Jazz guitar chords get kind of a bad rap for being difficult to play. It's especially true for people who are new to jazz or even just looking at jazz guitar chords for the first time.
Some of this idea has to do with some kind of scary or complicated looking chord symbols.
(Or at least they're scary and complicated looking if most of what you've seen is open chords and your typical barre chords)
Also, some of this thought that jazz guitar chords are hard has to do with watching some of the great players use what looks like impossibly stretching chord shapes.
The truth is that jazz guitar chords aren't necessarily that hard to play, or at least they don't have to be.
It does take some work on your part, specially if you want to get good at jazz guitar.
But many of the jazz guitar finger patterns are actually pretty friendly, if you don't get too hung up on the ones that seem like they're impossible right away.
Over time, your hand is going to adapt and those stretchy seemingly impossible chords are not going to be so hard for you.
There are also ways to simplify or modify the chords that you see on the page to make them easier to play - for now, at least.
Sometimes it can be an even more permanent change to your chord shape if you find that you liked the modification better.
Changing the jazz guitar chords might mean simplifying the chord symbol so that it fits within the chords that you already know.
And it might mean altering the finger pattern in order to make the cord ess stretchy or more manageable for you in some way.
Today, we'll take a look at ways to make chords easier under your fingers.
We'll take a look specifically at simplifying chord symbols using shell voicings to simplify the chord shapes and we'll find ways to practice tricky chords so that you can actually use them in your playing.
Let’s get started.
Dealing With Finger Patterns
Sometimes, chords are just physically hard to play at first.
It could be because they're new patterns to you and you just need to practice and get them under your fingers.
But other times there are things you can do to make chords easier for you to play. Even Joe Pass supposedly said that he didn't use any “hard” chords.
Now his definition of what chord is hard and your definition of what chord is hard might be different.
But I think the important message is that there are always ways to make the chords easy for for you to play, whether that comes from practicing, or figuring out ways to make the chord friendlier for you.
Awkward Finger Patterns
Sometimes a particular chord shape is going to be just too awkward for you to get to on the fly, as you're playing. Especially if it’s new, and you’re playing at a fast tempo with a group.
So while good advice is to always be practicing your jazz guitar chords to make it easier for you to play, sometimes in the moment you need to be looking for another finger pattern.
Oftentimes, if you go a few frets higher or a few frets lower on the guitar, you'll find a finger pattern that works really well for you.
For example, if the fourth string shape in the red box in the graphic below is difficult (as it usually isat first), for some people just moving a few frets down or a few frets up gives you a much easier finger pattern to deal with (for the same chord).
Stretchy Chord Shapes
Sometimes a chord is going to feel too stretchy for you.
In this case, what I will recommend is to try changing the chord a little bit by moving certain notes inside the chord shapes.
You can make your finger pattern a lot more friendly and you remove some of that stretch that people don't like at first.
(Although the stretchy chords can really be a lot of fun to play with once you get used to them)
While this can seem like a little bit of a cheat, something that's important to note is that in this case, oftentimes our modified version of the chord is technically more complicated from a theoretical perspective.
It just happens to be easier on your fingers.
So for example, if we look at the Dmaj7 chord below, that's kind of a tricky chord. It's stretchy for a lot of people, so I’ve included some modifications. Keep reading to learn the details.
But if we rework the fingers a little bit that can become a D6 chord, which is another type of major chord and sometimes can be used in place of a major seventh.
Right so it just gives you a slightly different sound, but still a major type of chord.
With a slightly different modification where we play a note two frets above the root instead of playing the root.
Now we have a Dmaj9 chord which is still a little bit more friendly, and it's theoretically a more complicated harmony.
So you'll sound a little bit more advanced while not having to make a difficult finger stretch.
All you have to do is remember where the root of your chord is as marked by the open circle.
And finally if we use both of these modifications, we get a D6/9 chord, which is another major sound. Sometimes it'll even be specifically called for in jazz standards, so it's a great chord to know anyway.
