Sometimes it seems like a skill you have from another style of music should work with jazz as well.
After all, a D7 chord is just a D7 chord, right? Unfortunately, that's not really always the case.
Then it can be kind of a rude awakening when you get told your chords aren't sounding right or are clashing with something else that's happening in the band.
And this is especially frustrating when you're sure you're playing the right stuff. You know, you're playing the chord that's called for on the page.
The problem isn't necessarily the chord that you're playing, but the structure of that chord on the fretboard - how the notes of the chord are stacked up.
It's entirely possible to play the correct chord like a D7 when the sheet says D7, but it not sound good for the style you're trying to play.
This idea isn't necessarily just for jazz either, although that's our focus today.
Variations on your standard barre chords happen throughout rock country and other styles of popular music where playing your full barre chord is not going to sound right for the song.
In this lesson, we're going to take a look at some of the common problems with using barre chords in jazz and some solutions to those problems.
And finally, we're going to take a look at some examples of how you can turn the barre chords you already know into real jazz guitar chords.
We’ll take some common dominant seventh and minor seventh barre chord shapes you already know and turn them into a couple of different good options for jazz guitar chords.
Let’s get started.
Some Problems With Barre Chords
Trying to use barre chords in jazz causes a few problems both musically and logistically with our chord shapes.
So, let's take a look at what some of those problems are before we start thinking about how to correct them.
Too Many Notes
The first problem is that on many of your barre chords, you're going to be playing just too many notes.
In a lot of your barre chord shapes, there are notes that are doubled - meaning they happen more than once.
Check out the diagram below - you'll notice a couple of those note names happen twice.
And these doubled notes can actually create clashes with some of the other sounds in the music.
Now, these doubled notes are great for creating a pretty big sound with just a guitar. You just don't really hear that kind of thing in jazz too often.
Though for the big doubled notes in the chords guitar sound we're thinking more along the lines of strumming pop music around the campfire or just a guitar and voice - singer songwriter kind of stuff.
That kind of sound doesn't really fit in with the jazz style, especially when you're playing with other people.
Another problem caused by having too many notes is that some of these big chord grips can be trickier to manipulate, by which I mean change the chord quality.
The chord quality is what we mean by labels like major and minor, dominant 7, and minor 7.
These terms refer to the chord quality and because of the doubling of chord tones in barre chords, changing the chord quality can be trickier.
Lack Of Chord Tone Knowledge
Another big problem is the lack of chord tone knowledge. And that's not really all the way your fault.
Often, we as guitar players learn barre chords as “this one's a major chord and this one's a minor chord” - and there's not always a lot of instruction on what makes one chord major and what makes another chord minor.
This is actually one of the nice things about playing guitar - you don't always have to know all the little details in order to play.
It just becomes a little bit of a problem when you try to get into a little bit more complicated system like playing jazz.
For example - if you need to leave notes out or if you need to raise notes or lower certain notes to create different chords, do you actually know what to do?
If you don't know your chord tones, (the pieces that make up the chord) then you don't really know what to do.
All that being said, once you know how to put the pieces in the right place and you learn a couple of labels and chord structures, playing jazz chords becomes just about as easy as playing your normal barre chords.
(And you'll start to remember them in a very similar way to your normal barre chord shapes)
When you just know if a chord is major or minor, you generally know the big picture.
The problem is when you don't really always know what makes a chord tick. You don't know whether the third is lowered or whether you're just lifting a finger off.
The good news here is you don't need a ton of music theory knowledge to do this.
You just have to learn and understand the basic building blocks of chords, and we can do this in a very practical way that doesn’t make you think too hard.
And we'll talk a little bit about that later on in this lesson. It's not that hard to build a kind of simple and usable knowledge of the chords that you're playing.
And it's actually going to level you up pretty quickly. So that's good news.
Another common problem with using barre chords for jazz is the power chords sound.
In the two more common barre chords that people use, the lowest notes on the lowest two or three strings are going to create a power chord - which if you're not familiar with that term, it’s the root and a fifth, or a root, fifth and octave.
While this is very useful in different areas of music, it's usually something we want to avoid in jazz guitar playing.
There are always going to be exceptions to this, but in general, we're going to try to keep that power cord sound out of our chords - especially on the lowest two strings.
The last big problem with using barre chords we’ll talk about today is generally poor voice leading.
And young or beginner jazz guitar players will get kind of a bad rap about something called voice leading. And usually with good reason.
The problem is that many guitar players learn chords in a way that starts to create big jumps from chord to chord.
