To most, jazz music on the guitar is a beautiful art form. Even those who don't appreciate the sounds of swing and bebop can respect the talent of the musicians who perform it, and acknowledge that their playing could benefit from learning some of the principles of the style.
The rub, however, is that jazz can seem intimidating -- even mystifying -- to newer players, to the point where they don't even give it a shot.
If you count yourself among the many who have wanted to dip their toes in the deep end of the jazz pool but felt too befuddled to give it a try, then we encourage you to read this guide.
Today, we're going to be providing and introduction to playing jazz music on the guitar, complete with the information you'll need to start learning jazz chords, playing jazz melodies, and memorizing the scales you'll need to improvise like a seasoned jazz professional.
Like any form of music, harmonies and rhythms are essential to jazz. The first thing we'll be covering are some basic chords that you'll see frequently throughout your endeavors in the genre. These include the Major 7, Minor 7, and Dominant 7 chords; we'll look at these variations in several keys to serve as examples.
You may find that you prefer playing some of these as bar chords, for example, and you're more than welcome to do so if you feel it fits the song or will make your playing more fluid. Stay open, and learn as many fingerings for your jazz chords as possible so that you can get to them from anywhere on the fretboard.
Lastly, the chords we'll be covering today are a good base to get started, but are by no means all the jazz-style chords existence. Don't hesitate to look up new chords as you encounter them to find the ones that work for you.
This chord includes a scale's root, major third, perfect fifth, and major seventh tones. You'll often see Major 7 chords displayed with one of these symbols: maj7, M7, Δ, 7+. If you were playing a C Major 7 chord, for example, you'd play the notes C, E, G, and B. Here's how you'd tackle it in open position.
Simple enough. Next, let's move on to G Major 7, which includes the notes G, B, D, and F#. Here's how it goes in open position.
Moving around the horn again, we have D Major 7, comprised of D, F#, A, and C#. Your open position fingering is as follows:
Next up is A Major 7. Your notes for this one are A, C#, E, and G#. Here's an easy open position fingering for the chord:
Are you starting to get a feel for the Major 7 chord sound? Excellent. Remember that you can also use a bar chord to get to your Major 7 chords quickly. Your root note for these will always be on the 5th string, so if you were playing C Major 7, for instance:
Keep that same shape and move your bar up or down the fretboard, and you'll be playing the Major 7 chord for the note you're covering with your 1st finger on the 5th string. Now, with that out of the way, it's time to take a look at a few Minor 7 chords that will come in handy.
Minor 7 chords contain a scale's root, minor third, perfect fifth, and minor seventh tones. You'll see these represented as an m7 or -7 in your music. We'll start with D Minor 7, with the notes D, F, A, and C:
A Minor 7 is another chord you'll see frequently. It includes the notes A, C, E, and G:
Last up, we'll tackle E Minor 7, which uses E, G, B, and D:
Again, you can use a bar for Minor 7 chords. We'll use A Minor 7 as an example for using string 6 as the root:
If you prefer using the 5th string for your root notes, let D Minor 7 here be your guide:
Now, let's round out our chord introduction with a few Dominant 7 chords.
When playing Dominant 7 chords, you'll be using a scale's root, major third, perfect fifth, and minor seventh tones. You'll recognize the symbol as the telltale "7" after the root note. We'll start with the C7 chord, which contains C, E, G, and Bb:
Next is G7, which consists of G, B, D, and F:
The last Dominant 7 chord we'll learn is D7. You'll need D, F#, A, and C for this one:
And of course, you can incorporate bar versions of Dominant 7 chords in your playing as well. For the root on string 6, take a look at G7 as an example
You can move the root to the 5th string as well. Here's how it would look using C7:
Don't forget to learn the Dominant 7 fingerings for your other keys as your encounter them. For now, though, let's talk about some the trickier jazz chords you'll come across on your journey.
The chords we touched on above are a great start, but they aren't the only chords you'll be encountering along your jazz journey. You'll be running into plenty of Augmented, Diminished, Sustained, 9, 11, and 13 chords (among others) so keep your chord library nearby and stay prepared to look up any chords you don't immediately recognize when you're learning a new song.
You might already know that chord progressions are groups of chords commonly used in various song structures. When you're playing jazz, the two most important ones to remember are the ii-V-I and I-vi-ii-V progressions.
Remember that the "I" is your root, and the chord are formed in relation to that root chord (so you can always get to your chords in these progressions if you remember the root). Here's an example of the former, using the key of C as our root:
Using C as our root again, this is how you would create the latter progression:
Take these progressions to heart, as they'll form the basis for much of the music you'll be playing.
When it comes to playing melodies and improvising, learning your scales and arpeggios will go long way toward your success. Check the piece you're playing to identify the key (which will either be explicitly stated by the song's key signature or something you can derive from looking at a tune's first and last chords). Today, we'll take a look at two that you'll be crossing paths with frequently.
Also known as the Ionian scale, your typical major scale will consist of 7 degrees (the eighth note in the scale is the same as the root, just an octave higher). The sequence of intervals between the notes in a major scale is whole-step, whole-step, half-step, whole-step, whole-step, whole-step, half-step. So, if we were playing in C Major, you'd use the following notes: C, D, E, F, G, A, B.
There are actually three main variants of minor scales (natural, harmonic, melodic), as opposed to just the one associated with major keys. What we'll be covering today is the Jazz Minor scale, a derivative of the melodic minor scale. We'll use C Jazz Minor as our example; see if you can pick out the relationship between the notes as you play: C, D. Eb, F, G, A, B. Your Jazz Minor scale will always contain that flat-third -- one of it's hallmarks -- and another way of thinking of this scale is as the ascending portion of your melodic minor scale.
Are there other scales you'll be using in jazz music? Naturally, but these two will get you started on playing melodies and improvising. You can start incorporating other scales as they become pertinent to your playing. You'll need to remember the position of your notes on the fretboard to execute any scale properly, so make sure you study your fretboard chart and memorize the positioning of your notes. Coincidentally, that memorization will also come in handy once it's time to start playing arpeggios...
You can think of arpeggios as chords that you play broken up, note by note. If you to execute a C Major 7 arpeggio, for instance, you'd play C, E, G, and Bb. For a D Minor 7 arpeggio, you'd play D, F, A, and C. Heading to a G Dominant 7 arpeggio, you'd play G, B, D, and F. It's a simple concept, but incorporated into the jazz tunes you'll learn, it can have a profound effect on how your playing sounds.
Remember that the arpeggios you play will work best over their associated chords. If you know your chords, you can learn your arpeggios -- just make sure to practice your fingering so you can get to the notes you need without hassle.
Ready to put it all you've learned today to the test? Try applying your newfound knowledge by playing these five classic jazz tunes:
While you're learning these songs, keep these important points of jazz playing in mind:
Jazz might seem tricky at first, but with time and practice, you'll be able to handle the complexities of this genres, and even apply what you learn to playing songs outside of jazz. The skills you pick up playing jazz make everything else easier, so good luck, and happy practicing!
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