Jazz guitar chords can be an overwhelming subject at first - especially if you're used to playing open chords and barre chords.
This is pretty normal if you're coming from any kind of style other than jazz (like most guitar players are - most of us start out with rock, blues, country, etc).
If you happen to be feeling overwhelmed by jazz guitar chords, I have some good news for you:
What can seem like an impossible number of chords for you to learn is really just a small number of chord shapes that you can move around the guitar neck.
This means we're using movable chord shapes to play the same chord type in multiple keys.
For example, you'd have the same finger pattern for D7 as you would for E7. You would end up playing the same movable chord shape at two different frets to play those two different chords.
Learning these basic jazz guitar shapes is going to help you get started playing jazz guitar quickly.
It will help you sound good and a jazz band scenario, and will build you a good foundation for learning new jazz guitar chords as you improve.
Learning movable jazz guitar chords is also going to help you learn the guitar neck because in order to play your chords in different keys you have to know what the notes are along the strings of the guitar (or at least the 6th and 5th strings).
Okay, let's get started.
Movable Chord Shapes
Instead of trying to learn individual chords, we are going to focus on learning movable chord shapes.
If you try to learn every single individual chord that you see in a jazz standard is going to quickly become overwhelming and there will be just too much for you to try to remember at first.
Not to mention the awkward finger patterns you would have to use if you tried to do this with open chord shapes (or at least in open position).
However, focusing on movable chord shapes makes learning jazz chords and navigating the guitar neck much, much easier.
Chords are considered to be movable when they have no open strings.
That way when you move the chord shape to another fret, all of the notes move at the same time, and for the same distance.
In order to know what chord you’re playing, you have to know 3 things - what note is the root of the chord, what is the quality of the chord, and what the notes are on your guitar strings.
Let’s start with the root note.
Having a root note means that each chord has a specific note in the chord shape that gives it its name. You already use this idea no matter what kind of chords you already play.
For a C7 chord, C is the root note, and for a G7 chord, G is the root note.
If you move your C7 chord up a fret, now you've got an Db7 chord. If you move your G7 up a fret, you've got an Ab7 chord.
Each of the chord shapes that we're going to look at in this lesson address a particular chord quality.
A chord quality is the type of sound a chord has. Qualities are typically described as major, minor, dominant, augmented, and diminished (if you’ve been in a music theory class before these terms might sound familiar).
In jazz guitar we’re dealing with 5 basic chord qualities - Major 7th, Dominant 7th, Minor 7th, Minor 7b5, and Diminished 7th.
Each of these chord qualities has a specific symbol that happens after the letter part of a chord symbol.
The list above shows the common symbols for each quality of a G chord. See below for examples with finger patterns:
Each of the chord shapes in this lesson are movable, meaning you can move them up and down the guitar neck to create different chords of the same quality.
This means you don't need to learn every single way to play a seventh chord.
You just need to learn a couple of finger shapes for a seventh chord and then learn the note names on the relevant strings.
It also means that if you for example, learn one minor seventh chord shape.
You've now technically got the ability to play that chord in all 12 keys by moving it to different frets around the neck.
You still gotta practice though. Just the knowledge that this is possible is not quite enough.
You need to be able to make the chord shapes reliably, and you need to actually know what the note names are along the strings you're using so you can find the chords you need in real time.
Some good news for beginning and intermediate guitar players is you don't need to know all of the notes on every string in order to get started playing jazz guitar.
We'll start with focusing on chords that have their roots on the sixth string or on the fifth string.
This should at least be comfortable territory for many intermediate guitarists and some beginners as well.
Even if you're a total beginner, this is a manageable amount of strings to learn and it's going to help you be able to play through songs without having to jump all over the guitar neck for every chord you play.
Use the fretboard map below to get started.
The 5 Basic Chord Types
There are five basic chord types (or qualities) you need to know to get started playing jazz guitar.
Major seven (maj7), dominant seven (7), minor seven (min7), minor seven flat fifth (min7b5 OR ø7), and diminished (º7).