Especially if you were in a shape where you only need to know the notes on the sixth string.
You're gonna have to jump all over the fretboard to move from chord to chord.
And then for jazz guitar, what we're really looking for is some smooth connected chord shapes where your hand can move just a fret or two to get to the next chord.
That way you don't have to jump all over the fretboard to play your chord changes.
Solutions - Adapting Barre Chords For Jazz Guitar
Okay, so we've looked at some of the problems that often pop up when guitar players start trying to play jazz using their barre chord system that you know, you're probably already pretty good at.
So let's look at some of the solutions to these issues. Because there are a number of ways you can make the knowledge you already have work for playing jazz.
You just have to play around with it a little bit and adjust how you play your chords.
Use Fewer Strings
In jazz guitar, you rarely see these big chord shapes that use all six strings or even five strings.
Instead, you tend to have smaller, more compact string shapes that use just four strings.
Click here for 10 Easy Jazz Guitar Chords.
So for jazz guitar, we tend to try to use one of each chord tone so the sound is a little bit tighter, and you don't have the problem of doubled notes.
There are specific jazz guitar chord shapes that let us do this pretty easily.
These chord types have had a number of different names over the years. Sometimes they've been called spread voicings or close voicings.
Different players and teachers used to call their chord shapes by all kinds of different names - even if they were talking about the same chord shape.
Today, one of the most common chord structures for people starting in jazz guitars is called the drop 3 chord.
Don't worry about the name or the theory behind drop 3 too much.
It's a common jazz guitar chord shape that has a bass note generally on the sixth string, muting the fifth string and the remaining notes of the chord are on strings four, three and two, and the first string is muted.
With this four note structure, we have one of each chord tone that we need - a root, third, fifth and seventh following this physical structure is generally gonna get you a drop 3 chord.
We'll talk a little bit more about the different chord structures later on in this lesson.
The most important thing right now is not to overthink it.
This is a very common jazz guitar chord shape that happens to line up with the term “drop 3.” Don’t think too much, just play the chord.
The easiest way to get this chord to sound right is going to be muting strings or playing fingerstyle.
If you’re going to be muting strings, you're going to be a little bit lazy with whatever finger is on the sixth string so that it mutes the fifth string.
And then you're going to want to let some part of your hand also mute the first string.
For me, it's the edge of the palm of my hand right next to where the fingers start. Letting that relax against the guitar neck tends to mute that string.
Or if you play fingerstyle with your thumb on the sixth string, index on the fourth string, middle on the third string, ring finger on the second string, then you don't have to worry about muting strings at all.
These smaller four note chord grips make it easier to manipulate the chord types that you're using, especially if you know the chord tones you're working with, which we'll talk about later on.
Learn Your Chord Tones And Chord Structures
Learning how your chords are built is an important fundamental part of playing jazz guitar.
That's not really any harder than learning your chord shapes as static finger positions in the first place.
Most of your chords are going to be made up of four different parts or chord tones.
You're going to have a root, you're going to have some kind of a third, you're going to have some kind of a fifth and some kind of a seventh.
These intervals each do a specific job in the chord.
Once you know what the chord tones are, you're going to be able to use that information to alter your chord qualities or chord types.
(This is what lets you turn a couple of chord shapes into lots of different chords)
Learn More About Chord Tones
Some more good news here is you don't need to dive into a ton of music theory to start making this chord tone knowledge work for you.
(Although learning the basics of music theory is never a bad idea)
There's no need to take a theory class or or even worry about it too much. What it takes is learning the interval name of each note in the chord shape you are playing.
The chord tones will be represented as numbers 1, 3, 5, or 7.
Work on reminding yourself as you practice which finger is on 1, 3, 5, and 7. That way when you need to change one of these chord tones, you will know which finger to move.
(Once you know the chord tones, it can be as simple as moving one finger down or up a fret, and you’ve got a new chord!)
Eliminate Power Chords
Eliminate the power chords on the lower strings unless you really want them. Especially if you’re playing chords that start on the sixth string.
Get rid of that root to fifth interval if at all possible.
Some songs will actually call for power chords and they have special chord symbols for that.
If a composer wants a power chord on an A, the chord symbol will read A5.
If the composer wants a chord power chord on an E the symbol will read E5.
This chord symbol indicates the root note, and then a perfect fifth above that note.
Always Find The Closest Chord
For the problem of voice leading, the answer is fairly simple.
