Jazz Chords: Everything You Need To Know

Aspiring Jazz guitarists can open up so many new possibilities with Jazz chords. While 3 note basic guitar chords are still used in some jazz standards, you’ll notice that jazz rarely uses the standard triads we have been learning thus far, today we will introduce you to what are known as extended chords- chords with at least 4 notes that surpass beyond the root-3-5 formula.

The unique sound and quality of these chords offer a complex and vast range of tones for a musicians utilization. These chords are far more expressive than your average triad!

In this article we will cover the most common extended chords, explain their intervallic makeup, learn jazz chord progressions, and even how to read lead sheet symbols like a real jazz cat!

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What Are Jazz Guitar Chords?

So, as I said before, all that jazz guitar chords really are is extended chords – Chords that use intervals above the 5th, such as: 7th, 9th, 11th, and 13th. That’s right, no more root, 3rd, 5th.

If you want to play jazz guitar, you’ve got to understand how these chords work! That includes learning to read chord charts properly!

You’re in the army now!

Major Jazz Chords

Major 7 chords are simply beautiful. When you’re playing jazz guitar, just sprinkle these chords all over the place! You’ll sound great.

If you have only learned triads up until this point, just wait till you hear these lovely major chords! They are eye opening!

Check Out Our Article: Easy Intro To 7th Chords On Guitar

Major 7th

A Major 7th chord is made from the intervals root, 3rd, 5th, and 7th. If we built this on the root C we would get C E G B! Not so bad!

When we read basic jazz chord charts, you will know to play a major 7 when you see the note name in capital letters followed by a M7 or a △7. So, C Major 7 would look like CM7 or C△7.

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Major 6

A major 6 chord is built from the root – 3rd – 5th and 6th of a major scale. If we were to build a 6 chord over A, for example, the notes would be A C# E F#.

On jazz charts a major 6 chord is any chord root capital letter followed by the number 6.

A major 6 would be shortened to A6.

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Major 9

I love the sound of 9 chords! They sound like birds hovering in a blue sky.

Major 9 chords are built by stacking a root, 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 9th.

Just think of a major 7 with an added 9. Build on C, the notes of a C9 chord would be C E G B D.

The notation is the same concept as all the other major jazz chords – Just add the 9 to the note name.

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Minor Jazz Chords

Minor 7th chords are melancholic and expressive similar to a natural minor chord.

Perfect for musicians looking to express their sorrows.

If major chords are bread, minor chords are the butter – learn them well!

Minor 7

A minor 7th chord is made of the intervals Root – b3 – 5 – b7.

Built on C the notes would be C Eb G Bb.

Minor 7th chords are so common in jazz music.

In a major key, the ii7, iii7, and vi7 are all minor!

In a minor key, the i7, and iv7 are minor.

Here’s a little tip: By knowing your diatonic chords in major and minor keys, you can guess what key a piece is in using deductive reasoning! (or you can just look at the key signature)

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Minor 6

Minor 6 chords are made by taking the root, b3, 5, 6, and b7 of a major scale.

Using the example on C, the notes would be C, Eb, G, Bb, A.

Jazz notation would write this as Cm6.

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Minor 9

Minor 9ths are made from the root, b3, 5, b7, and 9.

A C minor 9 chord would have the notes C Eb G Bb D.

Jazz notation writes this chord as Cm9.

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Minor 11

Minor 11 chords are made of the intervals root, b3, 5, b7, 11.

On C this would be C Eb G Bb F.

On a jazz standard, the short hand for a minor 11th chord is m11.

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Dominant 7Chords

Dominant 7th Chords are names after their dominant function – lead back to the tonic.

While the V chord is always dominant, secondary dominants are used again and again in Jazz music.

So, if you see dominant chords that are not in the key, seriously consider whether it might be a secondary dominant.

On a jazz lead sheet, you know a chord is of dominant quality when you see the note name followed by a number. Such as the B7 chord.

Dominant 7th

Dominant 7th chords are made from a major triad and a minor 7th.

If we built on on B we would get the notes: B D# F# A. Get it?

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The Minor 7b5

Minor 7 b5 is one of the most commonly used chords in jazz! It has such a pleasantly dissonant sound!

For those of you who were taught classical music theory, “m7b5” is what many jazz guitarists call a half diminished chord!

The minor 7 b5 chord is made from the intervals root, b3, b5, b7.

If we built a m7b5 chord on B the notes would be: B, D, F, A. (Diatonic to the key of C Major)

On a Jazz lead sheet, minor 7 b5 is shortened to m7b5. Not much better in my opinion!

However, some lead sheets will write ø or ø7. You don’t necessarily have to include the 7 after this symbol, because all half diminished chords are 7th chords.

In a major chord progression, the 7 is usually minor7 b 5. In a minor key, it’s the ii chord.

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Diminished 7th Chords

Diminished 7th chords are another strikingly dissonant chord.

These chords provide the tension and disruption to an otherwise boring chord progression.

Diminished 7th chords don’t really occur in major keys, but you can hear them built on the 7th scale degree in a minor key!

The intervals that make up a diminished 7th chord are: Root, b3, b5, bb7.

