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Home LJS Podcast Learn Jazz Theory LJS 53: How to Improve Your Jazz Solos By Using Guide Tones

LJS 53: How to Improve Your Jazz Solos By Using Guide Tones

Welcome to episode 53 of the LJS Podcast where today we are talking about how you can improve your jazz solos by using guide tones. One of the big questions students have is how do I navigate chord changes in my improvisation? Guide tones are a great springboard into identifying the important chord tones to focus on. Listen in!

Listen to episode 53

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What is a guide tone?

Guide tones are notes within a chord structure that both help define a chord, and can be used to transition to another chord melodically.

Crash course on 7th chord formulas:

Major 7: Root-3rd-5th-7th

Dominant 7: Root-3rd-5th-b7

Minor 7: Root-b3-5th-b7

Half diminished: Root-b3-b5-b7

Diminished 7: Root-b3-b5-bb7

The 3rds and 7ths are the important chord tones that help define the difference between different 7th chords. The 3rds and 7ths are the guide tones.

3rds and 7ths in a C major 7 chord:

Take a look at the guide tones in a ii-V-I chord progression. If you don’t understand chord progressions and the numbering system, check out How to Harmonize a Major Scale with 7th Chord.

Here’s what they look like separated out:

What is voice leading?

Voice leading is the smooth melodic movement of notes (or voices) from one chord to the next.

Here’s voice leading guide tones in action:

The 3rds and 7ths ii-V-I Rule:

When chords are cycling in 4ths(such as in the case of a ii-V-I):

  • The 3rd of a minor 7 will always be the 7th of the proceeding dominant 7 chord


Dmin7: 3rd= F

G7: 7th= F

  • The 3rd of a dominant 7 will always be the 7th of the proceeding major 7 chord.


G7: 3rd= B

Cmaj7: 7th= B


The 3rds and 7ths Half Step Rule:

  • When chords are cycling in 4ths, the 7th of a minor 7 chord will always resolve to the 3rd of a dominant 7 chord by a half step.


Dmin7: 7th= C

G7: 3rd= B

  • The 7th of a dominant 7 chord will always resolve to the 3rd of a major 7 chord by a half step.


G7: 7th= F

Cmaj7: 3rd= E

Take a look at this lick that connects guide tones. For demonstration purposes, there is no chromaticism and the 3rds and 7ths resolve to each other.

Check out what happens when you map out the guide tones to the jazz standard All The Things You Are. Play through this and see if you can hear the chord changes just by playing the 3rds and 7ths in a voice lead fashion.

Have anything to add to today’s episode? Leave a comment below.

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Brent Vaartstra
Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz guitarist and educator living in New York City. He is the head blogger and podcast host for which he owns and operates. He actively performs around the New York metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publication "Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar." He's also the host of the music entrepreneurship podcast "Passive Income Musician."


  1. This podcast was so very helpful. I'm a beginning jazz vocalist and just learning to scat. My vocal coach told me last week that I did a good job of voice leading – but I didn't really know what that meant other than moving between notes and chords. As I have no formal music education, I'm often lost listening to the podcasts, but not today. I'm headed right to me keyboard to work on my scat over Four. Thanks a million!

  2. Well-presented and perfectly clear — I understand the concept of a guide-tone line. But how should I use it to improve my solos? A "part 2" continuation from this point, explaining how to put it into practice, would be great.

  3. Thanks for this tutorial, Brent. I've been listening to the podcast from the beginning and get a lot of useful information out of this. I get that there is more work to be done after you identify guide tones in ii-Vs (all keys) and put them into practice in tunes, like you did in ATTYA in order to truly understand this. How much time might you suggest or better said what percentage of your practice session would you devote to getting some of this under your fingers and in your brain? What might you suggest to do next after you've mastered these types of exercises?

    Finally, as a consideration for a future lesson, you talk a lot about learning jazz language by ear and transcribing into all keys. I do this pretty religiously. In breaking out of the cut and paste method for navigating tunes, I have often heard/read play what is in your head. Would you consider a lesson in discussing this topic? Specifically, are there specific practices that have helped you or that you were taught in developing this? Thanks for the podcast and for your time.

    • Hey thanks for listening! If you listen to our next episode 54, I do talk a little bit about how to organize your practice sessions and spread out your focus. We certainly will come out with some episodes that talk about how to take guide tones to the next level! I appreciate all of your suggestions!

  4. Nice tutorial Brent! Just curious: you always refer to the "cycle of fourths"… OK, ii-V-I are ascending fourths, but they are generally described as descending fifths (as in the excellent Levine book you mention). A guitarist's whim, maybe? 😉
    Thanks for your teaching.

    • Hey Phil! Glad you asked that question. You can look at it either way, because ultimately as you pointed out, they are the same thing. I know that some musicians were trained with the "Circle of 5ths" to learn key signatures and some were taught "Circle of 4ths". I personally like thinking of standard chord progressions as cycling in 4ths because of the nature of their movement as you pointed out. Not sure it's a guitarist thing necessarily, but more so a matter of perspective. Thanks or asking!

  5. Awesome! Brent mentioned that non-jazz musicians tend to improv and sound like they're just going through scales, which is EXACTLY what I feel like most of the times.

    This is certainly helpful and an eye-opener to me. Thanks Brent!


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