To the untrained ear, jazz music may sound like a sort of “pleasant chaos”, and even those who have been playing music for a while might strain to understand how it works.
Fortunately, there is method behind the madness, and like any other musical style, it’s just a matter of studying the form.
Although jazz guitar is the one of the most challenging genres there is for guitarists, you don’t need to be the best player on the planet to get started. If you have a basic understanding of music theory, and you know your barre chords and 7th chords, you’re ready to give it a try.
Here’s how to up your game with these online jazz guitar lessons. You can also check out more general guitar lessons no matter what style of guitar you want to be able to play.
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Quick Lesson Review: The Major Scale
The major scale is a diatonic scale, which means it’s made up of seven notes.
In the key of C, they would be: C, D, E, F, G, A, and B.
Each note also has a chord attached to it. The formula is as follows: major, minor, minor, major, major, minor, diminished. So you would end up with: C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, and Bdim.
It's important to know this in every key. In the key of G, your notes would be: G, A, B, C, D, E, and F#. The chords would therefore be: G, Am, Bm, C, D, Em, and F#dim.
There are numbers attached to the chords as well. These are usually displayed in roman numerals like this: I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, vii. Jazz progressions are often written out using these values, so get familiar with them.
Quick Review: Barre Chords In Jazz Music
If you want to play jazz, you should familiarize yourself with barre chords.
Some chords can be played in the open position, but because of rapid chord changes, key changes and unusual chords (like m7b5, 7(#9), dim7, and so on), you’ll ultimately want to be able to shift effortlessly from one chord to another, and even know the various voicings that exist across the neck. This is easier said than done, and will take time to master.
It also helps to learn the fretboard and where your root centers are (i.e. where all the A notes are on the fretboard).
Quick Online Lesson Review: 7th Chords
There are basically three types of 7 chords beginner jazz players should be aware of: dominant 7, major 7, and minor 7. These are the building blocks of jazz progressions.
A dominant 7 chord is characterized by a flatted seventh. G major is made up of the notes G, B and D. In the key of G, the seventh is F#. Turn that F# into an F, and you have a G7 chord (G, B, D and F).
A major 7 chord is characterized by the seventh. Nothing unusual here – add the F# in, and you have a Gmaj7 (G, B, D, F#) instead of a plain G.
In order to create a minor chord, we have to flat the third, so the B in the G chord becomes a Bb. Add in the seventh (F), and you have a Gm7 (G, Bb, D, F).
Try this with every chord in every key, and we'll be ready to play some jazz!
Quick Review: The 12-Bar Blues
There are many similarities between the jazz and blues genres. Understanding the basics of the 12-bar blues will help you with jazz as well.
Most blues songs have 12-bar repeating patterns, and only use three chords: I, IV, and V. For all intents and purposes, you can think of these as dominant 7 chords: I7, IV7, and V7. Transitioning between these chords shouldn’t prove very difficult, since they’re all the same type.
Most blues songs are structured like this:
| I | I | I | I | | IV | IV | I | I | | V | IV | T | T |
In the key of C, your chords would be: C7 (I), F7 (IV), and G7 (V). In the key of G, they would be: G7, C7, D7. And so on.
“T” stands for “turnaround.” The turnaround section is where interesting things can happen. Sometimes, players will just hang on the V chord. But at other times, they will play a little riff that sets the band up to start back at the beginning of the 12-bar pattern. This helps the band to know where they are in the pattern, if they happen to get lost. But most of all, it adds a bit of ear candy to the song.
Here is an example of a turnaround:
Some jazz songs are essentially blues songs. That’s why it’s so helpful to understand this form and ingrain it in your mind.
The ii-V-I Progression When Playing Jazz Guitar
In jazz music, the ii-V-I (or iim7-V7-Imaj7) chord progression is an old standby. Anyone looking to learn jazz guitar should learn it.
In the key of C, the ii chord would be Dm, the V chord would be G, and the I chord would be C. But this doesn’t sound very jazzy, does it? We need to turn all of these into 7th chords.
So the Dm would become Dm7. The G becomes a G7 (yes, a dominant chord). This is because Gmaj7 contains a sharped note (F#). There are no sharps or flats in the key of C, so it simply doesn’t belong. The C becomes a Cmaj7. Now we have a set of chords that sound pretty jazzy together.
First, here’s how to play that in the open position:
But it's pretty rare that any jazz guitarist would play these chords in the open position. So, here’s how to play the same progression using barre chords:
Congratulations! You just played your first jazz progression. Many jazz players, however, will use their fingers to “pluck” chords instead of using a pick to strum them. What this means is that you're generally just playing four notes out of the chord at any given time instead of five or six.
The I-ii-V-IV Progression
Here’s another chord progression you will often hear in popular jazz music: I-ii-V-IV, or Imaj7-iim7-V7-IVmaj7. Most players who've played jazz for any length of time will tell you that the ii-V-I progression gets boring. Knowing some variations can help you in jam sessions.
It’s important to etch this sound into your mind because of how common it is in the jazz genre.
