Jazz chords. Many guitarists abandon their chord learning journey before they have to cross that bridge. You can play Rock, Pop, Folk and pretty much everything you need, without having to learn weird jazz shapes. So why bother?
Firstly, the chords themselves are fun and interesting to explore, regardless of your intention to ever play jazz.
Secondly, they’re actually pretty easy to learn, if you can already play standard barre chords.
Thirdly, you only need to learn eight different chords in order to play most jazz songs. That’s right, if you simply learn these eight, relatively easy-to-play chord types, you can pretty much play any jazz song.
These eight chords are not an official list, but if you play enough jazz material, you will notice that there are certain chords that come up a lot more than others. In this lesson, we’re going to learn how to play these chords.
This lesson is lesson 4 in a series of lessons on chords. If you want to start right from the beginning and build your way up to this point, you can go back to the first lesson here (we explored open chords, then barre chords, then suspended chords).
If instead, you already know a bit about chords, and you are simply looking for a guide to ‘jazz chords’, read on.
This lesson is not intended to be an in depth exploration into chord theory, or Jazz. We will dive deeper into chord theory in another lesson.
The purpose of this lesson is simply to provide you with a bunch of chords that will get you through most jazz songs that you come across.
The Eight Essential Jazz Chords
Here are the eight chords that we will look at in this lesson. I’m simply going to list the chord types first, and and then we’ll go into a bit more detail:
- Major 7
- Dominant 7
- Augmented 7
- Dominant 7 b5
- Minor 7
- Minor (Major 7)
- Half Diminished
- Diminished 7
Triads vs 7th chords
While we’re not going to go too deep into chord theory in this lesson (we’re going to save that for another lesson), it is useful to touch on a little bit of theory, to give these chords a bit of context, rather than simply listing their names.
In the lesson on open chords, we looked at two main types of chords:
If we take the 1st note, 3rd note and 5th note (these are known as chord tones) of the Major scale, we get the Major chord:
For example, using the A major scale (A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G#), if we take the 1st note (A), the 3rd note (C#) and the 5th note (E), we get the A Major chord:
- A – C# – E = A Major
If we take the 1st note, flat 3rd note (flat means lowering the note by one semitone), and 5th note of the Major scale, we get the minor chord. For example:
- A – C – E = A minor (C# becomes C natural, simply written as ‘C’, when it is lowered by a semitone)
That is a very basic recap of how basic chords are built. I have written about this extensively, so if you want to explore it in more detail, read the lesson about triads (not part of this series), as well as the first lesson of this series on basic chords.
From Triads to 7th Chords
The basic Major and minor chords are known as triads – they contain three notes (1, 3, 5 or 1 b3 5).
The jazz chords that we are going to look at today are ‘7th chords’, which means that they contain 1, 3, 5 AND 7 (as well as variations of these chord tones).
In its most basic form, this simply means that we take the 1st note, 3rd note, 5th note, AND 7th note of the Major scale, to produce what’s called the Major 7 chord.
For example, let’s look at the A Major scale again:
- A – B – C# – D – E – F# G#
The 1, 3, 5 and 7 will give us the A Major 7 chord:
- A – C# – E – G#
As another example, which uses a variation of these chord tones, the 1, 3, 5 and flat 7 will give us the A dominant 7 chord (written simply as A7):
- A – C# – E – G
We’re not going to go into detail about why each chord contains specific chord tones, but we can list each of the eight chords again and include their respective chord tones:
- Major 7 (1, 3, 5, 7)
- Dominant 7 (1, 3, 5, b7)
- Dominant 7b5 (1, 3, 5, b7)
- Augmented 7 (1, 3, #5, b7)
- minor 7 (1, b3, 5, b7)
- Minor (Major 7) (1, b3, 5, 7)
- Half Diminished (1, b3, b5, b7)
- Diminished 7 (1, b3, b5, bb7)
In an upcoming lesson, we will go through all the different chord types that there are, and dive deeper into the properties of each chord. This lesson is more of a quick-guide to the most common chords that you need for most jazz songs. That being said, it is handy to have an idea of the makeup of each chord as you’re learning them, so that each chord has a bit more meaning, rather than being just a chord shape with a seemingly arbitrary name.
