The 5 Mistakes Beginners Make Learning Jazz Chords

The best thing about Jazz Guitar is probably the chords! The feeling of taking a progression and then turning it into beautiful music with melody and all these interesting colors and fills.

But when you start learning Jazz chords, there are a few things that work against you and slow down that process, so that maybe you never really get there even though you dream about sounding like Joe Pass and Ted Greene.

Let me show you what to watch out for and how to fix it, there might be a few hard-to-swallow pills in there, so sorry about that….

#1 Diagrams Become A Limitation

These first mistakes are bad but get worse as we move through the list. One of the things that I get asked to add most often and that many students like to use is chord diagrams.

At first glance, diagrams make a lot of sense because it is easy to look at a chord diagram and then see how to put down your fingers in your mind. That also often fits with the first way we learned chords on the guitar like a basic C major chord:


In the beginning that was a C major chord, and you knew what it was but had no idea what notes were in there or even why it was a C major chord.

That is also the problem you run into when working with diagrams, you don’t learn what notes are in the chord, and there is another very bad side-effect to this that I will return to later.

Luckily, you can fix this by actually learning what notes are in the chords and making sure to understand how the chord is constructed.

Then it isn’t a mystery where the 9th is on this Cmaj7 chord


or why this is a Cmaj7     and so is this,    even though they are very different-looking chord diagrams.

In the long run, it really pays off to not be superficial, something that comes up quite a few times in this video and I will also talk about how you should practice, not only the mistakes.

Inversions Are Sometimes A Waste Of Time

Not all inversions are created equal some of them are not important enough to spend a lot of time on, especially not in the beginning. A few months ago I was giving an online masterclass on OpenStudio,

and afterward in the Q&A which was cohosted by Adam Maness,  one of the students asked about working on Drop3 voicing inversions and playing songs and progressions only using that. I said that I had done that with Drop2 but not with Drop3 voicings but it occurred to me that maybe Piano players did that differently so I asked Adam if he had ever worked like that. Turns out that this is also not common on piano.

Why do I tell you that story? It is very common for me to see students both on Patreon or in the Roadmap course talk about how they are working on learning all inversions of a set of chords,

and often that also means that they are not working on using those inversions, just working on the exercises, and that is not useful at all. This is true for drop3 voicings but also for drop2: some are more versatile and useful than others, and you don’t want to waste too much time on less common inversions when you could instead focus on getting better at playing music with the practical ones.

Instead of focusing on inversions as a way to learn chords then there is a much more practical approach and I have a video on that approach which I will link to in the video description, but maybe first check out this next tip because that is also an important part of that puzzle.

Think Scales Not Chords

Think Scales, Not chords! This is probably one of students’ biggest roadblocks when trying to learn to play chords in Jazz: The Curse of the Static Grips.

For most Jazz one of the essential parts of harmony and chords is that it is about how they move, and that means that you don’t really just look at a chord symbol and then translate that to a specific grip.

Instead, it would be best if you learned to see the chord symbol in the context of the song and then understand all the options you have available and use that as a way to create a flow through the harmony with melody and rhythm.

For me, this means that I often don’t really think of chords in terms of specific extensions, instead I use the sound of the chord in the song, and I think of the entire scale, from that I can add and leave out extensions to create the sound that I want to play at that moment.

Check out this short example and how I am playing lots of different extensions,

and try to imagine just how complicated the chord symbol would need to be when it is in fact just a blues in C.

So as you can see here it is just a basic Blues in C but if you have to think about each chord I play as a separate thing with different extensions instead of thinking of it as a C7 with a melody then you need an overview of 3-4 times as many chords,

and you still don’t notice the melody which is really what makes it all work.

So don’t think chords, think scales, and hear melodies in and over the harmony! Zoom out a bit!

I have a feeling you can guess what the last two mistakes are because they are the two things that make Jazz into a style of music!

Chords Are Nothing Without This

  1. Strong Rhythm and Vocabulary
  2. Think of it like a melody

I think you will agree that In Jazz, the rhythm is more important than the chord, so it is a bit ironic that we spend so much time on extensions and voice-leading. When you are playing chords, the rhythm is what makes your comping sound melodic, makes it sound like music, that glues the whole thing together. Two things that are very important about this:

The first one is obvious, but the second one is maybe even more important when you are learning. First, You want to have strong rhythm and a good vocabulary of rhythms, so make sure to also practice chords with rhythm and in time, not just exercises with long chords and not just listening to the harmony and the extensions, even if it sounds incredible!

Second, Think of the rhythm as a melody. The reason this is important is that you can easily end up knowing a lot of rhythms but you are not able to put them together in a way that sounds good or even makes any sense. Thinking of the shorter rhythms as part of phrases in a melody and using melodic techniques like Call-response and Motivic development is the way to get that to work for you and will make learning rhythm 100x easier. I’ll link to a video on important rhythms and how to think like this in the video description.

Let’s move on to what I think is the worst mistake when it comes to learning chords!

The Place Where The Chords Go: Music!

B-roll: exercises

This is the most important part of working on Jazz chords, and I say this in a lot of videos, but I still have to say it as feedback and in comments all the time: If you only practice exercises, so voicings and inversions and never practice playing music then you are NOT learning anything. It really is that simple. I’ll outline how you start working on playing songs in a bit, but I want to make this clear first, because it is very important!  It is fine if you do a lot of exercises but if you never play music then it is a dead end. We don’t put on an album to hear Bill Evans or Joe Pass play drop2 inversions, we put it on to hear them make music, and there are so many things that you don’t work on if you are not working on that.

A step-by-step guide to start practicing a song could be something like this:

  1. Take the lead sheet and go through the song so that you can find a way to play the chords, just one way for now, it can expand later.
  2. Put on a metronome and play through the song just play long notes, get used to the sound of the chords.
  3. Add some rhythm to it and play it some more!
  4. Once this is comfortable and doesn’t feel like hard work then you can start adding variations or other chord voicings here and there.
  5. Keep doing this so that you know the song and find out where you have room to do stuff plus what you can do in those spots.

Building a Rhythm Vocabulary

Let me know what you think, and also if there is something I should have mentioned that I didn’t We all want to get better at this, and there is so many great things to explore about Jazz chords!

I always found it very difficult to find good methods, exercises and frameworks for learning comping rhythms, and there is not a lot of material that is really good out there. The things that worked the best for me and really helped me put together the pieces and develop my comping are what I cover in this video which uses really simple building blocks but also solid techniques for combining them. Check it out, because in some ways we are approaching rhythm the wrong way.

Learn Jazz Make Music

Jazz Chords – The 7 Comping Rhythms That Really Matter


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