How to play Jazz Chords on Guitar

Sometimes we bury ourselves in exercises and details and forget to play music with what we work on. In this lesson I am going to go over a few exercises that should enable you to play the chords of most jazz standards. It is important to practice towards using the material we work on and hear how it sounds in the context of a song.

This lesson is a remake of a lesson I recorded 2 years ago on my mobile phone. I thought it deserved a better video and audio which is why I chose to go over it again. You can have a look at the original here: Jazz Chord Survival Kit

Diatonic chords

The exercises are meant to give you the vocabulary of chords to work your way through a jazz standard, and a jazz standard is always in a key. The first two exercises are the diatonic chords of a key which should give you the majority of the chords you’ll come across in a standard.

As guitar players we are usually identifying chords from their root notes on the 5th or 6th string, so to use this I have made two set of diatonic chords one with the root on the 5th string (example 1) and one with the root on the 6th string (example2)

How to play Jazz Chords on Guitar - ex 1

And with the root on the 6th string.

How to play Jazz Chords on Guitar - ex 2

You should notice that while the two exercises have the root on different strings the chord part of each voicing is on the on the B, G and D strings so that we can go from one type to the other and have a fairly smooth transition if we stay in the same position on the guitar.

Already with the chords of example 1 and 2 you can get through most jazz standards, but another part of learning to play jazz chords is to read progressions.

II V progressions

If you see a lead sheet for a jazz standard for the first time it is quite likely that you will be overwhelmed by the amount of chords that are in there. For that reason it is very practical if not essential to learn to view groups of chords as one thing rather than each chord by itself, since that makes it a lot easier to remember the song by heart, and in the end also analyse or understanding the song while playing it. That is the reason why I have made the next 4 exercises. One of the most common two chord progressions in jazz is a II V.

A II V is a minor 7th chord moving up a 4th or down a 5th to dominant 7th chord like this:

Dm7 G7

The reason why I am not including the I chord, ie II V I is that very often the II V is resolving differently so it is handy to just pair those two for now.

The II V voicings that I can build with the voicings in the first two exercises are pretty ok, but by adding a bit of extensions I can make them easier to play and transition better from one to the other so here’s an exercise where I let the II V resolve to another II V etc.

How to play Jazz Chords on Guitar - ex 3

And starting on the 6th string:

How to play Jazz Chords on Guitar - ex 4

In examples 3 and 4 I started adding more extensions and colors to the chord voicings which is of course also a part of jazz tradition. There are rules for how you add extensions and alterations, but I won’t go into them too much right now. Try to judge by ear, you will get further than you think on songs that you know!

Minor II V

Since we are already busy with II V cadences in major the next logical is to add the minor II V as well. Same idea as the major counterpart. We add some extensions, and in this case alterations to the dominant to make it easier to play and make the II V move more smooth from II to V, and also to color the V so that it fits with a dominant resolving to a minor chord.

How to play Jazz Chords on Guitar - ex 5

The m7b5 chord is probably one of the most hated voicings by beginning students and it is a bit difficult and takes some practice, but there is really no way around them and with a bit of work everybody gets used to them!

Here’s the set with the root of the II chord on the 5th string:

How to play Jazz Chords on Guitar - ex 6

 

The diminished chord

The final chord type that we need to play standards is a diminished chord. These are not diatonic to a major scale but are found in harmonic minor or major. In example 7 I have written out two voicings for dim chords with roots on the 5th and on the 6th string.

How to play Jazz Chords on Guitar - ex 7

The way you want to use this lesson is probably to check out diatonic chords in a few keys and when you play any of the exercises to keep in mind what chord you are playing. You should probably follow it up with trying to work through a jazz standard and try to play the chords without skipping up and down the neck.

If you want to study the examples away from the video or article you can download a pdf here:

How to play Jazz Chords on Guitar

You can also check out one of the drop2 lessons in my webstore:

Drop2 voicings on There will never be another you

 

If you want to see how I use these exercises on the Standard “I Remember You”

You can download a PDF of the voicings here:

How to play Jazz Chords – I Remember You

If you have any questions, comments or suggestions for topics or how I can make the lessons better then please feel free to leave on the video or  send me an e-mail. That is the best way for me to improve my lessons and make them fit what you want to hear.

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