Hello fellow guitarists, and welcome to my first article of a series on the adventures, frustrations, and joys of developing a jazz voice on your instrument. As I write each installment, I hope to ask and answer some of the same questions as you might while we traverse the six-string sonic universe. Of course, I welcome any sort of feedback you have to offer, especially from some of you jazz guitar teachers who have been down this road before-we do want our audience to keep coming back.

I'm at a point now in my ability where I've got most of the standard jazz guitar chords under my fingers and wish to start using them to create more modern and colorful sounding passages or chord melodies. The word 'passages' is important here because I want to be careful not to try to voice a lengthy piece at the outset for fear of encountering the F-word ('frustration,' that is). Above all, we want to maintain a nurturing pace and a positive outlook on our abilities, so let's begin with something short and easy.

'Happy Birthday'

Happy Birtday jazz guitar chords

'Geez, Happy Birthday?' you quip with eye-rolling sarcasm. Well, let's just categorize it as another one of those Utility Songs (along with 'The Stripper' and other classic ditties) that you're sure to find handy at some future event. I celebrated my cat's birthday at least a dozen times the past week as I tried different chord forms, and this is the basic arrangement I settled on. The tune is typically done 'in three,' and to keep things simple we're going to do this in the key of G for now. Later, you're going to transpose it to every key in your quest to become the next Lee Ritenour, right? Yeah, right.

Digging In

Let's start our analysis at the top then, which begins by stating the first two notes of the melody with the D on the third fret, second string. Being a ballad lover, my tendency is to do the piece rubato when I play it by myself (or, rather, for my cat, Olive), so I'll occasionally draw out the end of measures, add or detract notes at whim, and use slides and hammer-ons in my phrasing. The point is to make sure you add interest at various points throughout the piece using your own sense of musical tension and release, as well as the devices that make the guitar the unique sounding instrument it is. Nevertheless, during the usual birthday gala, things will be faster and more rigid as partygoers launch into the song with its standard meter. So, it's good to practice the piece at least a couple times with that in mind.

The third melody note is sounded at the top of the Gmaj13 chord form I've chosen. In this piece, there are only a few more places where single notes state the melody, the remainder taken care of by the top of the chord forms I use. It's a nice approach that begins to illustrate some of the harmonic devices we as jazz guitarists have at our disposal. I composed this fingerstyle on an acoustic guitar; you can always try to play it on a classical or electric guitar, add riffs or different substitutions, or use other inventions that further define your style. After all, that's the whole idea.

As always, we want to use appropriate movement and lead our vocalists properly. Thus, with the third refrain of 'Happy birthday,' the one that is subsequently personalized with the aging individual's name, I wanted to make sure the pitch went up accordingly with the lyrics. (Why people celebrate getting a year older is beyond me. Once they find a way to get a year younger, then that will be something worth celebrating.) Hence the rootless form of Gmaj6/9 in the ninth fret, which captures the required D note at the top.

The chords that follow work the melody back down in pitch, ending with the extended Gmaj9 in the third fret, which is used more as a pleasant finish for all your fervent vocalists than to state the final melody note with its top G.


This song was chosen for a reason, and it was primarily to avoid having to go into an analytical discourse in the previous section. (Call me lazy or efficient, either one works for me.) We could dissect the piece beyond all recognition, but everyone knows the words and melody by heart, so this first exercise is just a matter of playing the chord forms with your own feeling. We can get more technical and notationally correct in upcoming articles.

Okay, I won't remind you to transpose it to all keys, but I will ask you to please experiment with the harmony I laid down and see what you can come up with. I'll be back next month with something a little more involved, like a traditional folk song perhaps. Hope you enjoyed this maiden voyage and stay with us for those to come!

part 2

Gerry Garcia, 45, grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and has played guitar since high school. He confesses to having first picked up an acoustic guitar during the Woodstock era, 'like every other young guy during that time,' in order to impress chicks. His stepfather being a music educator, Gerry had the time of his life exploring the vast album collection that came to his home through his mother's remarriage. It wasn't long before he developed a true love for music and the guitar through the beauty of jazz.

'I used to play Clapton and Hendrix real loud on my stepfather's high end Macintosh stereo. Then he'd come in, put on some Count Basie or Miles Davis, and turn it up even louder. Soon afterwards, I found myself combing through record stores everywhere for the music of jazz guitarists like Wes Montgomery, Barney Kessel, Joe Pass, Kenny Burrell, and Jim Hall. When our family later moved to Hawaii, I had a chance to show my appreciation to my stepfather by playing with him in the Honolulu Jazz Ensemble. That was a great experience because we got to be a popular opening act for jazz festivals on Oahu.'

Currently, Gerry is a Silicon Valley misfit, a computer systems support jockey turned technical writer who has yet to keep a job for more than a couple years at a time. 'I'm just not a good corporate person. I shy away from office politics and have a lot of trouble with the rigidity of a 9-to-5 job. I should have geared myself for contracting or self-employment years ago.' As part of that continuing self-discovery, he is now dabbling in freelance projects like that for JGO. 'I may finally enjoy some work for once in my life by getting to write about something I really love.'

Gerry lives near Ocean Beach and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco with his wife Gloria, his faithful feline companion named Olive, and his monstrous telescope eyed goldfish called Lucy. Contact Gerry Garcia

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John Severn Comment left 13th February 2018 09:09:54 reply
Thank you for this awesome lesson, love how you transformed these old songs. Its been a favorite of mine for min. Blessings and peace

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