The Essential Jazz Chord Shapes:
Now it’s time for the shapes. You can get away with just eight shapes (one for each chord type), but just like we did with the barre chords, we’re going to learn the Root 5 and Root 6 versions of each chord, so that you have two options for each chord. These chords are of course moveable, but keep in mind that most of them actually aren’t barre chords, because they don’t involve barring any fingers. The reason why they are still moveable, is because they don’t contain any open strings, which means that when you move the shapes up and down the neck, each note of the chord moves in unison.
Major 7 (Root 6)
Major 7 (Root 5)
Dominant 7 (Root 6)
Dominant 7 (Root 5)
Augmented 7 (Root 6)
Augmented 7 (Root 5)
Dominant 7 b5 (Root 6)
Dominant 7 b5 (Root 5)
Minor 7 (Root 6)
Minor 7 (Root 5)
Minor (Major 7)
Minor (Major 7)
Half Diminished (Root 6)
Half Diminished (Root 5)
If you want to be able to play 90% of all jazz songs ever written (that’s just a rough guess) these 16 shapes (2 x 8) will get you by.
Jazz Chord Labels and Variations
Given that this lesson is designed to be a practical guide to playing jazz chords, we should spend some time looking at how the chords that we have covered at are actually labeled, when written on a page (or screen). It is rare to see a chord label written the way it is said, such as ‘B Major 7’. Instead we abbreviate words and use symbols.
The following chart contains each chord label, followed by the different ways in which they are written. Underneath each variation is an example chord, with C as the root note.
Jazz Shapes vs Barre Chord Shapes
If you read the lesson on barre chords, you might recall that we already looked at the Dominant 7 and minor 7 chords. Yet they have been listed here again. What’s more, the shapes that have been used in this lesson for the Dominant 7 and minor 7 chord are different than the ones used in the barre chords lesson. Why is this?
Firstly, the chords have been included here because they are used very often in Jazz. Since we are looking at common jazz chords, it wouldn’t make sense to leave them out. Secondly, the reason why the shapes are different here, is because we are learning slightly ‘jazzier’ versions of the same chords.
In the first few lessons, we discussed how the notes inside a particular chord do not need to be in any specific order. Because of the unique layout of the guitar, we often double up on notes and change the order of notes when forming chords. This means that there are often two shapes for the same chord, that are very similar, but slightly different. These ‘jazz’ versions are examples of these slight variations. Interestingly, because they contain fewer notes, they do not sounds as heavy, and are therefore used more in a jazz context.
Let’s put the different Dominant 7 chord and minor 7 chord shapes side by side:
Dominant 7 (Root 6)
Dominant 7 “jazz” (Root 6)
Dominant 7 (Root 5)
Dominant 7 “jazz” (Root 5)
Minor 7 (Root 6)
Minor 7 “jazz” (Root 6)
Minor 7 (Root 5)
Minor 7 “jazz” (Root 5)
As you can see from the above comparisons, the shapes are quite similar (even though the fingering is quite different for some of them). There is really only a slight difference in sound between each pair.
A Few Jazz Charts To Play
Above all else, the purpose of this lesson is to introduce a group of ‘core chords’ that you can expect to use when playing Jazz. While we’ve looked at some relevant theory, the focus of this lesson is on the practical side of knowing and playing the shapes.
We’re now going to look at a few examples of chord progressions that use the above chords.
The first is a 12 Bar Blues that uses jazz chords.
The second is a short song in the style of a jazz standard.
Jazz 12 Bar Blues
Jazz Chord Progression
These are just two short examples of jazz-style chord progressions. Of course, you should go and explore more songs, and apply these shapes to them. The great thing about Jazz is that there are thousands of jazz songs out there that follow similar forms and conventions. These songs are known as ‘Jazz Standards’ and are very easy to find – either online or by getting your hands on a book of Jazz Standards (often referred to as ‘Real Books’ or ‘Fake Books’.
One More Thing To Keep In Mind
‘Jazz Charts’ often include chords with ‘extensions’. Extensions are add-ons to chords which add a bit of extra spice to the flavour of the chord, without changing its fundamental function or purpose. This means that instead of seeing a D7 chord, you might see a D13 chord. The underlying chord is still a D Dominant 7 chord, and most of the time, playing a D7 chord is all you need to do, but the D13 label might cause some confusion. I’m going to break this down in the next lesson, when I attempt to roughly cover every single chord label that exists!