Jazz Chords – Easy To Advanced in 5 Levels

The most fun thing about Jazz chords and comping is that you can improvise with the chords and create your own sound in the song. But when you work on this then you need to get everything to work together:

Chords, Rhythm, and Melody!

That is what I want to show you in this video.

#1 Easy Jazz Chords To Great Jazz Chords

Let’s start with a basic set of chords that you can make a bit more interesting and then add some rhythm to. You probably know these already:

I already added some color to these chords, so the Dm7 has a 9th, and the G7 has a 13th, For now, the Cmaj7 is just a basic Cmaj7 chord

These already sound great and you can use them to play lots of songs, but we need them to be a bit more flexible, so let’s throw away the bass notes:

#2 Rhythm Is As Important

Now you have some more flexible chords to work with so the rhythm is the next thing to level up.

Here’s a solid riff you can use:

This demonstrates two important things  about comping rhythms:

First: Repeating rhythms is a very strong concept, it connects to the groove and is really comfortable for a soloist to play over, and actually it is a little bit overlooked for people wanting to play Jazz. It sounds amazing to just sit in the groove with the rest of the rhythm section

Second: When you think about rhythm then you want to think in longer periods, not just a single bar or even less. Here it is a 4-bar statement that is laying down the groove and then making a variation before the next 4-bar period starts. Comping is really about thinking like a drummer and playing the form, and in fact also locking in with the drummer when you play.

With some chords and more ideas about rhythm then you can add some melody to the progression, and you can do that in a few different ways.

#3 Melody and Fills (and more rhythm)

First. you want to just use melody in the chords and then later add fills in between the chords, and check out how this next example also uses another concept for the rhythm.

Let’s first look at the melodies. Here I am using the melodies that are the easiest to add to the chord, simply what I can reach on the top string which here is the B string:

So for Dm7 and for The G7 I have the same melody notes: – and for the Cmaj7 there are two:

The point here is that it should be easy to play, and you don’t need a ton of notes, in fact being too busy will probably just mean getting in the way.

The structure of the rhythm in this example is a mix of call-response and motivic development, so you have a call, then a response. Then I repeat the call and add a different response. When you listen to the rhythm, then try to really think of them as melodies because that is how you can make that a strong part of your playing, especially comping.

Before I start adding extra chords then let’s try adding some fills, so short melodies that are not played with the chords.

There are two ways you can use these:

#1 As melodies leading into or ending on a chord (slow b-roll)

#2 Or short melodies that just add something else in between chords (slow B-roll)

They sound like this:

The fills here have different functions in the music: The first one is a scale run, and really moving to the G7, where I am now using a 2-note version of that chord. The other is more used as a color or variation and is much more arpeggio based since it then sort of takes the place of playing a chord.

While fills often sound great they very easily get in the way of the soloist so you probably want to be a little careful with using them.

Why Don’t You Write G7(13)

I often get this question:

As you can see with fills and the melodies then the sound of the chord changes, sometimes there is a 9th sometimes there isn’t so it doesn’t really make too much sense to write extensions in sheet music unless you want to force the one playing the chords to use a specific sound. That is also why you mostly stick with symbols that demonstrate the basic version of the chord and then the rest is up to the taste and skills of the one playing chords.

Let’s look at a few ways you can change chords and add some extra chords to create a bit more movement.

#4 More Chords!

A great way to keep the chord progressions moving is to add some chords that have more tension and really pull towards a resolution.

This next example uses two ways of doing that.

You can add a chromatic passing chord. There are somewhat complicated theoretical explanations for this, but really it is just about looking at where you want to go and then take a chord that you can slide into that chord.

So if you want to go to this G7 then you can come from above like this: or you can slide up to the Cmaj7 like this.

Notice that I don’t put a name on the chords, and that is because that is not that important, they are just chords that you use to get to the main chord.

The other way that you can create tension is by altering dominants which makes them have more drive towards the resolution, like this:

And an example with chromatic passing chords and altered dominants sounds like this:

Two Ways To Think About Alterations

In this example, you see a G7(b13) on beat 4 of the 2nd bar, and here I am using the alteration as a way to play a chromatic leading note before resolving to the Cmaj7. When you do this then it doesn’t really influence the soloist to use a specific scale and force a different sound on the entire dominant, it’s really just a chromatic passing note. That’s one way to think of alterations on a dominant.

The other way you can use an altered dominant is to play it for an entire bar and really use that sound which also means that the soloist should also play a scale that fits with that. This is a different sound:

#5 Secret Melodies

Until now it has been about chords and the top-note melody, but there is another secret weapon, a beautiful way to add movement in your Jazz chords: Inner-voice movement.

Instead of having the top-note melody it can be nice to have simple melodies move inside the chord like this way of going from Dm7 to G7 with a chromatic enclosure inside the Dm7 chord:

And this also works incredibly well for a static Cmaj7 chord that otherwise can be a bit boring:

In context, that sounds like this:

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