = ii
  • Em = iii
  • F = IV
  • G7 = V
  • Am = vi
  • Bm7b5 = vii

So a ii V I is Dm, G7, C - you can add notes to colour these chords, as in Dm7, G7, Cmaj7. Also Dm9, G13, Cmaj9 for example. Line 4 shows the same chords in a different area of the fretboard. Tip: use your thumb for string 6 on the C maj7 chord.

The C major scale fits all these chords for improvising, as does the Am pentatonic scale.

Why does this scale fit the chords? - the major scale and all the chords contain exactly the same notes as these two scales, they are all diatonic in the scale of C major.

If we stay in the same key, or strictly speaking, the relative minor key of Am we can play a minor ii V I.

  • In Am the ii chord is Bm7b5
  • The V chord is E7
  • The I chord is Am
  • So the minor ii V I sequence is Bm7b5, E7, Am7.

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Harmonised scales in a minor key

Here is a massive shortcut - find the relative minor, three frets down from where you started.

  • In the key of C, this is Am
  • To find all the chords in the key of Am, just use the same chords as in C, but starting the sequence on Am instead. Now convert the V chord in this key (Am) to a 7th chord (E7)
  • So, all the chords are the same, just Em has been changed to E7
  • All other keys work in the same way.

Scale choices

The best scale for a minor ii V I is probably A harmonic minor, (first two chords) but ending on Am pentatonic for the final chord.

The last two lines of examples show this progression in another area of the fretboard, preceded by the ii V I in C.


Most jazz standards are simpler than they first appear, when you break them down - they are often made up of ii V I and minor ii V I sequences in different keys. When you recognise this pattern, it should make learning jazz standards, or any other form of music, much faster to learn. Think of them as building blocks of harmony, that can be assembled in many different ways.

For learning jazz tunes an excellent resource is the iRealb app, which has backing tracks and chord charts for hundreds of standards.

Ted Greene

Ted was an amazing guitarist, and left a legacy of great chord books. Almost too much information in this book, but it is very comprehensive and has been very influential amongst jazz and rock guitarists. I just leave it around and dip in for 10 mins when looking for inspiration.


The cycle of fifths or cycle of fourths (depending on which way round the circle you go) is an essential part of music theory, and will show you the ii V I sequences in any key once you know how to use it. There is a really good interactive version on the internet at Highly recommended.


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