Playing chords is going to be the most important part for playing jazz guitar for most of us.
Usually whether you're playing on your own or whether you're playing in some kind of band, you're going to be playing chords as your main job when you are a jazz guitar player.
Because of this, learning how to read jazz guitar chords is a really important skill for you to have.
Understanding the chord symbols (which is how composers write and make it so that we know what chord we're supposed to play), reading the chord diagrams, (which is how to put your fingers in the right spots to make the chords), and then also reading the chord charts (which is how our guitar music typically is written down).
Okay, so in this lesson we're going to talk about:
So let's dive in.
Understanding Chord Symbols
When you're starting to learn jazz guitar, seeing a page full of strange looking chord symbols can be scary at first.
You're used to seeing things typically like a C chord or a G chord, maybe an A7 or E minor, things like that.
But suddenly you're having to see things like Cmaj7 or G7#11 or D7alt - all these kinds of chords that make jazz guitar look very complicated, right?
And this is usually one of the most overwhelming things for people when they start trying to learn jazz guitar.
There's some good news here though. The reality is there's only a handful of chord types that you have to learn. And there are variations that build off of those chord types.
So you can relax a little bit - you only have to learn a few things and how to work with them to make jazz guitar chords work for you.
So here are the typical parts of a chord symbol:
The first big part we've got is the letter name (in the red circle), which is going to be something like G, C, Bb, or any other note name. This is the note name that makes up the root of the chord.
The next part we're going to see is the quality of the chord (in the green circle).
So that's where we see something like seven (7) or minor (m) or major seven (maj7) or minor seven (m7), seven sharp nine (7#9), things like this.
These are the qualities of the chord.
Okay, so those are the pieces of what makes up a chord symbol.
Types Of Chords
When we start talking about types of chords, the real old school jazz guitar players would tell you that there's only really three kinds of chords.
There's major type, minor type, and dominant type chords.
With our more modern jazz education process trying to make things playable for people and easier to understand, we tend to say that there's five types of chords today.
But we're going to look today from the perspective of these old school guys, because what they're really saying is there's a major type, minor type and dominant type of chord, and everything else you see - every other chord type is some sort of alteration to one of those three things (Major, minor or dominant).
And that being said, all the crazy stuff I just described is only really crazy at the beginning. You get used to it pretty quickly if you stick with this stuff, and the jazz guitar chord symbols start to become second nature.
So diagnosing every type of chord you're ever going to see in jazz guitar is a little bit past what we're going to talk about today, but here are some of the basic symbols you're likely to see:
Major Type Chords:
All of these can be considered some kind of major sound.
Dominant Type Chords:
All these kinds of chords with a number higher than six after the chord, these are all typically some kind of dominant type chord.
Minor Type Chords:
Are there more chords than this out there? Of course - these are just the main ones you're going to have to be able to accommodate and know how they work in your playing.
Reading Chord Diagrams
Reading chord diagrams is another essential skill and probably one that you've already picked up if you've been playing guitar for any period of time.
Even though you likely know how to read basic diagrams, there are a couple more details we want to look at when we're talking about jazz guitar chords.
So, even if some of this is review for you we're going to cover it anyway.
Here's the basic orientation of a chord diagram for jazz guitar. These are shown up and down, with the strings moving up and down the page.
We've got the sixth string on the far left, and that's also the string closest to your face. The first string is on the far right of the diagram, and that's the string that's closest to the floor as you're playing.
If there's an X above the string off the fretboard, that means don't play it. We're going to mute that with one of your fret hand fingers or use a fingerstyle technique so that that string doesn't ring.
When we're dealing with jazz guitar, we typically only want to play strings that we're actively pressing on.
Okay, here's some of the jazz specific stuff. Sometimes in the chord diagrams, there's a lot of information that people try to give you.
Sometimes you're going to see finger numbers inside those dots. Sometimes you'll see chord tones, also called intervals inside those dots.
And sometimes you'll have both pieces of information on the same diagram.
Okay, it's easy to get overwhelmed looking at some of this. But take a deep breath. It's not that bad.
If the numbers go above four, you're looking at chord tones.
You don't have seven fingers. So numbers like 5, 6, or 7 - these are never going to be finger numbers. They're always going to be chord tones.
Everyone does this a little bit differently, so just get used to taking a moment to decipher chord diagrams and figure out what’s going on.
For beginners, I like to show all of my diagrams twice, once with the chord tones and once with the finger patterns.
The chord tones give you the most information and the most knowledge about what it is you're playing. So long term, that's what you want to be paying attention to.
But at first sometimes it's helpful just to know where a good place to put your fingers is, so you can actually play the chord.
So the magic of this stuff is in the intervals - in the chord tones. These are going to give you more control over your chords and help you expand your chord vocabulary using basic music theory.
