For most of us, certainly for me, then what was first interesting about Jazz chords was how they sounded different and had a lot of beautiful colors that are very different from what you are most likely already playing.
The Right System for Learning Chords
So instead of learning the chords as these isolated grips, then it is probably better to have some sort of system that can help you put them together in songs, but here you have to be very careful that you don’t fall into another trap instead of the isolated grips. As soon as people talk about systems with chords it usually becomes a great mass of inversions, variations, and string sets, and while those are good to know that is NOT where you want to start because you should not only be playing technical exercises, you need to focus on some chords that you can play music with, and as you will see: something you can use to improvise with because Improvisation is a huge part of Jazz, also when you are playing chords.
Instead, you should start with some chords that are probably closely connected to how you already think about chords and also a great way to connect different types of chords because nobody plays chords thinking in specific types of voicings and you need to get it all to fit together.
Two Positions – Just Like Power Chords
Most of the time when you think about chords on guitar then you think of them as grips and you navigate the neck from the 6th and the 5th string. So you have two main versions of each chord one with the root on the 6th and another with the root on the 5th string.
When you are starting with Jazz chords then you can build on that, even if you later stop relying on this or even playing that note, but we’ll get to that.
Let’s take this into Jazz. There is more to Jazz music than just the type of chords, we also have some very common progressions that you want to know. The most important one is probably the II V I.
A II V I in C major is Dm7 G7 Cmaj7, if you play that starting with a Dm7 chord with the root on the 6th string you get:
And starting with the root on the 5th string:
These chords are pretty easy to play and are a way to play 7th chords where you have the root on the 5th or 6th string so that you can use how you already think about chords, and on the middle string set you have the most important chord tones, 3rd and 7th.
We call this type of voicing a Shell-voicing because it is the important shell that gives you the basic sound of the chord. But since it is just a shell, you can hear that it is possible to add something, and you are not using the top strings yet!
Putting It To Use On A Song
With these 3-note chords, you can already play songs, check out how this sounds, there is more going on than just playing the chords, mainly that I am splitting the shells in a bass note and a chord:
As you can see then I am working with the chords as having two parts, the bass, and the chord.
This also works great if you want to use them for playing a bossa nova groove like this famous song:
But of course, you can also add more color to these chords, so let’s try that:
#1 More Color
The first step was to split the chord in bass-note and a chord, there are a lot of other things that you can do, the first one is to use the two top strings to add color and melody.
If we start with a basic II V I
and just add some extra notes, like this nice chromatic melody:
I’ll talk about finding those extra notes in a bit, but first, check out how you can add two more notes and have these which also give you a melody on top:
Hopefully, you can still see the original shell voicing in these chords:
I’ll get to the melody, but first, let’s talk about exploring what notes you can play.
Really this is about figuring out what notes fit the chord and usually also what notes are in the key.
A good one to start with is this Dm7 chord: Example Diagram, Since it is in a C major progression, then that is the scale you want to use to see what works, and here there are quite a lot of options:
The root, 9th, 3rd, 11th and the 5th.
And it is really still just coming out of that basic shell-voicing, and it is much more flexible to think of them as variations of that instead of having to learn 6 different grips. This is the kind of thing that it is great to sit down and explore a bit for a chord with a cup of coffee and figure out
- 1 What Sounds Good
- 2 What Is Playable
- 3 Can I use it in a chord progression (or song)
and you want to tak all of those things in consideration so you have a practical vocabulary of chords that fit together. With all these notes available then you can probably hear that we have room for some melody, let’s explore that a bit.
#2 More Melody
Here you have some of the chords from the previous example on the Dm7 chord and a few variations on the G7 plus a Cmaj7 with a 9th.
Notice that sometimes I just play the chord and move the melody without a chord.
And you can create some beautiful things with that, check out how this uses both melody and bass notes not just chords all the time.
Let’s open this up a bit more by throwing away the root and playing rootless voicings, where you can also see how this is starting to connect to drop2 and triad voicings.
The first way to use Rootless voicings is about making some things easier to play, and just being more flexible, so if you have the shell voicing and then start adding notes but make it easier you get something like this:
And not having to play the root makes it easier to play some of the other variations so that you can play like this:
Maybe this is a bit on the busy side for comping? But then it certainly shows you how much you can do with this, and also how it is really getting you into chord solo territory. Again I am still really thinking of these chords as variations of the basic chords that I played in the beginning not a lot of different grips (example 1), which makes this a lot easier to get to make sense. It is like having a harmonized scale for each chord, and It is the melody and how the original chords fit together that makes it work.
And like this then you don’t ever need to play the bass, especially not if you are playing in a band with a bass-player. Then you only use the bass note as a reference which is giving you an overview without playing it.
And this opens up for even more interesting voice-leading tricks like these chromatic inner-voices
Put Shell-voicings to use in Chord Melody
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