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Guide to Playing Jazz Guitar Chords (Bossa Nova and Latin)

Every jazz gig will feature a few Brazilian tunes, it breaks up the set nicely, slower tempos are always better!

This article is about learning some new jazz chords that can be used for many Latin or bossa nova tunes, a style of music that was developed in Brazil, but then influenced pop and jazz music worldwide. The most influential composers and guitar players in this style were probably Antonio Carlos Jobim, Luis Bonfa, and Joao Gilberto, with great songs such as:

  • 'Girl from Ipanema'
  • 'Desafinado'
  • 'One-Note Samba'
  • 'How Insensitive'
  • 'A Day in the Life of a Fool'
  • 'Wave'

Brazilian music like this uses complex and interesting harmony, with jazz-style chords, and a unique rhythmic approach. You can see how much this influenced James Taylor in many of his best songs. There is a video of JT linked below.

You can also enrich your chord vocabulary with these chords, as they can be applied to a lot of pop and jazz guitar styles. Typically, many chords have flat or sharp 9 notes, flat or sharp 5 notes, or various combinations of both chord types. Some of these chords can sound strange or even discordant at first, but when you get used to them they can really enhance the harmony of songs and make them sound much less predictable—which can happen when harmony is relentlessly diatonic.

Diatonic means only using the notes of the scale in any key, which can detract from the unexpected and interesting in harmony (discuss).

General Tip: Nylon string guitars work very well for this material. Also, try fingerpicking instead of a pick. Better for syncopation and accuracy as well, as you can avoid the strings you need to avoid.

Jazz Bossa Nova Chords


Reading Jazz Guitar Chords

Many of the chord shapes shown above use a partial barre—this is shown as a loop symbol.

The 6 vertical lines are the strings, the horizontal lines are the frets.

The x means, don't play this string!

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Many of these chords are used in Desafinado, so you could use that song as a context. As ever, you want to know how the chords are used in context, as they often don't sound best in isolation.

The original Brazilian versions are the best, and often in a different key to the sheet music. Desafinado is a case in point—played in the video in a different key, with the chord shapes shown on the video.

Most of the time you can use a thumb-round-the-neck technique to play the bass note. With your right hand try playing the bass note with your thumb, and the other notes with three fingers making contact and joined together. Then just pull up on the strings. This is an all-purpose technique that usually works for any style of playing chords.

"The Girl From Ipanema" Chords: Fmaj7, G13, Gm7, C7b5 (bassnote is Gb) Fmaj7.

Desafinado lesson, Brazilian style

Jazz Chord Progressions

The two lines that are numbered show a very common jazz chord progression.

  • The first one is in the key of A, with the root notes on string 6.
  • The next one is the same harmony idea, but now its root notes are on string 5. This is in the key of C.
  • As this is such a common chord sequence in all types of jazz, it's worth memorizing it in all the common keys, such as F, Bb, Eb, C.

Last Line of Chords

The last line of chords shows the same chords in a ii V I chord sequence. Now the three-note version is shown, as that is usually easier and also better sounding than the standard barre chord forms. Again, try to remember this sequence in the common jazz keys:

  • Dm7 G7 C in the key of C (example: "Satin Doll")
  • Fm7 Bb7 Eb in the key of Eb ("Misty")
  • Gm7 C7 F in the key of F ("Honeysuckle Rose")
  • Cm7 F7 Bb in the key of Bb
  • Am7 D7 to G in the key of G ("Autumn Leaves")
  • It's very common and accepted practice in jazz to play standard swing tunes in a bossa nova style, often really works well, especially on slower ballads.


B Gophice on September 12, 2019:

Love the jazz theory and chord diagrams!

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