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12 Beginning Jazz Guitar Voicings

Beginning jazz guitarists have a LOT of ground to cover in a short amount of time when they first start playing with a group.  I’ve found that these 12 voicings are a great way to get a beginning jazz guitarist up and running FAST!  These basic, stock voicings should be in the toolbox of any jazz guitar player.

I’ve selected these 12 voicings after 10 years of teaching jazz combos and jazz lessons in the trenches.  Beginning jazz guitarists are often thrown into situations where they have to learn to comp changes quickly.  I’ve had 10 years of experience teaching jazz combos and teaching jazz guitar and piano lessons.  I’ve also spent several years as a consultant to other music directors, helping them train young rhythm sections.  I’ve found that I can get a guitarist comping in just a lesson or two by teaching these voicings.

Oftentimes I’ll actually simplify it even further for the first lesson, using only the first 6 voicings:  2 maj7 voicings, 2 min7 voicings, and 2 dominant 7th voicings.    They’ll learn two voicings for each chord quality:  one voicing starting with a root on the 6th and one voicing with a root on the 5th string.  

After 10 years teaching in the trenches, I’ve boiled it down to 12 basic voicings for guitar and 2 basic voicings for piano.  These are normally among the first things I teach because they are important, versatile voicings and they help beginners sound pretty good relatively quickly.

It is important to note that there is WAY MORE to learn, but sometimes keeping things simple is best in the early stages.

These 12 voicings can be used to sound good over almost any tune.  You may miss some important nuances if you only know 12 voicings, but you can still get the basic gist of any tune with just these 12 voicings!  If you know these twelve voicings, it is possible to function on a basic level comping in a band!

A student should strive to learn MANY more voicings over time, but these 12 voicings are a great start for a beginning jazz guitar student.

Why 12 voicings?

There are six BASIC chord qualities that are commonly used in jazz.  We are going to learn 2 voicings for each of the 6 qualities; one voicing with the root on the 6th string, and a second voicing with the root on the 5th string.  

In reality there are more than 6 types of chords, but these are 6 basic ones that show up frequently, and by limiting it to 6 we are trying to keep from overcomplicating things so as to not overwhelm the beginner!

Here are the 6 BASIC qualities, with common substitutions in parenthesis:

Major 7th (Cmaj7 or Cmaj9)

Dominant 7th (C7, C9 or C13)

Minor 7th (Cmin7, Cmin9, Cmin11)

Half-Diminished (Cmin7b5 or Cmin9b5)

Fully-Diminished (Cdim7 or Cdim7add9)

Altered Dominant (C7alt, C7#9, C7b13, C7#9,b13)

I have used “C” as the root for each chord, but it is important to realize that you can move the shape up or down the neck of the guitar so the same shape makes the same quality of chord starting on any chromatic note.   For instance, you can slide a C9 shape up the neck two frets and you’ll have a D9 instead of a C9.

Substituting 9th Chords for 7th Chords

(and other substitutions)

You will notice that there is more than one way to play each of the 6 qualities.  The chords in parenthesis are basically interchangeable with one another in many situations.   You will find that some chords may be slightly different between the 6th string root and the 5th string root chords.  For instance, an Fmaj7 voicing (FACE) is used on the 6th string, whereas an Fmaj9 voicing (FACEG, although the 5th “C” is left out of the voicing below) is used on the 5th string.  Harmonically, the Fmaj7 and Fmaj9 voicings are so similar that it doesn’t matter which one you choose in many situations. Another example is that when a chart calls for a C7, you can substitute a C9 or a C13 instead!  A third example would be that if a chart calls for an Fmin7, you can substitute an Fmin9 voicing.

A major 7th chord is spelled:  1, 3, 5, 7 (e.g. Cmaj7)

A dominant 7th chord is spelled:  1, 3, 5, b7 (e.g. C7)

A minor 7th chord is spelled:  1, b3, 5, b7 (e.g. Cmin7)

A dominant 7th chord is spelled:  1, 3, 5, b7 (e.g. C7)

A half-diminished chord is spelled:  1, b3, b5, b7 e.g. (e.g. Cmin7b5)

A fully-diminished chord is spelled:  1, b3, b5, bb7 (bb7 is enharmonically the same as 6)  (e.g. Cdim7)

You can generally add the 9 to any chord, and sometimes even the 11 and/or 13.

An altered dominant has 1, 3, 5, b7, and any combination of the altered tones:  b9, #9, #11, and b13 (most typically #9 and b13) (e.g. C7#9b13 or C7alt)

Here are the 12 Voicings:

PDF of 12 Beginning Jazz Guitar Voicings

Movable Shapes

I have used “C” as the root for all of these chords, but it is important to realize that you can change the root of these chords!  These chords are movable shapes.  You can move any of these chords to ANY NOTE by moving the “shape” up or down the neck of the guitar.

For example, if you wanted a Bb13, you can just take the C13 voicing start on the 6th fret instead of the 8th fret of the 6th string.

Another example is if you wanted a Dmin7 on the 5th fret, you can take the Cmin9 shape and move the root from the 3rd fret to the 5th fret of the 5th string, moving the shape of the Cmin9 voicing to the note “D.”

Camden Hughes
Camden is a working jazz pianist, multi-instrumentalist, and music educator currently living near Boise, ID. He teaches music at the Idaho Arts Charter School, and is the jazz adjunct professor at Northwest Nazarene University. Check out his music at



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