Whether you’ve been playing jazz guitar for a while or are new to jazz music, one thing you’ll most definitely need to take your jazz guitar playing to the next level is a solid understanding of jazz guitar chords.
This post will introduce you to the basic jazz guitar chord shapes that will likely influence up to 75% of your jazz chord playing.
These jazz guitar shapes can be played over virtually any jazz tune, meaning once you have them down, you’ll be ready to sit in with the rhythm section at the next jam session.
We’ll break down—
- Basic 7th chord theory
- Essential major 7th jazz guitar chord shapes
- Essential minor 7th jazz guitar chord shapes
- Essential dominant 7th jazz guitar chord shapes
- Essential half-diminished and diminished 7th jazz guitar chord shapes
- What makes jazz guitar chords unique?
- Practice tips for every jazz guitarist
- Jazz guitarists you need to listen to
If you want to play jazz guitar like Pat Metheny, John Scofield, Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery, or Jim Hall, you’ll need a practice plan. If you are spending hours noodling on your guitar and not seeing results when you go to play jazz guitar, then perhaps you need to overhaul how you practice.
When you join the Inner Circle, you unlock a clear pathway toward jazz guitar mastery—
- You’ll build a personalized practice plan that fills in the gaps in your jazz guitar knowledge, improvisation, musicianship, and jazz guitar playing style.
- You’ll take a deep dive into a new jazz standard every month to improve your jazz repertoire and jazz vocabulary.
- You’ll get guitar-specific answers to your guitar-specific questions from professional jazz guitarists.
- You’ll get personalized guitar instruction via our Jazz Guitar Accelerator Courses, which will help you achieve technical mastery.
- You’ll join a community of avid jazz musicians who love jazz just as much as you do.
Learn how to practice the right way and join the Inner Circle today!
Table of Contents
20 Essential Jazz Guitar Chords To Boost Your Jazz Guitar Playing
If you learn these basic shapes, you’ll be well on your way to jazz guitar mastery. They work for any jazz style on the guitar—traditional jazz guitar, jazz fusion, blues, and modern jazz styles, too.
Internalizing these chords and jazz chord progressions is vital to being a jazz musician. Many guitarists ignore this extremely fundamental part of musicianship. If you want to be the best jazz guitar player you can be, you shouldn’t put it off any longer!
What Are 7th Chords?
For the most part, jazz music is built with tertian harmony, which means its chords are built on thirds (we’re leaving quartal harmony aside for this one). Most Western music uses triads to build chords. Triads are built from a root and have a 3rd and a 5th stacked on:
- C – E – G
- Root, 3rd, 5th
7th chords add an additional piece of harmonic information into the mix (either a major or a minor 7th interval from the root). This gives us four notes:
- C – E – G + B
- Root, 3rd, 5th + 7th
Adding a B to a C major triad gives us a Cmaj7 chord. When you change the 3rd, 5th, or 7th’s interval distance from the root, you alter the chord quality. This process gives you minor, dominant, half-diminished, and fully diminished chords.
Some things to remember when looking at the following voicings:
- Though they will be given in one key, you should take the following shapes through all 12 keys to get comfortable with these shapes in different positions on the guitar neck.
- In music theory, 7th chords are spelled out in the root position (like above). However, in practice, root-position chords aren’t as common on guitar as they might be on piano.
- Some of the following voicings will have extensions, which may look strange if you’ve never encountered them. You’ll see voicings with a 6th, 9th, 11th, or 13th. On guitar, sometimes consonant chord tones like the 5th are replaced by an extension because we only have so many fingers!
Check out our ultimate guide to 7th chords if you want a more comprehensive breakdown.
Major 7 Voicings – Jazz Guitar Chords
In theory, major 7th jazz chords are built like this:
- major 3rd
- perfect 5th
- major 7th
There are a few common extensions major 7th chords have in jazz music:
- 13th (an octave higher than the 6th)
Here are five essential major 7th voicings you need to internalize:
To learn more, check out our blog post on major 7th voicings and inversions on the guitar.
