3 Basic Jazz Chord Exercises That Will Change Your Playing in 2024

When you think about Jazz Chord Exercises then it is probably about learning new chords, but it is more important is that you have exercises that help you use those chords and get them to sound great. That is what these 3 exercises will help you do. The first one is also, by far, the most fun way to practice chords, and the other two will help you use the chords better and add some better rhythms to your comping. In all 3 exercises, you can see how it pays off to work on simple things not making it more complicated.

The Exercise Nobody Does!

If you are nerdy enough with Jazz chords, like I am,  then maybe you can enjoy just listening to interesting chord voicings,

but of course, there is more to it than just the notes, even if they do sound beautiful.

The last few weeks I sort of re-discovered this exercise. As you may know, I was in Taiwan to play at the Taichung Jazz Festival with Nick Javier.

I had an amazing time there, but since it is quite far away then I had to deal with some jetlag when I got back which had me waking up at 3:00 in the morning since that is 10:00 am in Taiwan. While I was re-adjusting, I realized that I really liked getting up before everyone else and then spending some time practicing and getting started before sending the kids to school, one of the exercises I started to do in my routine was to take a song and practice comping it with the metronome on 2&4

There are many reasons to practice like this! The most important one is that it is fun and you are giving yourself a chance to be creative with the chords and the harmony of the song. I’ll show you how you might get started in a bit.

When I work on this then I am working on timing, and rhythm but also how all the chords should sound as a piece of music together and it is a great way to start getting new chords or concepts into your playing.

Working on:

  • Timing
  • Rhythm
  • Making The Chords Music
  • Adding New Material

And, of course, if you want to be good at comping then you should practice comping. Nobody ever spent all their time doing pushups and running to win Tennis tournaments, and if you do then you might get frustrated in the match.

So while practicing chord inversions and diatonic chords is useful then that should not be the only thing you are doing, also just because when you are doing that then it doesn’t matter if you screw up stuff.

Getting Started: Turn The Chords Into Music

If you have never practiced like this then here are a few steps to get you started and also a few simple tricks that immediately will level up how you sound!

Start with a song or chord progression that you know really well, for example, a 12-bar Blues like this one in C.

The first level:  is to just play the song, so turn on your metronome and just lay down the basic chords, don’t use complicated rhythms or voicings but if you can then get the groove across with a simple Charleston rhythm or something like that:

as you can tell I am mostly just using Shell-voicings.

A few easy ways to get this to move a bit more and sound more interesting is to use chromatic passing chords, simply try to use a chord a fret above or under to approach the next chord:

But you can also use this to create some movement on a chord, which sounds amazing on a blues like this:

From here you can start to expand and see if you get new ideas for rhythms or melodies, and if it doesn’t work then you can try it again in the next chords without the soloist wanting to fire you

When you use your chords like this then you might find this next approach to thinking about chords useful, and better than what you are doing now!

A Better Way To Think About Chords And Chord Voicings

You are not thinking about your chord voicings in a way that helps you use them. I am guilty of this as well in my videos: The way that we teach chords and think about chords are in separate categories like Shell-voicings, drop2, upper-structure triads, and stuff like that.

This means that we end up practicing diatonic chords or inversions only using one type of chord, but that doesn’t fit with what you do when you play music at all, so you want to change that!

Chords Across not along the neck

The important thing to remember is that when you are comping then you don’t have to think about a C7 as “Eø Drop2 inversion with the 7th as the last note and a 11th instead of a 3rd” That is much much too complicated, does anybody think like that?

This is more a question of exploring and then using what you discover but it is a great more practical way to connect chords and level up your comping.

Try this out: Most of us navigate the neck by thinking of the root of the chord and finding that on the two lowest strings E and A,

so if you are looking for a C7 then you have a shell voicing here

and here

Notice how adding the G on the B string makes it a Drop3 voicing,

and you also have the C7(13) Drop3 within reach

You can add one more string, and then you are playing Drop2 voicing with a bass note,

and there are variations of this as well:

And it is very practical to sometimes leave out the root to first get this 2-note Shell:

and add notes to have triad voicings

and drop 2 voicings as a part of what is available

Mixing Full and Rootless Voicings

When you think of C7 then you should see all these options and not just be stuck with a single grip.

That way you can add moving voices, melody, and rhythm to your comping and you don’t have to think about inversions that move to another place on the neck where you might not know the next chord. Thinking like this you are still connecting back to the chords you know and you are expanding what you can play without getting lost on the neck.

A great way to use this to open up how you comp or how you use this in chord melody is first to state the basic Shell

or an easy variation of this to be more free before changing to the next chord. For the blues that could give you something like this:

Music is Like A Language

Playing more interesting rhythms in your comping is also not necessarily about learning a lot of short rhythms, in fact zooming out and focusing on a few rhythms is probably the easiest way to improve on that.

And this is a lot easier than you might think. If you start thinking in call-response then a very easy but also very natural way to play something that really makes sense is to repeat a rhythm and then finish the sentence with something different as a conclusion:

When you are playing the same thing several times as a riff then you are giving the soloist something predictable to play against and you are giving the rest of the band something to interact with.

Then you can practice doing that on a song but coming up with different conclusions, so that you train yourself to hear how the different rhythms work together.

Maybe the next 4 bars could have this in the 4th bar

Like this, you are using the rhythms you know to come up with more. And you get a more natural flow if you work with this as a type of call response.

You can also do that every other bar:

This is almost always true; If you try to learn things in the context where you want to use them, then it is both easier and you learn it a lot faster because you can throw away a lot of useless theoretical rhythms or arpeggios inversions or whatever might waste your time.

Just Play Simple Chords!

One guitarist who understood how important it was to make things simple was Joe Pass, and while his playing was sometimes amazingly complex then his approach to Jazz chords was all about simplicity, and that is really the way you want to do this. You can check that out in this video, where it is about both the chords and the progressions being made easier to handle, and he certainly has a point!

The Biggest Misunderstanding About Jazz Chords And How To Quickly Fix It

 

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