You don't need to know thousands of chords to start playing jazz guitar.
When you’re just getting started with jazz guitar, it can seem pretty daunting.
At first glance, there appear to be hundreds or thousands of possibilities when it comes to the chords you will need to learn.
In reality, things aren’t that complicated. There are really just 5 different types of chords you need to learn in order to get started playing jazz guitar.
By learning these chords, you will be able to start working your way through playing jazz standards or jazz ensemble music.
Once you are comfortable with the 5 basic jazz guitar chord types, you will have a good foundation that you can use to learn more complicated variations of these chords later on.
In this lesson you will learn:
The 5 Types Of Jazz Guitar Chords
There are 5 basic types of jazz guitar chords you need to learn to get started.
These chords will get you on your feet and help you start playing through jazz standards, or jazz band chord charts.
All of the chord shapes in this lesson are movable chord forms. This means that moving the shape to a different fret will give you a different chord.
Pay attention to the root note. The root is marked in red. The root is the note that gives a chord its letter name. If the root is on C, you have a C chord. If the root is on A, you have an A chord.
To get the most out of using movable forms, you will need to learn the notes on the 6th and 5th strings. Use the fretboard maps below as a guide.
To be able to use these, you will need to know the note names on the 6th and 5th strings. Use the fretboard maps below to help you find the notes on those strings.
Be sure to use the fretboard maps as you go. These maps will help you learn the notes along the strings as you play, instead of trying to memorize them.
It’s similar to using directions to find your way in a new town. Over time, you’ll just know where you are going. But for now, use the directions.
3 Note Chord Shapes
The first 3 types of chords we are going to be looking at are all 3 note chord shapes. Keeping these chords to 3 notes helps make it easier to get under your fingers, avoids unnecessary notes, and gives a clear presentation of the harmony.
As your playing improves, you will be able to use these 3 note chord shapes to build more complicated chord structures. Mastering these shapes will set you up for success in the future.
You will be using the root (1), third (3), and seventh (7) to construct these 3 note chord shapes. This will give you a clear presentation of the harmony needed without any additional notes.
Major 7 Chords
For our purposes, major 7th chords are made up of the root (1), third (3), and seventh (7) of the chord.
We are using the notes that are most important to getting the right sound, and playing these chords accurately.
Since these are movable chords, you will notice that there are no open strings being used. This is shown with an X above any string that does not have a finger marker on it.
You can use these for any major 7 chord you encounter - these will still work even if the chord asks for a 9, #11, or 13. These are all just extensions on top of the major 7 chord.
Dominant 7 Chords
Dominant 7th chords are made up of the root (1), third (3), and flat 7th (b7).
You can take your major 7th chord shape and lower the note marked 7 (the seventh) to create this new chord type.
You can use these two chord shapes for any dominant 7th chord you encounter.
There are a lot of chords that are considered to be a dominant 7th - chords that call for a 9, b9, #9, #11, b5, b13, 13, or chords labeled “alt.” all fit into this category.
Minor 7 Chords
Minor 7th chords are made up of the root (1), flat third (b3), and flat 7th (b7).
You can take your dominant 7th shape and lower the note marked 3 (the third) to create this new chord type.
You can use these two chord shapes for any minor 7th chord you come across.
You will find minor 7th chords that call for a 9 or an 11 - the two chord shapes above will work just fine.
There are also minor 7th chords with a flat 5 (min7b5). In the next sections, we’re going to look at some chord shapes that specifically deal with the minor 7 flat 5.
Now you have what I think of as the 3 “primary” jazz guitar chords.
Some of the “old school” jazz guitarists will say that these three are the only types of chords you need (or the only chords that exist).
While that can be true with some study and practice, I’ve found it helpful to work with just 2 more chord shapes.
These chord shapes will give you reliable finger patterns you can use to play minor 7 flat 5 (also called half diminished) chords (min7b5 or ø7), and diminished 7th chords (dim7 or º7).
4 Note Chord Shapes
The next two chord types use four note chord shapes, instead of the three note chord shapes shown above.