With this chord shape, instead of playing your standard major 7th chord you now have a 6th and a 9th in there for color.
So sometimes modifying the shapes to remove a stretch ends up helping you create a more sophisticated chord sound.
You can also try to start playing the chord higher up the neck to develop your stretch slowly.
Playing a chord at the low end of the neck is going to be very stretchy and cause a lot of tension at first.
Playing the same chord shape higher up the neck where the frets are closer together is going to let you get your fingers into that shape without having to stretch so far.
As a bonus your hand will stay a little bit more relaxed as you do this.
You can always try playing the chord higher up the neck and then moving down the neck one fret at a time playing the chord to gradually increase how far your hand is able to stretch.
Check out the graphic below to see an example of this.
These are two different chords but it's the same finger shape. So if we look at the finger pattern at the first fret, it's going to be very stretchy because the frets are farther apart down there.
If we look at the chord that's played up at the eighth fret, on your own guitar that's going to be much less stretchy because the frets will be closer together.
That makes that a little bit friendlier of a chord shape to start with.
This way you can get some success playing the chord and your fingers will start to learn that you are in fact able to play these stretchy jazz guitar chord shapes.
Simplify The Chord Quality
Sometimes when you're dealing with jazz guitar chord symbols for the first time it helps to understand that you can always simplify the chord for yourself - you don’t always have to play exactly what’s written on the page.
There's an “old school” standard I learned from some of the older jazz guitar players I’ve met.
And that standard is that there are only major (maj7, 6, etc), dominant (7,9,etc), and minor (min7, min6) chords.
Nothing else really needs to have its own chord type.
There's only major type chords. dominant type chords and minor type chords. Everything else was considered to be some form of alteration of one of those three types.
This can be a helpful way to think about chords, and reduce them down to what really needs to get played.
If you do a little work, every chord can be directly related back to one of these three chord types. Sometimes it can just take a few steps for you to get there, and a little more theory instruction to know how to do it.
Personally, I include the minor seven flat five (min7b5) as a 4th basic chord type in my own teaching because it happens so frequently, and I want my students to have the tools they need to easily play all of the chords that happen regularly.
That being said, you can always break down chords to one of these three (or maybe four) chord types.
Use Shell Voicings
Now one of the ways we can do this, if we want to break it down to the three types, is to use something called shell voicings to avoid playing the fifth of the chord.
Using these kinds of voicings will help you get rid of issues like clashing with other chordal instruments or having to know how to create a sharp five or a flat five if they are called for in the chord symbol.
Shell voicings help you to only play the essential parts of the chord - root, 3rd, and 7th, leaving out the 5th of the chord.
You also can just play a min7 chord instead of a min7b5 chord using these voicings because there's no 5th in the chord.
If there's no five you don't have to worry about playing a flat five because there's not going to be a clash.
Looking at the graphic below, you'll find options for major, dominant, and minor seventh chords based on the sixth string and on the fifth string.
These jazz chord shapes can really help you break chords down to the “only three types of chords” idea.
Any chord with an extension (b9, #9, 9, #11, b13, 13) can be reduced down to the most basic version of that chord using the shell voicings in the previous section.
Check out the table below where we match various complicated looking chord symbols to what you can actually play using shell voicings.
You will notice that as a rule of thumb, any number that's higher than seven can generally be ignored (when using shell voicings). Ignore the higher number, and just play the basic maj7, 7, or min7 chord shape.
Note: Simplifying chords is a good way to get yourself playing without going through a huge to-do list before you get to play jazz.
It doesn't mean you shouldn't expand your chord vocabulary, because you really should.
You can go a long way using just the shell voicings above (I did), but in order to advance you need to always be looking for ways to expand your chord vocabulary.
It's always a good idea to add new jazz guitar chords to your bag of tricks so you don't have to simplify the chords unless you really want to as a creative decision.