We want to find the closest possible chord (in relation to what we just played) so that the individual notes you're playing move as little as possible.
And in order to do this, you need to learn a couple of chord shapes that are based off of different strings.
So today we're looking at chords that are based off of the sixth string and chords that are based off of the fifth string.
Learning these two chord shapes can be a very good start. If you add chords that are based off of the fourth, third, and second strings, that’s even better.
By using more than one string, you can move your hand less in order to make the chord changes happen. This happens to keep your notes closer together as well.
In broad strokes, each individual note should ideally move as little as possible to reach the next chord (although there's a little bit of wiggle room here).
If you're finding the closest possible option for your next chord, you're not jumping more than a couple of frets. (And your voice leading will be off to a good start)
Jazz Chord Examples
The following examples are going to show some common barre chords that get used by guitar players all the time, and also a couple of ways to make those chords work better for jazz.
The jazz guitar chords will all follow some of the principles listed above, but not necessarily every single point.
The important thing is to do your best to make the chords you play fit into the jazz style.
We're going to look at three different structures:
A really important point that I need you to take to heart is to not overthink this.
The terms drop 2 and drop 3 are common modern descriptions of jazz guitar chord shapes.
These chord shapes were not always called drop 2 and drop 3, but they are called by these names now to help create consistent terminology for arrangers, composers, pianists, and guitarists.
These terms drop 2 and drop 3 really have nothing to do with the guitar. There is no relation to the strings you're using or anything like that.
The terms drop two and drop three come from jazz arranging and jazz piano.
For today, I'm going to skip the theoretical description because it does nothing for the guitar. But let's look at what makes these chord structures on the guitar a drop 3 chord or a drop 2 chord.
Drop three chords have a bass note, skip a string and then the other three notes of the chord on the next three strings.
So in our examples, we're going to have a note on the sixth string, skip the fifth string, and then play the remaining notes on the fourth, third and second strings.
Or we'll have a bass note on the fifth string, skip the fourth string, and have our remaining notes on the third, second, and first strings.
Drop two chords have four chord tones on adjacent strings (right next to each other).
The examples we'll be looking at have notes on the fifth, fourth, third and second strings, or the fourth, third, second and first strings.
These general physical descriptions can help you identify drop 2 and drop 3 chord shapes on your guitar. We need just one of each chord tone, and you've got your Drop 2 or Drop 3 chord.
This is as complicated as it needs to be - physical shapes that are easily recognized as the common modern term of drop 3, and physical shapes that are recognizable as the common term of drop 2.
Keeping in mind you eventually just want to play jazz and sound good, no one listening really cares if you are really into drop 2 chords or know that it's called a drop 3 chord as long as the chords you are playing sound good.
So rather than worrying about why something is called drop 3 why something is called drop 2, just get good at playing your basic jazz guitar chords.
Get good at these shapes we're talking about today and you'll start to sound good.
Understanding what makes the structures tick will come more easily later, once you have a foundation in the skill.
Dominant 7th Chords
Dominant seventh chords are made up of a root (1), third (3), fifth (5), and flat seven (b7).
Now, if you spend some time looking at the similarities or differences between the chords and the other structures, you'll notice that not a lot changes.
This is important for you to know you do not have to reinvent the wheel here. It's almost just more important to learn which notes to leave out.
Adjusting your finger pattern can help make this easier, but at the end of the day everything we're calling a jazz guitar chord is very closely related to your barre chords you're already playing.
We're just not playing all of it. So you have to figure out how to mute or how to use fingerstyle to make sure you're only playing the chord tones you actually want to play.
Minor 7th Chords
Minor seventh chords are made up of the root, flat third, fifth, and flat seventh.
While your normal bar chords are not likely a good fit for jazz, it can be relatively easy to adjust them so they work.
The key point to remember is to make sure there's only one of each chord tone in the chord shape you're playing, and you're going to be most of the way there.
With some practice and attention, you'll get used to switching your barre chords into jazz mode.
As always, do your best to use these chords in your playing and remember that the more you do it, the easier it gets.
Don't overthink this stuff. Don't get hung up on the theory.
Just learn the smaller chord shapes and learn the chord tones and you're going to be ahead of the game, really.
Check out these articles to learn more:
Step By Step Guide
If you're looking for a step by step guide to learning and improving your jazz guitar chords, check out our course Jazz Guitar Survival Guide: Chords and Comping.
You'll get detailed, step by step lessons on how to build jazz guitar chords and exercises to help you make these chords your own.
Click here to learn more and buy the course.