Minor 7 Voicings – Jazz Guitar Chords
In theory, minor 7 jazz chords are built like this:
- minor 3rd
- perfect 5th
- minor 7th
Common extensions you’ll see are:
Here are five essential minor 7th voicings you need to internalize:
Check out our blog post on minor 7th voicings and inversions on the guitar.
Dominant 7 Voicings – Jazz Guitar Chords
Dominant chords are built using this formula:
- major 3rd
- perfect 5th
- minor 7th
Dominant chords can have a bunch of crazy extensions:
- 4th (sus)
Here are five essential dominant voicings jazz guitarists need to internalize:
Dominant chords are an essential part of the jazz sound but are also important for other genres, like rock, blues, and even classical music. Dominant chords are used by rock, blues, classical, and jazz musicians and composers to resolve chord progressions, change keys, and add a blue sound to their music.
The “dominant” sound probably has the greatest number of musical applications, especially in jazz. You’ll want to spend extra time on dominant voicings because they are so important to the jazz and jazz blues sounds.
Check out our blog post on dominant 7th voicings and inversions on the guitar, and check out tips for memorizing dominant chords.
Half-Diminished and Diminished 7 Voicings – Jazz Guitar Chords
Half-diminished chords are built using this formula:
- minor 3rd
- diminished (or flat) 5th
- minor 7th
Common extensions for half-diminished chords:
Fully-diminished chords are built using this formula:
- minor 3rd
- diminished (or flat) 5th
- diminished 7th (enharmonically equivalent to a major 6th interval)
Extensions aren’t commonly used on fully-diminished chords
Here are essential half-diminished and fully diminished voicings you’ll need to play jazz guitar:
Half-diminished chords are a staple of the minor ii-V-i progression. Diminished seventh have a variety of uses, including passing chords and as the v°7 chord in the harmonic minor key.
Check out our blog posts on half-diminished voicings and inversion on guitar and diminished voicings and inversions on guitar.
What Makes Jazz Guitar Voicings Unique?
Applying jazz harmony to the guitar might seem like a daunting task. On a piano, everything is linear: low to high, left to right. There is only one axis of pitch. However, the guitar has two axes of pitch. You can move up the neck to change pitch or move across the strings.
At first glance, this seems like an unnecessary complication. But it’s actually a feature and not a bug. As jazz guitarists, we can double notes, enriching chords with unison pitches with different timbres.
Jazz guitarists can also break the twelve-tone system by bending notes. By doing so, they access the microtonal sounds present in the blues.
Practice Tips For Every Jazz Guitarist (and General Advice for Jazz Musicians)
Now that you have some basic jazz guitar voicings, where do you go from here?
With music, the more you learn, the more you realize that there’s more to learn! Once you feel comfortable with these voicings, there are so many things you can do to develop your own approach to jazz music. Once you have the tools, you’ll need to develop your own jazz sound.
This can involve several things depending on your musical goals—
- Improve your music theory knowledge
- Improve your musicianship through ear training
- Build up your jazz repertoire by learning jazz standards
- Shed the comping styles and solos of jazz guitar legends
- Start practicing solo jazz guitar and learn a chord melody
Improve Your Jazz Music Theory Knowledge
Improve your understanding of chords, scales, chord scales, and chord-scale relationships. Chords and scales are two different ways of organizing the same musical information and relationships.
Understanding how the major scale helps us construct chords, chord progressions, and chord scales is crucial. If you want a primer for getting started, check out Brent’s e-book “Zero to Improv.”
Improve Your Musicianship Through Ear Training
Well-trained jazz musicians have a deep aural understanding of the interval relationships that make up jazz voicings. They can hear a guitar player play chords, and they’ll be able to tell you their quality even without having a perfect pitch.
To play jazz in the moment, you’ll need to rely on your ear more than your eyes! You need to develop your ear to understand the musical context of a chord or line or to hear the rhythm section’s and soloist’s interplay. You’ll need to hear the chord changes as they happen.
Apart from memorizing these shapes physically, you need to memorize them aurally. There are many ways to do this, but a great way to start is to be able to sing the chords as an arpeggio.
