Building your jazz guitar chord vocabulary is really important because chords are kind of your main job when you're playing jazz guitar.
It's fun to study soloing and scales and arpeggios - but no matter what you're doing - whether you're playing in a big band, a small group or by yourself, playing chords and comping is going to be the most important thing that you do.
And that's why it is so important to keep learning new jazz guitar chords.
Even if you've read all of our articles and followed all the other advice on this website, it's going to take you a little bit of work to learn new jazz guitar chords and get them under your fingers.
That being said, it's also not that complicated.
You just have to go through the right steps to get there and be consistent about practicing new jazz guitar chords.
In this lesson we're going to take a look at some ideas that will help you get started with learning new jazz guitar chords, and we'll provide links to articles that will give you some good chord shapes to start with.
Alright, let's get started.
Repetition is the key to any new skill, whether it's tying your shoes, driving a car, or playing new jazz guitar chords.
We all need a certain number of repetitions before a skill becomes automatic to us, and everybody's going to need a different number of reps.
You might need to practice something hundreds of times while your buddy only needs to practice it 10 times - or the other way around.
The important thing is getting enough repetitions under your fingers that you can perform the skill automatically.
Getting your reps in is as close to a shortcut to building skill as you're going to find. The more you do something, the easier it's going to get.
By focusing on a single chord shape and getting your fingers into the right position over and over and over again, you're going to get your basic jazz guitar chords into your fingers very quickly.
Most people as we're learning will repeat a chord shape one or two times and then move on to the next chord.
This is especially true if you’re trying to learn jazz guitar chords at the same time as trying to learn a song or chord progression.
This approach is very common, but it also will take a long time for you to get good.
For me, this approach also introduces outside pressure too soon - trying to change between chords before your fingers actually know either chord shape is going to greatly increase the difficulty level of what you're trying to do.
I get it. There's a lot to learn and you want to get as many chords under your fingers as possible so you can get to playing.
But the quickest way to do this is just one jazz guitar chord at a time.
In your practice, especially at first and especially with any new chord, go for more reps.
Go for more repetitions of a single chord and focus on playing it over and over until it's easy.
This is gonna give you a pretty good edge on learning new jazz guitar chords.
Take It Slow
With anything that we're practicing (including jazz guitar chords), there's a temptation to put things into time (and speed it up) too soon.
And what this does is this adds an external pressure to the physical skill you're trying to do.
Now, this outside pressure is important to increase your skill level later on, but it can also add stress to the initial learning process that will actually slow down your progress.
That’s why I recommend that you practice your chords out of time first.
This is going to give you all the time you need to get your fingers into place, and let your hands learn that it's easy to play jazz guitar chords.
Once the individual chords are easy to play, then we can work on changing from chord to chord, also out of time - giving yourself all the time you need to make smooth changes from one chord to another.
What's gonna happen is you're naturally going to move faster as your fingers learn the patterns. And then it's time to start working on tempo and playing in time.
Now I know if you're in a jazz band right now you will need to get the chords of your songs up to speed quickly. That can make it seem like you don't have the time to practice slow and out of time.
But you absolutely do.
Even just taking a few minutes to go very, very slowly with some new jazz guitar chords as a warm up is gonna make you learn those chords much faster.
It's gonna take a little bit longer for you to get smooth in terms of minutes spent, but it's going to help you learn much faster in terms of days, weeks and months spent.
Play All Over The Neck
If you're going to be able to use your chords in songs, you need to practice your new jazz guitar chords all over the guitar neck.
This is a similar idea to where a lot of instruments talk about playing exercises in all 12 keys, and a lot of jazz guitar teachers will make this point as well.
At the basic level, you don't really need to worry about what key you're in or making sure that you're playing in all 12 keys.
It just doesn't matter for when you're first getting your fingers on the chord shape. Getting your fingers into the right places, and getting the feel of the chord at all the different frets is the important part.
On the surface, it's easy to think that once you have the chord shape down, you just need to scoot it to different frets and you'll be fine.
This is technically true.
But the reality is the chords feel different at different frets.
The frets get closer together as you get farther up the neck (closer to the body of the guitar). The visual reference is different as well - where your fingers are in relation to the fret markers.
