I am sure you have looked at a chart with jazz chords and asked yourself, why do they play a m7(11) chord or how come that is a (b9b13) dominant? And if you ask, you get an answer which is very often a scale, like altered dominant or diminished scale, so no information that tells you that much about the choice of chord.
How do you get to that point where you can take a basic chord progression and then turn it into a piece of music with a flow of beautiful harmony? You hear it all the time but if you look at transcriptions then you are probably left wondering why is that m7(11) or how come that is dominant with a b13, and if you try to play that then it doesn’t fit together.
Instead of solving difficult music theory equations then you need to work on something else, let’s look at that process.
Get The Basic Harmony Down
For this I am going to use the beginning of All The Things You Are As An Example and built it up from the foundation.
The first thing you want to do is to just get the basic chords into your system, into your ears, and you can add a bit of rhythm to it. In the end, that is anyway more important than the notes:
I am keeping the chords sort of close to each other so it doesn’t sound like a huge jump moving from one chord to the next.
These are all pretty basic chords, and you probably know them already, so we want to start doing more to them in terms of adding color and also making the voicings fit together and tell a story.
Advanced Harmony: The First Step
Next, you want to turn them into rootless voicings. That way the voicings become a lot more flexible and you have more room to change things around, add notes and play melodies.
Melody Is More Important Than Harmony
As you will see, the secret to getting comping to sound great is not knowing the most difficult exotic voicings, it is about being able to make music with them, and already with these 3-note voicings that actually becomes a lot easier.
The big difference here is that it is not about thinking vertical chords, it is about tying the whole thing together with melody making how you play the chords into something that is a musical statement and not a bunch of notes next to another bunch of notes, because that is not how music works.
So you can practice making simple step-wise melodies like this and use different voicings to get it to work
And with this then you can hear other colors in the chords, but the whole thing works because the chords connect with a melody.
Practicing playing through chord progressions and making these simple stepwise top-note melodies is one of the best ways to explore harmony and make it into something practical that you can use because you are working on a song
I am sure you also recognize these chords as rootless versions of chords you already know:
First, you want to open up how you use the melody, and then we can go over some more advanced approaches to make the way you play chords more interesting.
Let The Melody Lead It
If you start thinking of the way you play chords as a slow chord solo or chord melody and not worry too much about extensions then it is easier to get the whole thing to sound good and you will anyway start finding the extensions but you can get them into your playing much more naturally.
For the first Fm7 chord it is already reduced to the Ab major triad, and you can add a lot of sounds and easily play melodies by just grabbing the notes around it that work with the chord, so more chord tones, and common extensions. In fact, you can just try stuff out and see what your ear tells you and then figure out what it is later.
and you can do the same for the Bbm7:
And don’t think about the Fm7 or Bbm7 variations as separate chords, you should think of them as stuff you can use when you want to use the basic Fm7 or Bbm7 voicing.
So if it says Fm7 Bbm7 you can play melodies like this:
or maybe even hint at another song:
This is about connecting material and making it flexible not about learning a bunch of chords that you can’t put together.
With this approach and an extra trick that I will get to, you can already do something like this:
You want to notice that I am using the techniques that I just covered and then there are two places where I add some extra chord voicings:
On the Eb7 the first chord is this triad voicing which is a very smooth transition coming from the Bbm7, and on the Abmaj7 I am also adding this shell voicing to transition to Dbmaj7.
So once you start to explore different ways of playing the basic chord then it is also a good idea to be aware of the chords around it, because It is all about finding practical ways to play the chords.
You also want to notice that the melodies are there to sit behind a soloist so you mostly use step-wise movement and try not to steal the attention from the soloist, unless you want to get fired, then you can just bring out your spiciest reharmonizations, and you might be gone before the 2nd set.
Start Using MORE Chords
The next steps are not nearly as important for how well you play the chords, they are more like icing on the cake where you can add some extra chords to take you to the next chord
In this example the chords that are added are written out as secondary tritone substitutions, so to go from Fm7 to Bbm7 I add a B7, and an E7 is helping the transition to Eb7.
This is a great thing to mess around with, but you do need to watch out that it doesn’t start clashing too much with whoever you are playing behind.
Another way you can add passing chords is using chromatic chords like this:
Here you have Am7 as an approach to Bbm7, and Amaj7 taking you to Abmaj7.
Often just thinking in chromatic passing chords on the guitar is a lot easier because it can be done visually and you don’t have to overthink what is going on.
Move The Other Voices
You can also take the chords and not only use the melody but build it with more layers which can open up for some amazing things, but it does come at a cost
The feel of this type of playing works better if you are a little less active rhythmically and it works better with sustained chords which makes it a little less useful for getting the groove across, but it is a great sound for the beginning of a song or with a soloist that leaves a lot of space.
The Fm7 moves the lowest voice down to the Ab on the Bbm7 and I am also introducing an Eb7 altered that is resolved to a single Eb on the Abmaj7. Under the sustained Eb there is room to move the chords a bit and this concept is also used on both Dbmaj7 and Cmaj7.
An Amazing Exercise For Jazz Chords (And Your Playing In General)
It is incredibly important that you work with jazz chords on a song and get better at putting them together as music. Another way to work on this skill is to also work on making chord melody arrangements of songs, so taking a melody and turning it into a harmonized piece that you can play as a solo guitar piece. If you check out this video then you can see how this will teach you a lot not only about harmony but also about melody, and open up how you think about Jazz chords and how you use them in your playing!
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