This is because the next two chord types serve a specific purpose in jazz music, and need an additional note to provide the right sound.
These two types of chords appear frequently, and are specifically called for in many jazz standards - so it’s good to have a specific chord shape to address them.
Minor 7 Flat 5 Chords (Or Half Diminished 7)
Minor 7th flat 5 (or half diminished 7th) chords are made up of the root (1), flat 3rd (b3), flat 5th (b5), and flat 7th (b7).
These chord shapes are slightly different from what we used in the 3 note shapes.
You can see that the chord shape starting on the 6th string simply adds a b5 on a higher string, while the chord shape starting on the 5th string is a completely different structure from what we’ve used earlier.
You can use these for any minor 7 flat 5 (or half diminished 7th) chord you find.
Diminished 7 Chords
Diminished 7th chords are made up of the root (1), flat third (b3), flat fifth (b5), and diminished seventh (bb7).
You can take your minor 7 flat 5 chord shape and lower the note marked b7 (the flat seventh) by one fret to create this new chord type.
You can use these chord shapes for any diminished 7th chord you come across as you play.
Later on, you can use these as a way to create interesting sounds over dominant 7th chords. Learning this chord shape now will give you more options down the road.
How To Practice These Chords
There are a couple of ways you can practice these chords and get them under your fingers:
Both approaches have their merits, and a mix of the two approaches will ultimately give you the best results in your guitar playing.
Practicing chords around the cycle as an exercise is a good way to get the mechanics of the chord shapes learned.
When I say mechanics, I mean knowing where to put your fingers when you see a Bbmaj7 chord, or an Fmin7 chord in a song, and being able to put them there.
There are 2 common cycles that musicians use as a starting point - the cycle of 4ths, and the cycle of 5ths. You can think of these cycles as an order of root notes for you to play.
Cycle of 4ths: C F Bb Eb Ab Db Gb B E A D G
Cycle of 5ths: G D A E B F# C# G# D# A# F C
Practicing through both cycles will help you recognize both sharp (#) and flat (b) notes as roots when you practice.
I recommend practicing each chord type through these chord cycles 3 different ways:
When alternating, try to make sure that every chord is rooted on a different string.
If you just played your 6th string shape, play your 5th string shape.
If you just played your 5th string shape, play your 6th string shape.
Using cycles to practice is a great way to get the mechanics of each chord down in all 12 keys.
As soon as you feel comfortable with these basic jazz guitar chords, it’s time to start playing them through jazz standards.
Playing Through Jazz Standards
Ultimately we all want to be playing through jazz standards, so it’s a good idea to get started as soon as you feel comfortable with the chord shapes themselves.
To get started with this, simply pick a song out of the real book (or whatever book you have for jazz songs), and try to work your way through it.
If this seems really daunting, ask your guitar teacher for help.
Go slowly, and play each chord in the song. Try to find the closest chord shape you can, switching between 5th and 6th string chord shapes.
For now, ignore any alterations on the dominant 7th chords. By alterations, I mean any number that isn’t 7 (9, 13, #9, b5, #5, #11, b13 are all alterations or extensions of the chord).
We will work on dealing with those in another lesson. As you’re getting started, practice with no speed.
Just work on finding the chords to the song, and you can add in tempo gradually as you get more comfortable with these chords.
Things To Think About
You don’t need to memorize thousands of complicated chords to get started playing jazz guitar. In fact, learning jazz guitar can be simpler than it seems at first glance.
Using the 5 chord types from this lesson will give you a good foundation for you jazz guitar chord playing.
Not too far down the road you will find it easy to start adding extra notes to give your chords more color, but it’s important to get the basic structures under your fingers first.
Remember to get comfortable with these chords on the 6th and 5th strings, and start practicing them through jazz standards as soon as possible.
Playing through jazz songs is the best way to hear for yourself how these chords work.
Let me know how it goes, and feel free to ask for help if you need it! Leave a comment, or contact me directly to get extra help with this lesson.