Play one note on your guitar, like the root or the 5th, and sing the rest of the voicing. This exercise will help you internalize pitch relationships, and your musicianship will skyrocket.
Build Up Your Jazz Repertoire
The best way to learn jazz is to play jazz. Jazz standards are the canvases that jazz musicians paint sounds on. Learning jazz standards will improve your knowledge of chord progressions, help you get better at playing melodies, and improve your jazz solos.
Plus, it’s a crucial first step for learning how to play solo guitar.
There are many types of jazz standards:
- American Songbook Standards
- Modal Jazz
- Jazz Blues
- Jazz Waltz
- Bossa Nova
- Latin Jazz
If you want to learn how to approach jazz standards, check out our Learn Jazz Standards The Smart Way Guide.
Shed the Comping Styles and Solos of Jazz Guitar Legends
It’s important to know a bit about the key jazz guitar players who pushed jazz guitar forward throughout and beyond the twentieth century. Note that many of the following guitarists lived through several eras of jazz guitar and played in many styles. This list is just intended as an introduction to key guitar players you need to check out.
Early Jazz / Swing Era (1920s-1930s):
This period marked the beginning of jazz guitar, characterized by rhythm guitarists playing chordal accompaniment with the occasional guitar solo.
- Eddie Lang
- Freddie Green
- Django Reinhardt
- Charlie Christian
Bebop Era (1940s-1950s):
During this era, guitarists began playing more intricate solos, often characterized by rapid, chromatic lines and complex harmonies.
- Charlie Christian (pioneering figure)
- Barney Kessel
- Tal Farlow
- Jimmy Raney
Cool Jazz / West Coast Jazz (1950s-1960s):
Cool jazz was more laid-back and emphasized a more melodic, lyrical approach to playing than in earlier eras.
- Jim Hall
- Wes Montgomery
- Johnny Smith
- Joe Pass
Fusion Era (Late 1960s-1970s):
Fusion mixed jazz with rock, funk, and other music genres, resulting in unique playing styles and new sounds.
- Larry Coryell
- John McLaughlin
- Pat Metheny
- Al Di Meola
Post-Fusion / Modern Jazz Guitar (1980s-Present):
Modern jazz guitar has many styles, including traditional jazz, avant-garde, and world music.
- Bill Frisell
- Kurt Rosenwinkel
- John Scofield
- Mike Stern
- Julian Lage
Start Practicing Solo Jazz Guitar and Learn a Chord Melody
The guitar and piano (and double bass!) can play chord melodies, unlike other instruments. For those who don’t know, chord melodies are exactly what they sound like—a single chordal instrumentalist who simultaneously plays both the melody and harmony of a tune.
This practice is much more common for piano, but jazz guitarists have also incorporated chord melodies into the jazz guitar paradigm.
Though present in folk, bluegrass, blues, and occasionally in rock (hello, Steve Howe), chord melodies are most prominently played by jazz guitarists. A working knowledge of harmony, voice leading, chordal improvisation, and chord progressions is an essential prerequisite to playing the melody and harmony of a jazz song simultaneously.
Check out our video on how to play a chord melody on a jazz standard to get started on your first song. After you get a few chord melodies under your fingertips, you can begin improvizing in the idiom, which is a very rewarding experience—whether you play an electric guitar or acoustic guitar or already own a bunch of jazz guitars.
Join The Inner Circle To Play Jazz Guitar Like Your Favorite Jazz Guitar Players
If you have spent countless hours in the practice room playing tons of jazz but not improving, you’re not alone. Many musicians practice, sure.
But many don’t know that you have to practice how to practice.
By not practicing correctly, these musicians waste a bunch of time working on the things they can play and never progressing on the things they can’t.
If you feel this describes you, it’s time for a change. Ready to overhaul how you practice? Come check out the Inner Circle and see what we’re all about.
Not only will you learn a new jazz standard every month and hang out with avid jazz lovers, but you’ll be able to quickly accelerate your jazz guitar playing through our Jazz Guitar Accelerator Course, which is designed to help you achieve technical mastery on the guitar!