Intro to Jazz Guitar Chords
When learning how to play jazz guitar, one of the biggest obstacles you’ll face is the seemingly endless amount of jazz guitar chords you need to get under your fingers.
While there are many chords that you should explore as a jazz guitarist, the best place to start is with the easiest to play, and often best sounding, chord shapes.
To paraphrase Joe Pass:
If a chord’s too difficult, don’t play it. Play the easy chords.
In this Jazz guitar guide, you’ll learn how play 12 chords in each of the four common families of chords:
- Major Chords
- Dominant Chords
- Minor Chords
- Diminished Chords
Having these shapes under your fingers, as well as working them through the various exercises provided in this lesson, will give you the strong foundation you need to move on to more advanced chords in your studies.
To take your study of jazz harmony further, check out my “ii-V-I Chord App.”
If you’re looking to expand your playing further, please visit my other Intro to Jazz articles.
- Intro to Jazz Guitar Scales
- Intro to Jazz Guitar Arpeggios
- Intro to Jazz Guitar Practicing
- Intro to Jazz Guitar Vocabulary
Major Jazz Guitar Chords
To begin your study of jazz guitar chords, let’s take a look at the major family of chords.
In the following chord grids, you’ll find fingerings for 12 different commonly used major family jazz guitar chords.
These chords highlight the maj7, maj6 (often written simply as 6), maj9 and maj6/9 chords.
While these chords have different symbols, think of them as different shades of the same harmonic color, as they can all be used to comp over a maj7 chord symbol.
This means that if you see Cmaj7 written in a chord chart, you can color that chord with C6, Cmaj9 or Cmaj6/9, depending on your tastes and the musical situation.
To see how these chords relate to each other, here is a guide to the interval structure of the four major family chords.
- Maj7 – R-3-5-7
- Maj6 – R-3-5-6
- Maj9 – R-3-5-7-9
- Maj6/9 – R-3-5-6-9
Because the Maj9 and Maj6/9 chords have five notes, and you’re focussing on four-note shapes in this lesson, you’ll be leaving one of those notes out.
This is a common practice by jazz guitarists when it comes to playing jazz chords.
Because you have less fingers than a pianist, you will have to pair down chord shapes on the fretboard in order to sound the chord, but also make it playable at the same time.
Here are four major family chords with the root on the 6th string that you can study, first over G and then in other keys.
You can also learn major family chords with the root on the 5th string, as you can see here in the key of C.
You’ll notice that the last chord is labelled C6 but also contains the 9th.
Over the years I’ve seen this chord written as both C6 and C6/9, and most often as C6, so I’ve used that label here.
Here are those same four major family chords with the root on the 4th string.
This now gives you 12 different chords that you can apply any time you’re comping over a major family chord in a Jazz jam situation.
After you’ve worked out any/all of these major family shapes on the guitar, put on a backing track, such as four bars of Cmaj7 to four bars of Fmaj7, and comp between those chords using the shapes you just learned.
To take these concepts further, please check out my “5 Easy Drop 2 Chords Exercises for Jazz Guitar” lesson.
Dominant Jazz Guitar Chords
You’ll now move on to the dominant family of chords.
As was the case with the major family, there are four different colors for dominant family chords to explore.
It’s up to your taste and musical background to decide when to use any of these colors in your Jazz comping.
- 7th – R-3-5-b7
- 9th – R-3-5-b7-9
- 13th – R-3-5-b7-9-11-13
- 7#11 – R-3-5-b7-9-#11
Again, when you have more than four notes in a chord formula, you can remove some of those notes in order to create a four-note grip on the fretboard.
Here are the dominant family chords with the root on the 6th string for you to study, memorize and work in various keys.
Here are the Dominant family chords with the root on the 5th string of the guitar for you to check out in the woodshed.
Finally, here are the same family of chords, but with the root on the 4th string, and the 7#11 chord introduced for the first time.
Once you have these chords under your fingers, work on playing V-I chords in various keys as you begin to bring together the major and dominant family chords in your study.
Minor Jazz Guitar Chords
You’ll now explore the minor family of Jazz guitar chords, 12 fingerings across three string sets.
These chords features m7, m6, m9 and m11 sounds, and are treated the same way as you would treat any chord color in your comping, with discretion and musical taste.
Here are the different interval formulae for the minor family of chords.
- m7 – R-b3-5-b7
- m6 – R-b3-5-6
- m9 – R-b3-5-b7-9
- m6/9 – R-b3-5-6-9
- m11 – R-b3-5-b7-9-11
Let’s begin your study of the minor family chords with four shapes that have the root on the 6th string.
Again, work these colors in the given key, and then take them around all 12 keys to get a full understanding of how they sound and fit across the neck of the guitar.
You’ll now move on to learning minor family chords with the root on the 5th string.
Lastly, dig into minor family chords with the root on the 4th string.
When you’ve worked out any/all of these minor family chord shapes, you can combine them with dominant chords to form ii-V progressions, as well as with dominant and major chords to form ii-V-I progressions in your practice routine.