If we built a diminished 7 chord on B we would get the notes: B D F Ab

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Altered Chords

An altered chord is one that replaces one or more diatonic scale notes with a neighboring pitch from the chromatic scale.

In jazz, common altered chords you may see are b9, #9, b5, and b13.

Related: Lo-Fi Chord Progressions

Common Jazz Chord Progressions

As you play more jazz standards, and in various keys, you stop seeing chords as individual pieces of music.

You begin clump chords together as parts of a whole – the chord progression. You can then begin to anticipate what chords come next because of common musical tropes.

Recognizing these chord progressions in music and playing them fluently is truly a sign of great progress.

V-I Chord Progressions

V-I is the most powerful movement in all western music, and Jazz is no exception. Look for V-I chord progressions in you favorite standards.

ii – V7 – I Chord Progressions

Now that you’ve found V – I progressions, how many of those are preceded by the ii chord? I am willing to bet most if not all.

The ii – V7 – I ( or ii° – V7 – I in minor!) is the most distinctive and important progression you could ever learn in the jazz genre. It is considered an essential element to western popular music.

It is used in countless standards and there are entire books and classes dedicated to this sole jazz chord progression!

I – IV Blues Chord Progressions

The I – IV progression may have originated in blues, but since jazz and blues are historically interlinked, I – IV is a great progression used time and time again in 12 bar blues.

Read: Blues Chords – All You Need To Know!

Secondary Dominant Chord Progressions

The concept of secondary dominants can be super confusing at first.

These progressions are also often called the V of V.

Why is that? Well, you borrow the V7 of the V7 of the key you are in.

A secondary dominant progression in the key of C would look something like this: D7 – G7 – C.

If you think that is confusing, wait until you see how jazz musicians use secondary dominant chains!

Related: Synthwave Chord Progressions

Tritone Substitution

Tritone substitutions are often used for in improvisational settings, and create tension in solos. These progressions were popularized by famous jazz musicians such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Duke Ellington.

In short, a tritone substitution is where the V7 is replaced with another dominant 7 chord 3 whole steps above or below it. Oftentimes the V7 is replaced for a bII7.

You many be interested in: Minor Chord Progressions

Tips For Learning To Play Jazz Guitar

This article is not meant to make you a pro. It’s just meant to be an introduction to playing jazz guitar.

Going super in depth would just be an overwhelming amount of information. Here are a few tips on where to go to further your Jazz guitar skills:

Invest in a Fake book and Jazz Chord Bible

Most jazz standards come from a fake book.

This is where you will learn all of the most common standards that are played time and time again.

From Autumn Leaves, So What, to Little Sunflower, you will quickly learn the chords to jam along in any situation.

Additionally, a chord bible may also be a good investment for when you don’t know how to play a chord.

This is also helpful for exploring various chord voicings, to get the perfect tone you’re looking for.

Books and lectures on Youtube are great resources for learning the complex subject of jazz theory.

Most importantly, learning how to read lead sheet symbols is essential for playing jazz guitar.

Play Along With Backing Tracks

While playing along with pals is a great way to get practice, sometime you have no friends that can play with you.

Luckily you can look up virtually any jazz tune and I bet you can find a backing track to jam along with.

If not, look up recorded versions and try to keep up with chord changes. The speed feature on You tube is particularly useful for this reason!

Sing The Intervals Of Your Chords

Breaking up your chords into arpeggios is a great way to get familiar with the sound and feel of a key.

Bonus points if you can sing along with the notes you play.

This is a highly underrated technique, as not only does it train your voice, but your ear for hearing different chord qualities.

Listen To Jazz Music

It should be no secret that listening to popular Jazz musicians and the various sub genres of Jazz is necessary for becoming a great player.

Try listening to Freddie Green, Joe Pass, or Wes Montgomery, for starters. Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue is a must listen for those looking to get into jazz music.

If you live in a city with live music, find out where live jazz music is being played!

Related: Easy R&B Chord Progressions That Sound Great

Frequently Asked Questions

What chords are in jazz?

Jazz music incorporates a wide range of chords, including major 7th, dominant 7th, minor 7th, diminished 7th, half-diminished 7th, augmented 7th, altered dominant 7th, suspended 4th, minor major 7th, major 6th, minor 6th, dominant 9th, dominant 13th, major 9th, major 11th, major 13th, minor 9th, minor 11th, minor 13th chords, and inversions, among others.

These chords, often used with extended and altered notes, create the rich and diverse harmonic palette that defines jazz music, allowing for intricate and expressive improvisations.

You may like: Japanese Chord Progressions

What are 4 elements of jazz guitar?

The four elements of jazz are improvisation, syncopation, swing feel, and blue notes.

Improvisation is the spontaneous creation of melodies and solos.

Syncopation involves accenting off-beats, giving jazz its distinctive rhythmic complexity.

Swing feel refers to the rhythmic groove and forward momentum that characterizes jazz music.

Blue notes are the flattened or bent pitches that infuse jazz with emotional expressiveness and add a unique flavor to melodies and chords.

Read: Slash Chords On Guitar! Unlock Your Playing!

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