The Most Useful Jazz Guitar Chords
Useful Jazz Chords
Once you get them integrated into your playing, Jazz chords sound great and can make even the most tedious songs fun and exciting. In fact, it can be really fun to challenge yourself to rescue a bad song with some cool chord inversions.
What Are Some Standard Jazz Chord Progressions?
Most jazz standards use a lot of 2-5-1 or minor 2-5-1 progressions (usually given as ii-V-1 in Roman numerals). In the key of C, these would be Dm-G7-C or Bm7-b5-E7-Am (inverted to Am, which is the relative minor key). The middle chord (a 7th chord) is almost always altered—meaning that it will have a spicy flat or sharp 5, or a flat or sharp 9 added (sometimes both).
If you want to identify one single change that will make your playing more jazzy, use this altered chord when the chord progression is going from the V to the I. So, instead of G7, play a G7 sharp 5 or G7 flat 5 chord. You can also use these chord tones to play solos over the top, but returning to a normal major scale when you arrive back at the 1 chord.
All those fancy modes are all very well, but often times, just following the changed notes in the chord will work. Another thing that will really help is to play this stuff on an archtop guitar (like we need an excuse to buy another guitar).
Which Guitars Are Great for Playing Jazz?
- Gibson 175 Byrdland
- Ibanez archtops (a particularly good value, especially the PM35 Pat Metheny model)
- Telecasters (played by great guitarists, such as Ted Greene)
"The only mode that interests me is pie-a-la-mode!"— Barney Kessel
Examples of Jazz Chord Progressions
- Try the root 5 chord, where the D is fret 5 on string 5 G/A or G with an A bass is used instead of A7. The final chord would be a G maj7 (if you just changed the bass note to G instead).
- A minor 2-5-1 or ii V I in Em for the first three chords. The Am9 is a great chord, but don't hurt yourself!
- A very common chord sequence used in dozens of standards.The loop symbol is a barre shape.
- Variations on a C7 or C9 chord, useful for blues and funk styles. If you don't already know, C7,C9 and C13 can be used interchangeably.
- 2-5-1 (ii-V-I) in C
The chord examples are given in a context, so each of the four boxes is a chord progression. Although you want to have a good chord vocabulary for playing jazz tunes, soul, funk and ballads it's also essential to learn the chords in a real-life context so you understand their function.
Useful Jazz Chords
Explaining Some of the Examples Above
- Example 1: D maj 9 can be used instead of D or D maj7. G/A or G with an A bassnote leads to A7. As A7 is the dominant 7th for D, it will resolve nicely to D. This idea will work for many pop tunes too, as well as bossa nova and most ballads.
- Example 2: The minor 2-5-1 in example 2 is used in hundreds of jazz standards like Autumn Leaves, so you should learn it in many different keys.
- Example 3: This is found in tunes like "Makin' Whoopee," "Ain't Misbehavin'." The bassline is going up one semitone at a time, and this is a useful form of the diminished chord to learn. Concentrate on the middle 4 strings.
- Example 3 (continued): The 3-note voicing for Dm7 can be moved over to string 6, where it becomes A7. This is the single most useful thing you can learn for chord playing, because these chords are so common in most styles of music, jazz included.
- Example 4: If you are stuck on one chord for a while, try to play different variations on the chord. Especially in blues tunes, or funk.
Preparing to Play Jazz Guitar
Jazz guitar chords can be very complex, and chord melody style—where the melody and chords are played together, often with a bass line—is probably the most demanding thing you can do on guitar, with the exception of some classical pieces.
So, anything you can do to keep it simple is going to help. Joe Pass had this method, which I think works very well:
Joe Pass's Method
First, classify all chords into three types (major, minor, dominant 7th.)
- Major—this would include maj7, 6, 6/9 chords
- Minor—m7, m9, m11 chords
- Dominant 7th—any 7th, 9th, 11th, 13th, dim, or aug chords.
To put this into context, let's imagine we are playing a song that goes C-Am-Dm-G.
- For the C chord, we could use C maj7, C6/9, C add 9, or C6
- For the Am chord, we use a close relative, such as Am7 or Am9
- For Dm, just use Dm7 or Dm9
- For G (as it is a dominant 7 chord here), we could use G7 sharp 5, G9 G13, G11 or F/G.
In other words, we are not changing the function of the chords, but adding a little harmonic colour and diversity.
If you have questions about chord names or intervals, you can feel free to ask your questions in the comment section, or you might consider checking out Ted Greene's music theory website. This site has helped me a lot.
Who's Ted Greene?
The great, late Ted Greene wrote books like Chord Chemistry and Modern Chord Progressions, which are the bible for jazz chords. You need a lot of patience to get the most from these books. So, if you're impatient (like me), there are many Ted Greene videos on youtube. You'll be amazed at this fantastic playing from a master musician.