The Biggest Misunderstanding About Jazz Chords And How To Quickly Fix It

The way you think about Jazz chords is most likely wrong, and that is because you have been taught to think about chords in the wrong way from probably the first guitar lesson you ever had.

When it comes to playing Jazz then you should take the advice of Joe Pass:

“You must think about the chords in the most simple possible form”   

As you will see, that way you will avoid a lot of problems. This is probably connected to what made you interested in Jazz chords  in the first place:

When I first started to learn about Jazz chords then I heard all these incredibly beautiful sustained chords with a lot of colors, and I loved how they sounded.

And that is how most of us start out thinking about chords: as separate grips and each with its own name that tells you exactly what extensions and alterations are used.

The problem with that is that it is impossible to remember all those different chords, and when you are playing Jazz then it is as important that you can get from one chord to the next, which doesn’t get easier if you have to fit together thousands of different chords

Instead,  you should work on a way to think of groups of chords, Which will make it easier to play music because:

#1 It’s Visual And Easy To Remember

#2 You can improvise and Connect Chords

#3 Makes it Simple To Add Chromatic Chords

And as you will see later in the video, it is also a direct and incredibly effective shortcut to playing Chord Solos, something that is quantum physics if you have to think about each chord separately! In fact, I will clear up 3 misunderstandings about Jazz chords along the way because there is a lot of bad information out there.

Making Jazz Chords Simple!

But we are not going to start with the chord solos and chromatic passing chords. Let’s start with this C7(13). It is a fairly common voicing, but what can you do with it?

First, you want to boil it down to a simple more flexible form, similar to what Joe Pass said, because that is something you can improvise with. Instead of using this 4-note chord voicing then maybe look at what is the core of it: The 3rd and 7th, which in this case are on the middle strings, are what you want to focus on.

These are the important notes that get the sound of the chord across. The fact that it is a C7 is more important than the 13th, that note is just an extension and one of many options. The bass-note you can leave to the bass player, that way you don’t get in the way of him or her and you have one more finger to do something interesting with the chord.

When it comes to remembering chords then we get very used to navigating chords using the 5th and 6th strings as reference points because that is where we play the root.  Now, what you want to make a habit, is to be able to play the chord and see it on the neck as a C7 with that root, but you are not playing it.

So if you played a II V I in F major then you think or visualize the root but just play the top part

As you can hear from the II V I example then you can reduce all chords like this, and for now, then you can keep the 3rd and 7th on the middle string set, because then you have room above for melody and extensions and below for bass notes, depending on what you need to play.

Now that you are getting rid of one Jazz chord misunderstanding and have a way to think about simple chords then you might as well kill another one and then we can get into a hack for chromatic passing chords so that they are incredibly simple! (voiceover?)

Adding Melody Not Extensions

In Music, and certainly, in Jazz, context is everything! And the idea that chords are these isolated and static things and not really a part of a piece of music is completely misguided, that is in fact the 2nd misunderstanding I want to clear up. Most of the time, Jazz is all about connecting those chords and making the transition beautiful and creative.

Instead of thinking of chords like that then you want to think of a chord as something much more flexible, almost like a scale where you play the sound of the chord but you can add notes if you want to and you should also think about it as something that has movement built into it, a Chord is not just a chord it is in a context.. Peter Bernstein says it nicely here:


The most important part of that movement is melody, but

adding the melody is not that difficult now that you already reduced the chord to two notes.

I’ll first show how to find notes that work and then talk a bit about how to create melodies.

It is a little bit like taking the chord

and the scale that goes with it, and then seeing what notes are available on the top strings that also fit with the sound of the chord.v

In this case, with the C7 you get all of these options:

And you can see a C7 not as a C7(13) or a C7(9) but as a place where you can play a melody using these notes, and notice how I just call all of them C7

Now, my point with writing C7 doesn’t mean that you should not know what the extensions are, it is just to make it clear that when you see C7 like this then you can use a C7(13) or a C7(9). It’s a little bit like most languages have words that contain letters that we don’t pronounce anymore but we do know how to spell it and use all the letters in writing.

You can do the same thing for Gm7 and Fmaj7 and add notes over the 3rd and 7th of those. Notice that I am leaving out the Bb over Fmaj7 because that doesn’t really work in that chord, but you probably already know that.

Making Chords Into Music

Now you can start working on making melodies. This example is possibly a bit busy, but it is also a bit to show you what is possible:

You can go over a progression like this one or a song and then explore how you can improvise melodies.

For now, this is for comping behind a soloist so make sure to:

#1 Play mostly stepwise melodies

#2 Don’t play too many notes and chords

#3 Make sure to once in a while clearly lay down a long chord on a heavy beat.

Misunderstanding #3: Never Play Chords On The Downbeat

The last one is the 3rd misunderstanding, and it is something that I sometimes see in comments online: “You should never play chords on the downbeat”

Which is of course pretty insane and not what you hear on any recording of any Jazz musician, you of course want to learn to play off beats but you are supporting the music and the soloist and that means that you once in a while need to lay down the groove with clarity and give the soloist something to work with. There is really no reason to be afraid of playing a clear chord on the one or on the three so that you are really connecting to the song. Your off-beats only make sense when they are in balance with your downbeats, it is like trying to cook but only use pepper and no salt.

Let’s move on to a visual hack for chromatic passing chords and get into some chord soloing!

Chromatic Chords – Melodic And Visual

With this approach then you can see how the chords are turned into a core set of notes and then a lot of notes that you are free to improvise with, and what you play is more about hearing a melody than thinking a lot of complicated chord formulas.

But Jazz melodies have chromatic notes as well,  and you can incorporate that very easily into your comping like this:

The simple way to look at chromatic passing notes in Jazz lines is that they are there as an outside tension that is resolved by moving up or down a half-step. Like this Ab between A and G:

If you have this melody over a C7 then the first chord is clearly a C7(13), and the last one will be a C7, and you can use the last one as a way to come up with a chord for the Ab because you just play the same chord and move the entire thing down a half step:

And in the same way, you could get another passing chord moving up from C to D with a C# leading note, here you have a B7 moving up to C7:

This is both easy to figure out and easy to play, since you just think of the resolution and use that, there is no need to think about the passing chord.

And that means that you can play something like this:

It Is Already A Chord Solo!

And improvising while you are comping in fact means that you are learning to play chord solos. You are already working on making phrases and melodies with the material so you just need to start using it as a solo and not as a way of comping.

Let’s say that instead of the II V I in F then it is a Blues in C. For the first 4 bars, you only need an F7 to play a solo statement, so  with a basic F7 like this

then you reduce it to these two notes

and a practical set of notes could be:

And with that, you can play something like this, and notice how I am repeating riffs on the C7 and also using call-response to tie together the melodies:

This very practical way of approaching Chord Solos is something you will also find great examples of in the playing of Joe Pass. If you check out this video you can see my breakdown of chord solo phrases and some amazing Jazz Blues from a true master!

This Jazz Blues Solo is Perfect And Nobody Is Talking About It

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