To study these chords further, check out my “Beginner Drop 3 Chords for Jazz Guitar” lesson.
Diminished Jazz Guitar Chords
You’re now ready to explore the diminished family in your studies.
This family of chords contains both half-diminished and fully-diminished chord shapes.
When applying dim7 chords (fully-diminished) to your playing, they often act to outline other more commonly used chords in a Jazz tune.
An example of this, and one you will see in the exercises below, is playing a dim7 chord from the b9, 3rd, 5th or b7th of a 7th chord in order to turn it into a rootless 7b9 chord.
Though this may sound tricky to pull off, simply find the root of any 7th chord you are playing and play a dim7 chord one fret higher.
This will get you started in applying this concept to the fretboard before taking it to other intervals of dominant chords in your playing.
Here are the interval structures for each diminished family chord in the examples below.
- m7b5 – R-b3-b5-b7
- m11b5 – R-b3-b5-b7-b9-11
- dim7 – R-b3-b5-bb7
As you can see, there are two types of chords being outlined here, m7b5 (half-diminished chords) and dim7 (fully diminished chords), both are members of the diminished family.
This is because they both contain the diminished triad as the first three notes of the chord, R-b3-b5, with various other notes add on top of that triad to form the different colors in the family.
Here are four shapes for diminished family chords with the lowest note on the 6th string for you to explore in the woodshed as you take these chords off the page and onto the fretboard.
You can now move on to studying these diminished family chords with the root on the 5th string of each shape.
Here are the diminished family chords with the root on the 4th string to expand upon in your studies.
Now that you have these diminished based chords under your fingers, combine them with the other chord families in this lesson to form major ii V I VI chords as well as minor key ii V I vi progressions to work out in your studies.
Chord Combination Exercise
Now that you’ve practiced each chord family on its own, you can work a fun exercise to start to bring each chord family together on the fretboard.
The exercise starts on any Maj7 chord you know, then you simply lower the 7th of that chord to produce a 7th.
From there, you lower the 3rd to produce a m7, lower the 5th from there to produce a m7b5 and finally lower the 7th again to produce a dim7 chord.
Here’s an example of that exercise, with the moving note in blue so you can see that note across the 5 different chords in the exercise.
Pay close attention to the moving note, as this’ll allow you to move this exercise to other keys, as well as see the relationship between chord families clearly on the fretboard.
Click to hear audio Jazz Gutiar Chord Example 1
Now that you’ve explored this sample chord combination exercise, take these shapes to all 12 keys across the fretboard.
As well, apply this exercise to any string set, or chord color, you have learned so far in the woodshed.
Major ii V I Comping Examples
After you’ve worked on these various chord shapes on their own, you’re ready to apply them to a chord progression.
Here’s an exercise you can work on, outlined in step form for you to check out in your own jazz guitar practice routine.
- Pick a chord progression, such as ii-V-I-VI
- Use any chord you know for the first change, such as Dm7 in the example below
- From there, move to the closest possible V7 chord, and continue this close movement throughout the changes
- Repeat in all 12 keys
To begin, here’s a sample progression using various chords from this lesson.
You’ll move to the closest next chord in the progression, avoiding any unnecessary jumps, as you work through the changes.
When you have this progression worked out and memorized, running it in other keys, or applying it to a tune that you’re working on.
Click to hear audio Jazz Gutiar Chord Example 2
Here is a second example of the same concept with a different set of chords being used to outline the ii-V-I-VI progression.
Click to hear audio Jazz Gutiar Chord Example 3
Now that you’ve run through these two sample chord progressions, come up with your own ways to use the chords in this lesson to comp over ii-V-I-VI chords in the woodshed.
Minor ii V I Comping Examples
Here’s the minor version of that same exercise, with the ii being m7b5, the V7b9 being a dim7 chord, and the I being a minor chord.
To begin, here’s a sample of chords from this lesson being applying to that progression, which you can study in various keys around the fretboard.
Click to hear audio Jazz Gutiar Chord Example 4
As well, here’s a second example to check out on a different string set, with the same concepts applied to the changes.
Click to hear audio Jazz Gutiar Chord Example 5
With both major and minor ii-V-I’s under your fingers, put on a backing track for Autumn Leaves and comping over that tune.
Autumn Leaves is a great vehicle for working these chords, as it features long-form ii-V-I’s in both major and minor keys in its progression.
Jazz Guitar Chords Practice Guide
To help you get these shapes under your fingers and into your ears, here are 5 ways to practice chords in the woodshed.
- Play a chord on the guitar and sing any/all notes in that chord shape
- Find a tune such as Watermelon Man, which focuses on one chord type, 7th, in a few keys and use that as a vehicle to practice any chord grips you are studying
- Take a tune such as Tune Up, and work various combinations of ii-V-I chords over that progression in the woodshed
- Pick a rhythm, one you know or learn one from a tune, and apply that rhythm to any ii V I or chord progression you are studying
- Sing the root note and play all of the chords in a single family in order to hear how those chords sound similar, yet different, when played over the same root note
Do you have any questions about this Intro to Jazz Guitar Chords lesson? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.