We're going to learn one shape for each of these chord types on the sixth string and one shape for each of these chord types on the fifth string.
By having two options for each of these chord types, you're going to know five to 10 Different jazz guitar chords by the end of this lesson.
You’ll also find that having 2 options available to you will help you keep your chord changes relatively close together as you play.
These chords are going to give you the ability to start playing jazz through standards today, or as soon as you get comfortable with the chord shapes.
Some people take longer to get these patterns under their fingers than others and that's okay. Keep at it, and you’ll get there.
Each of these five basic chord types is made up of four intervals. For every chord we will be working with a root (1), a third (3), a fifth (5) and a seventh (7).
We'll use different variations of these chord tones or intervals to create the different chord qualities in this lesson.
Major 7th Chords
Major seventh chords are built using the intervals root (1), third (3), fifth (5), and seventh (7).
I tend to be a little more simple and how I label these intervals rather than using the technically correct music theory terms.
In theory, we would technically be calling the 3 a major third, the 5 a perfect fifth, and the 7 a major seventh.
This is correct - but what I want to do is simplify the way we think of these intervals so they are easier to remember, and can be more directly applied to our chord shapes.
If the interval is normal, we will call it by the unaltered interval number (1, 3, 5, or 7).
And if the interval is lowered, we’ll use a flat sign before the interval number (b3, b5, or b7).
If the interval is raised, we’ll use a sharp sign before the interval number (only really applies to #5 right now - later we’ll deal with #11 and #9).
You’ll find that this approach keeps our chord structures clear as we're talking about them.
Dominant 7th Chords
Dominant seventh chords are built using the intervals root (1), third (3), fifth (5), and flat seventh (b7).
Minor 7th Chords
Minor seventh chords are built using the intervals root (1), flat third (b3), fifth (5), and flat seventh (b7).
Minor 7b5 Chords
Minor 7b5 chords are built using the intervals root (1), flat third (b3), flat fifth (b5), and flat seventh (b7).
These chords are also sometimes called half-diminished 7th chords, and that symbol looks like Gø7, instead of Gmin7b5. They are the same chord shape, just two different names.
Diminished 7th Chords
Diminished seventh chords are built using the intervals root (1), flat third (b3), flat fifth (b5), and a double flat (or diminished) seventh (bb7).
Practicing Jazz Guitar Chords
If you're going to be able to use these chords, you need to practice using them. This might seem obvious to you, but sometimes it still needs to be said.
Try practicing each of these chord types around the cycle of fourths and the cycle of fifths.
Cycle of 4ths
Cycle of 5ths
To start, practice the sixth string and fifth string forms by themselves. Do the whole cycle on the 6th string, and then the whole cycle on the 5th string.
And then you can try alternating between the two. For one chord, play the sixth string form for the next chord, play the fifth string form and so on.
You can get more out of this exercise by also starting with the fifth string form and moving to the sixth string in alternation.
You want to cover all your bases so you always can find the next chord quickly, and as close as possible to what you just played.
Another way to practice your chords is to practice them using 2 5 1 progressions.
This is a great way for you to mix in minor seventh, dominant seventh, and major seventh chords together in one exercise.
You also could open up the real book and start using these chords in songs. This is ultimately the level where you want to be for practicing.
You want to use these chords in real songs - whether that's jazz standards out of the real book, or guitar parts in your jazz band music.
Do your best not to fall back on old chord shapes that you've used in the past at least for a little while.
You want these new jazz guitar shapes to start feeling natural, so you need to start using them more than the other chords that you've used already.
With a little practice, you can learn these simple jazz guitar chord shapes that are going to sound great and help you work through jazz standards or jazz band music.
You'll be able to move your chord shapes around the neck so you can play in every key and start using your chords to play jazz standards or jazz band music.
Keep practicing your new jazz guitar chord shapes because the more you use these chords, the easier they will get for you to play.
Check out the articles below to learn more:
Step By Step Guide