That being said, it's also important to lower the bar a little bit if that's what it takes to be able to get your feet wet with jazz guitar playing.
Practice Your Chords
This is kind of some obvious advice, but practice your chords and they will get easier.
How to learn jazz guitar chords
Any new finger pattern - whether it's a scale, an arpeggio, or in this case a chord - is going to be difficult or uncomfortable at first.
Different things you might end up feeling are; “this chord is too much of a stretch,” or “the finger pattern is awkward,” or “it's uncomfortable to play.”
There's all kinds of complaints we develop as we start learning new finger patterns.
However, the more you go through the pattern and put your fingers on the dots in the chord diagram, the more natural it will feel.
So if you make a point of using that new awkward or stretchy chord more often, you'll find it gets easier for you.
It doesn't have to be rocket science.
The first step can be as simple as getting your fingers into place, playing that chord and taking your fingers off.
And putting your fingers back into place again and playing the chord and taking your fingers off.
That is building the reps that you need. It’s not fancy or interesting or particularly musical, but it works.
Simple Chord Practice Strategy
To make a chord feel easy, here's a simple approach that I’ve used to work on new chord shapes without spending extra time on that chord.
Take whatever chord is giving you trouble, (it doesn't really matter what chord it is) and use it as a warm up.
Play your tricky chord at every fret you can.
Every time you pick up the guitar, play the chord shape at the first fret, and then at the second and then at the third and so on as far as you can reach up the neck or as far as makes sense to you.
This is going to help you get used to making the shape and to seeing this jazz chord finger pattern under your fingers at every fret on your guitar.
Step two, because (maybe the most important one) is to use your tricky jazz guitar chord in songs you're playing - every single time that type of chord pops up.
So if you're working on a major 7th chord for a few days, or a week or a few weeks, every time you need to play a maj7 chord, use your “tricky” maj7 that you’re trying to get better at.
Even if it means you have to jump to the other end of the neck to do it.
This approach is going to help you make any tricky chord into something that's easy for you in a very short period of time.
Once your new or tricky jazz guitar chord becomes easy, you can stop focusing entirely on it and go back to the other chords that you know. Your new jazz guitar chord will just become a part of your vocabulary.
You can also pick a new “tricky” or just plain new jazz guitar chord to focus on if you want to keep expanding your vocabulary. Over time this process will get faster and faster.
I like this approach a lot because you can use time you're already spending in practice on songs.
And if you're in a jazz band you’re already in rehearsals, so you can use the group time to add new chords to your vocabulary, and you don't need to spend extra time specifically on learning new jazz guitar chords.
It does still take effort but it's as close to a cheat as you're likely to find.
Wrapping It Up
Jazz guitar chords don't have to be hard. In fact, a lot of good jazz guitar chord shapes are pretty easy to play.
With a little bit of work, you can change the trickiest jazz guitar chord shapes and make them easier.
You can simplify the chord symbols to eliminate extra notes where you need to, and you can find good ways to practice the chords that are giving you trouble.
And if we remember the Joe Pass quote (that I butchered and paraphrased) about not playing anything hard, part of that is about finding easier ways to play the chords.
And part of that is about playing the chords enough so that they're all easy chords.
It all really comes down to trying.
Keep trying to play the chords that are tricky for you.
Keep trying to find ways to make your chords work on the fly.
Keep playing jazz guitar - you're only going to get better.
Click below to check out related articles:
Step By Step Guide
Jazz Guitar Survival Guide: Chords and Comping can help you develop your own jazz guitar chord vocabulary based on the chords you actually need, so you can play what you want to play.
Imagine being able to look at a chord chart and just know that you can play it because you can create any chord shape you need on the fly, without having to think about it too much and without having to memorize too many chords.
This is what the Jazz Guitar Survival Guide can give you.
Simple formulas, and simple processes that put you in control of your chords and how you sound.
Click here to check it out today.