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Easy Jazz Guitar chords

I've been playing jazz standards for decades now, still enjoy doing it on a daily basis, and still learn new things all the time!

Playing Jazz Guitar

Jazz Guitar is not really the free-for-all and totally improvised style that you might imagine. It is a style based on musical rules and conventions, and relies heavily on the concept of standards, a selection of certain songs and instrumental pieces. You should really have a good knowledge of these standard tunes, although it's never going to be possible to learn them all. Strongly recommend memorising them, rather than reading chord charts or Real Books.

Examples of jazz standards would include:

  • Autumn Leaves (not too difficult)
  • All Of Me
  • Embraceable You
  • Misty
  • Summertime (relatively easy)

Some of these tunes can appear intimidating to the beginner jazz guitarist, but once you get the basics of how the chords work life becomes much easier.

There are many advantages in learning the basics of jazz guitar, even if you normally play other styles, such as blues, rock or country. Mainly, it will really help in the development of a good chord vocabulary, but it can also help your sense of rhythm and increase the gigs you can cover.

  • More jazz chord forms and chord progressions are in the new hub Jazz Guitar chords -intros.
  • Also see the hub Guitar Jazz Chords 2
  • Guitar chords - Latin Jazz Chords hub might also be useful

Jazz Chords

In some of my other hubs I've gone through the music theory of harmonised scales. Here is the basic stuff you need to know:

  • There are seven different notes in a major scale
  • A chord is built on each of these notes, creating a sequence of 7 chords
  • Chords I IV and V are major, ii iii and vi are minor, vii is m7♭5.
  • The sequence is I... ii... iii... IV... V... vi... vii... I
  • In the key of C these means the chords are C... Dm... Em... F ...G7... Am.. Bm7♭5...C
  • Every other key uses chords in the same pattern and the same order.
  • Most jazz chords include a 7th. That's just counting through the scale to the 7th note, or even easier - counting down from note 8, the octave and the same as note 1. So in the case of a C chord, the major 7 is B (C maj7) and the Flat 7 is Bb (C7)
  • Other common chords are 9ths, 13ths.
  • Many jazz tunes are constructed using ii V I (two-five-one) chord sequences, or sometimes just V I. These will often change key though, which is part of the characteristic sound of jazz.
  • The V chord (G7 in the key of C) is where all the wacky stuff tends to happen. This chord is a 7th chord and can contain other tension notes such as flat or sharp 5 and 9 notes, in various combinations. The tension created by these added notes is resolved nicely by the return to the I chord. This principle of tension and release is important in all styles of music, but it's perhaps most important in jazz. Here are some of the altered 7th chords you might encounter:
  • 7 sharp 5 (7 ♯5) 7sharp 9 (7 ♯9) 7 Flat 5 (7♭ 5) 7 flat 9 (7 ♭9)

D sharp dim chord should start at fret 5!


Reading chord grids

The 6 vertical lines are the strings, horizontal lines are the frets. The chords are mostly root 5, the bass note is on string 5, so don't play string 6.

Jazz Chord Progressions

There are literally hundreds of jazz standards. You can find them on an app - irealb (about £20 in the UK) Most of the tunes are constructed with a limited number of chord progressions, including:

  • 12 Bar Blues (usually with added chords)
  • ii V I chords
  • Minor ii V I chords
  • Chords linked by dim (diminished) chords, based on a semitone higher than the first chord.
  • The iRealb app is incredibly useful for practice, learning new tunes, and creating chord charts for bands.
  • It's also great for transposing chord charts, so you can back up a singer in different keys and experiment with different tempos on the backing track.

Chord progression pictures

  • These are probably the most common jazz chord progressions, and these can be found in hundreds of tunes.
  • The loop symbol means - use a barre (flatten first finger)
  • The chords Dm7, G7 and C maj7 are the ii V and I chords in the key of C, and then the notes of a C major scale are shown - this scale is a starting point for improvising over these chords, and all the notes will fit.
  • Dm7b5, G7 and Cm7 are the minor ii V I chords in the key of Cm. Then the scale notes for C harmonic minor are shown - good for Django Reinhardt style Gypsy jazz, or anything with a Hungarian and exotic sound! A tip for learning this type of scale - concentrate on the semitones, where the notes are grouped together. If you look at the G7 sharp 5 chord, you can probably see how closely these notes relate to the chord.The closer your scale fits with the chords, the more it will sound like you know what you're doing!
  • The final four chords show the ascending diminished chord idea that is really typical of Broadway - era showtunes from the 1930s. Many Fats Waller type tunes use this progression, for instance Ain't Misbehavin' and Makin' Whoopee.
  • It's often good to use a three-note version of the chords, I'll try to cover that in another hub.
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Jazz Guitar styles

Thanks to the wonder of YouTube, you can check out all the greats very quickly. You could roughly summarize the styles as:

  • Rhythm guitar (Freddie Green, Django and Hot Club players) Mainly chords.
  • Lead guitar (Wes Montgomery, Django, Bireli Lagrene) Mainly melodic improvisation.
  • Chord melody style. In this style the melody line and chords, sometimes a bass part too, are all played on one guitar. (Joe Pass, Martin Taylor, Ted Greene)

Practice tips

Try playing along with a backing track, which should improve your sense of rhythm and also make practicing a far more enjoyable activity. The iReal app is handy, as you get the chord chart and a backing track combined. If you have a Mac or i-Pad, you can use Garageband to make backing tracks - which can be as simple as a two- chord sequence.

Also, memorize some standards. The easy way to do this is to learn a song in sections of four bars.

As most jazz tunes follow a format of AABA and a standard 32-bar length you can reduce the time this takes considerably - just by recognising the patterns of 8 Bar sections that make up the A and B sections of the tune.


Jon Green (author) from Frome, Somerset, UK on August 28, 2015:

Thanks Pat.

Pat DeLauder on August 28, 2015:

Thanks for organizing that information in an intelligent and logical're a good teacher.

Jon Green (author) from Frome, Somerset, UK on May 22, 2012:

Hi guitarzoom - you're welcome.

Guitarzoom on May 22, 2012:

I read the article and you give a good information. Thanks for the post Jon :)

Jon Green (author) from Frome, Somerset, UK on February 28, 2012:

New to jazz guitar? - advice on standards etc here!

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