Both of these things come into play once you’re playing real music and they are more important from a physical guitar playing perspective than worrying about how many keys you're playing in.
At the end of the day, if you're diligent with practicing your chords at every fret, you're playing in all 12 keys anyway - it doesn't really matter how you got there.
Notice that the focus is different: you don’t need to even think about keys at this point - we’re only focused on the guitar-specific aspects of playing jazz guitar chords.
They keys are an important concept that we can address after you can play your chords all over the fretboard.
Note: knowing what key you're in is essential to being able to play the right chords. You have to learn the notes on the neck.
You have to know how to put your chords in the right spot. I'm not suggesting that keys are not important to your ability to play.
It's just not important in the first steps of learning your new chords.
It's important to look at a couple of ways that you can get your chords practiced all over the neck.
For the first examples here, let’s assume we're practicing one chord shape at a time right now.
So if you're practicing a dominant seventh chord on the sixth string, we'd be playing that chord shape at every location along the sixth string.
You can use the fretboard map below to find the locations of any note on the fretboard.
The first option we're going to look at is practicing chords chromatically. For this you're going to move your chord up or down the neck, moving your chord shape one fret at a time.
It's tempting to literally keep your fingers pressing on the strings and then slide the hand up one fret - but for the purposes of really learning these chord shapes, it's important that you take your fingers all the way off the strings for each new cord.
Here’s the process: you play a chord, take your fingers off the strings, play the chord again, but do it one fret higher.
The hard part of playing any new jazz guitar chord is placing your fingers, not holding them down once you’ve got them in the right spot.
So by taking your fingers off of the strings, you're placing the fingers more frequently and building more repetitions.
Keep placing your fingers on new jazz chords often so that they can learn the movement pattern.
For this fret by fret chromatic practice, it can be tricky if you have a chord that is an uncomfortable stretch for your fingers.
A strategy I like for stretchy chords is to try starting them high up the neck (around the 12th or 13th fret) and working your way down the neck instead of trying to start at the first fret and working your way up.
This way you get a progressively stretched chord grip and you can start from a place that's easy.
Another great option for learning new jazz guitar chords is to practice the cycle of fourths and the cycle of fifths.
These cycles are very common progressions to practice through for jazz guitar, particularly the cycle of fourths.
Cycle of 4ths
Cycle of 5ths
These are both progressions that will take you through all 12 keys (playing the chord at every fret), but in a way that mixes it up so you have to jump to different frets along the same string.
This exercise is also great for learning the notes on your guitar fretboard, which will make it easier to sight read jazz guitar chords.
Chord Progressions And Songs
Once you have your basic jazz guitar chords down, you'll need to put them into chord progressions or songs.
10 Easy Jazz Guitar Chords For Beginners
Playing through chord progressions and songs is important because it helps you work on transitioning from chord shape to chord shape and it's really helpful for getting your finger coordination together.
Now a common progression to practice is the 251 (ii V I) progression.
A note on 251 is that I simplify the numbering system a little bit to make it easier to think about. But we're really talking about the same thing here.
Normally when you see this written, it'll be written in Roman numerals - ii, V, I. I use Arabic numerals (2, 5, 1) because they are more common for most of us in everyday life.
The way I present the numbers is a little closer to what would be considered the Nashville Number System, where the Roman numerals are more based in classical theory and traditional music education.
But we're both talking about the same thing. Both ways are correct.
Roman numerals probably are a better choice for you if you’re talking to other educated musicians in the jazz world to communicate ideas, but the Arabic numerals might be easier to think about inside your own head.
2 5 1 progressions are a great way to work on reviewing and practicing your new jazz guitar chords. It gives you a way to review three of your four primary jazz guitar chord types.
It's also a very common progression in jazz standards, so getting used to playing your jazz guitar chords through 2 5 1 progressions will help make it easier to play songs.
It's always helpful to have a handful of 2 5 1 finger patterns just ready to go so that when you see it in a song, you don't have to think about it - you just play it.
Practicing songs is also a great way to practice and review your chords.
Pick a few standards out of the real book, the iReal Pro app, or the website learn jazz standards and work on them.
Practice finding the chords as you read through the song and trying to play them as smoothly as you can (Remember to follow the advice in the section above about “taking it slow”).
