The Basic Jazz Chords That You Can Expand into Amazing Sounds

Wouldn’t it be great if you had some Jazz Chords that are easy to play so that you can use them to play songs and progressions? Something that also works as a starting point for a lot of beautiful grooves like Bossanovas, and chords & Walking Bass.

You do actually have chords like that. They are called Shell-voicings and they are great for playing a lot of things, they can teach you about harmony and you can expand them to make it easier to learn some more complicated jazz sounds.

What is a Shell-voicing

Shell voicings are called this because they are 3-Note versions of 7th chords. A 7th chord is of course 4 notes, 1, 3rd, 5th and 7th and for the shell voicings we leave out the 5th:

And you can place them in a very clever way on the neck. For a Cmaj7 you have two versions:

C E B with the root note on the 5th string

and the one where you have the root note on the 6th string and flip around the 3rd and 7th: C B E:


Notice that this splits the strings so that the root note is on the 5th and 6th strings. The core sound of the chord, so 3rd and 7th are on the middle strings, and you have the top strings free so that you can later add extensions and alterations or use that for the melody in a chord melody arrangement.

You can probably hear this is going to go places.

Exercise #1 Play songs

How do you practice these? The first exercise is to just learn some easy and common chord progressions and then use those to start playing songs. Anything that you practice and don’t put to use in a song is probably a waste of time, and practicing finding chords for a Jazz standard is a great exercise for so many reasons, since it is music, fretboard knowledge, harmony and theory

The chords I am going to cover here are:

And actually, some of them are the same shell-voicing which is a bit strange but you’ll see how that works later (highlight m6 = dim and m7(b5) = m7)

Let’s start with a basic II V I which is sort of the core progression to know in Jazz. Just like the maj7 chord you have two versions, starting on the 5th string:

and starting on the 6th string:

Like this, you can already start playing songs like Satin Doll. If you don’t know it then maybe check out the Joe Pass version which is pretty amazing.

Playing The Chords of Satin Doll!

The song is mostly II V progressions, so first you get the II V in C major, which is repeated

then you get a II V in D major twice using the same way of playing the chords.

Next, you have a II V in G major and Gb major and it sounds better to stay in the same area of the neck so here you can use the other version, before resolving to Cmaj7.

Rhythm And Groove

Of course, there is more to it than just finding the chords and playing the right notes: We need some rhythm and groove in there as well,  but luckily shell-voicings naturally are split between the root note and the chord,


so you can add groove to it by splitting those two and create rhythms like this:

Exercise #2 diatonic chords

Besides playing songs then a great way to explore any chord voicing is to take it through a scale. In that way, you learn some of the other chords that goes with it and i’s a great way to find new voicings.

This exercise is useful for knowing your scales and your diatonic chords, which is very important, but there is one weird spot.

For the 5th string Shell-voicings you can move them through C major like this:

And you want to try this in different keys, the other string set, and also other scales like melodic and harmonic minor

What about the other chords?

With the Diatonic chords in major then we have maj7, m7,dom7th and also m7b5

But with the m7b5 you can see an example of how shell-voicings can sometimes be a bit unclear, because

Bø and Bm7 are the same shell-voicing and that is because the shell-voicings leave out the 5th of the chord, so you can tell if it is a perfect 5th or b5th. Luckily your ear will fill in the right notes from the context most of the time.

This happens with two other, even more, different chords as well:.check out the first part of the beautiful Bossanova: Corcovado, played with Shell voicings:

Here I am really just playing the same shell voicing moved down one fret when I go from

Am6 which is A, F# C

G#dim which is G# F B.

Here it is again the 5th of the chord that makes the difference. If you look at this with the chords both having the root A, then

Am6 is A C E F#

A dim is A C Eb F#

so if you play shell voicing, and leave out the 5th, then you are playing the same chord, but again the context will tell you and when you play Corcovado then it doesn’t sound like you go from Am6 to Abm6.

Now we have all the chords except one: The Maj6.

But that is really easy. If you can play a Cmaj7

and then find the maj7th and replace that with a 6th then you have this:

and the other version is this

As you will see in a bit then using the Cmaj7 and the C6 together works really well, but there is another great sound that I use shell-voicings for really a lot:

The Joe Pass Groove – Chords and Walking bass

Shell-voicings are great for playing chords and walking bass mainly because when you play 3-note chords with a bass note then it is a lot easier to play a solid walking bass line.

I can’t start explaining bass lines in this video, but I will link to a video that shows that in the video description. Before I get into adding extensions then I want to look at another important groove to check out.

Bossanova – Beautiful Rhythm


One of my favorite grooves that has become a huge part of Jazz is Bossanova and shell-voicings are great for this because you can play the chord and the bass note.

This works especially well when the bass note is on the 5th string, because you can go easily get to the other lower 5th on the 6th string, and if the root is on the 6th string then you just repeat that note.

This sounds great on a song like Girl From Ipanema:

Making The Harmony Interesting

As you have seen then until now, it has been about two of the string sets containing the chords and the bass, but there is also a lot to be done on the top strings.

When it comes to playing Jazz chords then it is important to keep it practical and playable, but for a lot of the shell-voicings it is pretty easy to add extensions and color, just by looking at what is close by on the next higher string.

So if you have a basic II V I like this.

then you can add a 9th to the Dm7, a b13 to the G7, and a 9th to the Cmaj7, just by checking what is available on the B string, and that will give you this:

This is of course something you can take a lot further, but it is actually also the way you get started making chord melody arrangements and you can check out this video if you want to explore the beautiful harmonizations that you can create by making your own chord melody arrangements.

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