credit: Eduardo Andrade

Jazz guitar chords - quite literally out of reach?

In the 1950s Gibson produced the Byrdland with a short 23 1/2" scale neck, to allow players to reach just that little bit further. But whilst there are some really hard to play jazz chords, most are pretty easy, and you won't need a 1950s Gibson. Here are five commonly used jazz guitar chords with the root on the 6th string, just as is the case with a typical first position barre chord. They are easy to play, and easy to remember; plus you can move them up and down the neck to play any key you need to. But do read the explanations below each of these chords. Understanding how they relate to the major and minor keys from which they were derived really helps get to grips with playing these chords, remembering which one is which, and understanding how to improvise around them.

Quick recap on chords. What they are, and how to play them in jazz

A chord is typically 3 or more notes played together: usually a root note (the first note of the scale), a third (which, depending on it's position, makes it sound major or minor) a fifth, and a seventh. In pop and rock we play open position and barre chords that double some of these notes, or include extra ones - perfect for easy strumming.

In jazz, many of the chords we need would be impossible to play on all six strings. Since we are trying and be more precise, we can stick to just the essential notes that make up the chord. And in many cases that is just the root, third, fifth and seventh.

Right hand technique is important here. You can play these as barre chords with a pick, muting some strings, but the easiest and most accurate way is to pluck them. In the examples below, the root is played with the thumb, whilst the second, third and fourth fingers simultaneously play the three other notes. Although the left hand fingering changes for each chord, the right hand does nothing different. The examples shown are all in the key of C. Move it all up two frets and it's in D. Down one and it's in B. Changing keys, or between these chords is exceptionally easy!

These chords are simple to play and appear everywhere in jazz. The first three are the most important and appear everywhere. Even if you don't play standards, they are still essential when harmonizing a scale.

Jazz Guitar Chords: C7
C7 / C dominant 7 / major minor 7 The first chord we shall look at may already be familiar to you. It is effectively a C7 bar chord, without the first and fifth strings sounding. If you played it as a barre chord, you would duplicate the G on the tenth fret of the fifth string and the root on the first string. We don't need them twice! Note the seventh is a Bb - a whole tone below C (minor 7th).
Jazz Guitar Chords: Cmaj7
C major 7 / CM7 / C+7 The major 7 chord has the same root, third and fifth as the standard C7 chord, but in raising the seventh one semitone, it changes from C Mixolydian to C Ionian. This is a really distinctive chord, full of sunshine.
Jazz Guitar Chords: C minor 7
C minor 7 / Cm7 / C-7 The next chord we shall look at really is one of the easiest to play. It's basically a barre chord with only the barre! However, we only want the root, 3rd, 5th and 7th notes to sound, so again we don't play the 1st and 5th strings. Note how Cmin7 differs from C7. All we have done is flattened the 3rd - which turns the major key into a minor.

Exercise 1

So let's put these three jazz guitar chords to use. This exercise will sound immediately familiar, and is great way to practise the fingering and changing positions up and down the neck. It's written as tab here, with chord names below.

Jazz guitar chords exercise 1

Am I going too fast? If so don't go any further yet. Keep practising the above exercise, and maybe review the building blocks of the major and the melodic minor keys.

Harmonizing a scale is the basis of playing jazz guitar - if this means nothing to you, don't worry, we'll explain it all in a later lesson - however you will be playing it by the end of this one! The above three chords form the basis of each of these scales, but you'll need one extra chord to completely harmonize the major scale, the half-diminished (or m7b5). Also shown is the fully diminished chord - this is a really interesting chord that works really well as a passing chord, and is really quite easy to play.

Jazz Guitar Chords: C minor 7 flattened 5
Cm7b5 / C half diminished / Cø7 The minor 7 flattened 5 chord sounds scary, but it really isn't. Look at the minor 7 chord above, and simply lower the 5th by a semitone.
Jazz Guitar Chords: C diminished 7
C dim 7 / C fully diminished / Co7 The diminished seventh has a flattened 3rd, 5th and doubly flattened 7th. In terms of playing, it is rather similar to the standard C7. Keep the root in the same place and move the 3rd, 5th and 7th down by one fret.

Jazz guitar chord lessons

So there we have it: five very simple chords that are easy to play and essential to jazz. Get them into your head, and learn the names. Here are some very simple exercises that will help you practise the shapes, and immediately bring some jazz to your playing. We are going to start in G simply because it allows us to use a good portion of the neck.

Exercise 2: The major scale

So this is just a continuation of exercise 1 above, adding in a m7b5 (or half diminished) chord in the vii position - you are now harmonizing the major scale! But don't worry if you don't (yet) understand that, just practise the chord shapes and enjoy the sound.

Jazz guitar chords exercise 2

Exercise 3: The mixolydian scale

Next we are harmonizing the mixolydian scale. Again don't worry about the theory, just practise those chords - though - you may notice the chord types appear in exactly the same order as the major scale, only starting from position v. Consequently it uses the same 7, maj 7 and min 7, but with a m7b5 (half diminished) appearing in the iii position.

Jazz guitar chords exercise 3

Exercise 4: Diminished 7

The fully diminished chord works really well in non-diatonic gaps in scales (i.e. spaces where there is traditionally no chord). In this exercise, we repeat exercise 1 above, but this time we are adding two passing chords: G#dim7 and A#dim7 (shown in blue). Sounds good doesn't it?

Jazz guitar chords exercise 4

These sixth string root chords are easy to play and easy to remember. But they get a little closely spaced as you go higher up the neck. Part 2 shows you the same chords with a fifth string root.

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