I like to build up to a practice list of 5 to 10 jazz standards to work on.
This gives us some variety so you can practice some different songs, but also a stable list of tunes to play so that you can improve rather than constantly trying to read through new songs.
If you do this, you will have 5 to 10 songs that you are continually playing and improving on. It also builds some familiarity with the songs that you're playing a lot.
Different areas and different jazz communities will have different songs that are very, very common to play. From one town to another, there will be different jazz standards that are popular.
So if there's a jam session in your area, or a community college or university jazz program, it'd be helpful to go and find out what are the common jazz standards that get played a lot there.
(And those would be probably good songs to start building your list with)
As far as building your list, learn one song at a time.
If you're new to this, don't try to jump right into learning five songs. Just do one at a time. And when that one starts to feel easy or easier, put it on the backburner and try a new one.
And once a week, take some time to review older songs on your list. This way we build up to 5 to 10 jazz standards that you’re really comfortable with.
And you're always kind of getting better at remembering how the songs go and putting your chords into different progressions.
When I get really bored of a song or want to learn a new one, I'll take one off the list and put a new song in its place.
And so I'm always kind of working on that set of 10 songs, but there's also a little bit of variety when I'm adding a new one. So that way the list doesn't keep growing and growing - it stays at kind of a manageable level.
If you're in a jazz band right now, practicing your jazz band music is a really good way to work on your chord shapes.
So, the most common situations for this are going to be if you're in middle school, high school or college.
New jazz band music is a great resource for practicing your chord shapes, and rehearsals are often a great opportunity to try different chords out with a song you’re already familiar with.
There may also be a community jazz group in your area that's looking for a guitar player, if you're not in one of the school situations listed above.
Pick One Chord And Use It
This is a strategy I've used several times in the past to add chords to my vocabulary.
It's a really helpful approach once you already have the basic chord shapes down, but want to add some new variety to your playing.
The strategy is to pick one new chord shape and use it every chance you get for a week or two. It’s that simple.
So if you’re learning a new major seventh chord, find a way to play that shape every time there's a major seventh chord in your music.
Let’s say you’re learning a maj7 chord shape that's based on the sixth string. Every time you need to play a major seventh chord, find your root note on the sixth string and play it.
For this exercise, we kind of forget about voice leading or any other considerations. We are just focused on getting that new chord shape associated with the chord symbol.
Obviously, we want to make sure we're on the correct note, and this practice is not something I would necessarily do in performance.
But this is a way to use your practice sessions (or rehearsal time if you're in a jazz band or other group) to double up a little bit and practice that new jazz guitar chord shape.
If you use it and practice regularly, this is a really helpful approach to expanding your chord vocabulary.
I used to use this strategy with a book called Joe Pass Guitar Chords at a time when I really needed to beef up my chord vocabulary.
And also I used it a little bit with a book by Ted Greene called chord chemistry.
This is not a fast way to add new jazz guitar chords, but it's a great way to build onto an existing jazz guitar chord vocabulary by using the time that you're already playing guitar.
So you're already in rehearsal, you're just zeroing in on that major seventh chord or that minor seventh chord, whatever it is that you're working on.
You’re just plugging it into your playing and before too long, the new jazz guitar chord will just be a normal option for you.
Learning jazz guitar chords doesn't have to be complicated, but it does take some work.
If you follow the advice in this article, that work will be a little bit easier. But it just takes some time and some effort on your part.
Remember to use repetition to build muscle memory - that's really the key to all this.
Take it slow so your fingers can actually learn what it is they're supposed to do. Make sure you're playing jazz guitar chords all over the guitar neck to get used to the different spacings.
And as soon as you can, put your chords to work in chord progressions and in songs. As soon as you’re able to get your fingers into the chord shapes, it's time to put them into a progression.
With practice, you're going to continue to add new chords to your toolbox and have a bigger selection of sounds at your fingertips while you're playing.
Check out these articles to learn more about jazz guitar chords:
Step By Step Guide
Jazz Guitar Survival Guide: Chords and Comping is your step by step guide to building your own jazz guitar chords.
You'll get step by step instructions on how to create your own jazz guitar chords and comping patterns that are easy to remember and sound good.
You will also get detailed exercises and advice on how to make this work and your playing.
Click here to check it out today.