You want to get used to reading the chord tones and memorizing the structure of your chord shapes. So I would argue that more important than your finger shape (eventually) is the structure of the chord - the order low to high of your chord tones.
Reading Chord Charts
Reading jazz chord charts, also sometimes called jazz standards, is where some confusion can set in very easily when we're starting to work on our jazz guitar chords.
Depending on what you're doing and who you're playing with, you might see a lot of different things on the sheet music in front of you.
What I'm going to do today is cover some of the areas that I come across most often in my playing, and the things that my students come across most often when they're playing.
First off, we're going to look at jazz band music.
So whether you're playing in a school band or a community band or a professional band, (although if you're playing in a professional band, I really hope you don't need this article) or anything where the guitar has a specific guitar part.
You're likely to see chord symbols written above a music staff with what we call rhythm slashes.
This is a pretty common way to have guitar music written down. The slashes will typically match the time signature of the song.
So if the song is in 4/4 time, you'll have four slashes on each measure. If your song is in 3/4 time, you'll typically have three slashes on each measure.
This doesn't necessarily mean that you have to play all quarter notes for your strumming pattern in the song.
That could be the case with some really traditional stuff, things that are in the Basie style.
Whether the song was actually played by the Count Basie Orchestra, or whether it's just written in the style of Count Basie it's really appropriate to just play four quarter notes.
But with a lot of other material, you don't necessarily have to stick to that pattern.
What the four slashes really means is that there are four beats in each measure. That's all it is, and you're generally free to use different comping rhythms unless they don't fit the style you're playing in.
If there are specific rhythms that the composer or arranger wants you to play, those rhythms are also going to be shown in slash notation. We've got an example of that right here:
Rhythm Slashes + Specific Rhythms
In some cases with these guitar parts in jazz band music, you'll also come across notated chord voicings mixed in with slash notation.
This means a lot of the time you'll have just the rhythm slashes where you get to choose what version of the chord you're playing. If it's a Db7, you get to play whatever Db7 you want.
But sometimes they'll have the chord specifically written out with musical notation. And in that case, you want to do your best to find a good finger pattern for those notes as they are written.
Rhythm Slashes + Notation
Another common area that we deal with chords for is lead sheets, right? Lead sheets are a common way to have jazz songs written out; it's basically like a songbook from any other style of music you've ever worked on.
The melody is written in musical notation and there are chord symbols floating above the music staff.
While this is a simple way to present the overall information of a song, it takes more skill for a guitar player to know what to do with the chords.
This is where the study of comping becomes pretty important.
You can always play four quarter notes per measure, or three quarter notes if the song is in 3/4 time and be correct. That's always on the table.
But if you're really interested in jazz guitar, you are gonna want to spend some time studying comping, which is a pretty big topic all on its own.
This is going to give you more creativity with how you present the chords in the song you're playing.
Spend some time listening to how jazz guitar players play their chords, paying attention to what rhythms they're using, the timing they're using and things like that, and try to copy them a little bit.
That's going to be a good starting point for you. You don’t have to play exactly what a great jazz guitar player plays, but try to get a close version of it for yourself.
Something that's been becoming a lot more common lately is the iRealPro app. Sometimes, (for better or for worse) you'll even get a printout of an iRealPro chart on a gig or at a jam session.
While this isn't ideal, It's something that happens so we should learn how to deal with it.
Well, iRealPro is an app that basically provides chord symbols, time signature, and measure lines for a song, but doesn't show the melody.
So no written rhythms, nothing like that. Just chord symbols.
This is the kind of thing you’ll see within the app.
This isn't ideal unless you already know the melody of the song and just need to read the chord changes.
iRealPro can be a great resource for learning chord changes to songs, and you can use it to generate backing tracks to play along with at whatever tempo works for you.
It's a great practice tool, but there's a lot of room for error when you’re reading it in a rehearsal or a performance if you don’t know the song already.
So understanding how these charts work ahead of time will help you stay on the right track.
By this point, you should have a pretty good idea of how to understand the chord symbols you're seeing on the page, how to read the chord diagrams, and also how to read chord charts or the written music for jazz guitar.
Now this can feel like a lot of information all at once, but stick with it and take it one step at a time. As much work as it looks like, you're going to pick this up very quickly if you stick with it.
It can be really helpful to bookmark this page for reference while you practice at first, but eventually you're not going to need any help doing this stuff. The more you do it, the more reading chords and chord charts will become second nature.
The best way to work on this material is to get out there and put it to use, right?
Download iRealPro, buy the real book, or head over to learn jazz standards so you can find chord charts to practice on.
That's gonna be the best way to figure out things like:
Check out the lessons below to learn more:
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