In the ii-V-I example, each chord lasted a bar. In this example, the transition from I to IV is really what we’re emphasizing, so the ii and V chords only last half a bar each (remember what I said earlier about rapid chord changes in jazz?).
But there’s something else you need to know, because it could end up confusing you. We established that the second in the key of C is D, and that the fifth is G. But in this example, the ii is Gm7, and the V is C7. What gives?
Basically, there’s a key change taking place. So Gm7 would be the ii chord in F major, and likewise the C7 would be the V chord in F major. Although we’re starting in the key of C, we’re shifting to the key F, in a manner of speaking (the key of F isn't that different from the key of C). Incidentally, the last chord in the progression is Fmaj7
Let’s take a look at this example in the key of C. We’re not going to use chords in the open position anymore. It’s all barred chords from here on out.
Now let’s try this in a different key – don’t worry, I’m not going to make things too difficult on you. Here’s the same chord progression in the key of G (what I said earlier about the key change still applies):
Awesome. Now you’re moving one step closer to becoming fluent in jazz.
Walking Bass Lines
What do bass lines have to do with playing guitar? As it turns out, a lot – especially if you're playing solo jazz guitar, or if you're the sole accompanist for a singer.
Bass lines can be mixed in with chords to create smooth transitions from one chord change to the next. At times, you may even play bass lines on their own for more variety in your playing.
Playing bass lines also forces you to think about harmony, rhythm, and chord structure. You can develop a broader view of how different instruments are meant to interact within the context of jazz. Bottom line – you can improve all aspects of your playing by learning bass parts.
Example #1 – Plain Bass Line
Let’s tie in subsequent examples with the ii-V-I progression we worked on earlier. Again, in the key of C, the chords would be Dm7, Gmaj7, and Cmaj7.
If you just played a bass line as follows, not only would it be boring, it wouldn’t be very jazzy at all, though it would at least be a starting point. Have a look:
This is how most guitarists or beginner bassists would play through these changes. If you haven’t studied bass lines at all, and you’re still new to them, you would at least get a passing grade for this. But it just won’t do for jazz.
Example #2 – Chord Tone Bass Line
Earlier, we talked a little bit about chords. Chords are formed in thirds. As you probably know, a C chord is made up of the notes C, E, and G. Really think about this for a second. In the C major scale, the first degree is C, the third degree is E, and the fifth degree is G.
For Dm, the notes would be D, F, and A. For G, the notes would be G, B, and D.
The reason you need to know this is because the building blocks of a moving bass line come down to the first, third, and fifth notes in every chord.
Now, we’re going to put together a bass line with a little more color (using some of the additional notes available to us). Try this out:
This is starting to sound jazzier, but it still isn’t what we’re aiming for. We still aren’t really connecting one chord to the next effectively.
Example #3 – Walked Bass Line
Now we’re ready to “walk” the bass line to create effective movement between chords.
One of the key ideas behind jazz is that it never resolves. Never say “never”, but this is a simplistic way of explaining the genre.
A walking bass line doesn’t sound like it’s coming to an end at any point. At the same time, it is anticipating chord changes and preparing the ear for what’s coming next.
Let’s give this a try, and then I will explain how it works so you can create your own walking bass lines.
Again, we are making use of chord tones in this example, but you might have noticed that there are some odd sounding notes at the end of the first two bars.
Without getting too bogged down with theory, here’s how this works – you can play any note that’s a semi tone or whole tone above the chord that's going to be played in the next bar, OR any note that’s a semi tone or whole note below.
So, let’s say we’re moving from ii to V. V is Gmaj7. So, you could play any of the following notes before transitioning into the G: F, F#, G#, or A. These are not notes you would want to dwell on. But as passing tones, they are quite effective.
Skills You’ll Want To Master As A Jazz Guitarist
For better or for worse, you’re simply not going to master jazz in one lesson. The jazz genre is incredibly deep, and there is a ton of theory that goes along with it.
But if you’re looking to explore further, here are the essential skills you’ll want to develop:
- Chording: 7 chords are really just the starting point. You’ll also want to learn augmented, diminished, 6 chords, 9, 11, and 13 chords, and so on. You’ll also want to learn them in different positions on the neck, and look for efficient ways to transition from one chord to another without constantly shifting positions on the neck.
- Comping: Also known as “accompaniment”, comping isn’t just the ability to strum chords, but also refers to your capacity to bring out the melody, walk the bass, or play different rhythmic patterns. It goes hand in hand with your chord vocabulary, but extends into every aspect of rhythm guitar.
- Soloing: As with any other genre, there is a specific approach to soloing in jazz (i.e. string bending is atypical in jazz). Finding your own style requires much experimentation and practice.
There is a great deal more that could be said about the basics of jazz and jazz guitar, but unfortunately we’re out of space.
As with most other genres, chords and progressions are a good place to start, as they give you the opportunity to experience and enjoy the style without having to delve too deeply into it.
Even if you’re not looking to become a professional jazz guitarist, there’s a great deal to gain from learning various chord shapes and soloing techniques. Don’t write it off just because you want to become a country or metal guitarist.