Play It Loud

jazz guitar lesson, jazz guitar chords

Comping, two five changes, dorian modes, altered scales, and m7b5 chords are a few of the many pieces of jargon you’ll hear when it comes to Jazz guitar. And none of it gets down to the heart of what it really is.

I read an article recently that used words like this, as well as supplying recommendations I study “jazz literature” and see how the “jazz greats” use C7#11 chords. It was all a bunch of bull.

No genre of music comes down to one or two guitar techniques or chords like C7#11. Instead it’s the combination of harmony and rhythm that creates the unique chord progressions and instrumental parts that create Jazz, Country, Rock, or any genre. Once that step is completed you’ll THEN be playing Jazz guitar over all of that.

It’s a whole lot easier to give you a lick, or list a bunch of chord shapes, then send you on your way. But I had to navigate through all of this confusion to get something out of it, and I’m going to help you reap the benefits of this style of music too, without going through the same effort.

wes montgomery jazz guitar lesson, jazz guita chords

The first question I asked every article about jazz guitar was “Why?” What does this have to do with all the rock music that fills the rest of the guitar magazine? Why do I have to learn this?

I’ll save you a lot of time. None of the concepts I mentioned in the beginning ever show up in the standard guitarist’s repertoire. You’re free to exit now if you thought that’s what Jazz will teach you.

What it actually helps you learn how to do is:

  • Arrange melodies with chords
  • Learn how to play over rapid fire chord changes
  • Rethink how you can play lead guitar over any chord
  • And also learn where most popular music like Hip-Hop, R&B, or Funk comes from.

Most guitarists are not interested in learning any of this. They want to know how Dimebag Darrell pulls off those crazy harmonics at the end of Cemetery Gates.

Others like myself want to learn, but are intimidated by its complexity. The only solution to anything complex is to simplify.

But before we get down to simplifying, let’s see how it influences music we’ve probably heard before.

Ebm9      Ab/Bb Bb        Ab/Bb B

That riff is from Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” and uses a ii – V progression from Ebm to Ab.


Bm7/A G#m7b5   F#m7 Em9      D  G   E/G#
Gmaj7  Em9      F#m7  Bm

That one covers the hit MoTown song “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and uses a variety of jazz chords as well as a cool bassline reminiscent of the genre.


Cmaj9    E7b9  E7+  Am7  Am7/G   Fmaj7 Dm7/G

An example from Stevie Wonder’s “Knocks Me Off My Feet” from his Songs In The Key Of Life album.


And finally an example from 50 Cent. The song “In Da Club”:

F#m  C#m C#m/E  D#m7b5      (Rpt)

Hopefully you like a few of those artists, but if not, you now know that you hear the principles of Jazz all the time.

So to avoid dense music theory, and suggesting the use of concepts you may or not ever use, let’s demonstrate the truth about Jazz guitar.

joe pass, jazz guitar lesson

Jazz’s 1st Truth

Read closely.

You don’t have to learn jazz scales. In fact, it’s a waste of time.

By “Jazz Scales” I mean the altered, bebop, half-diminished, whole-diminished, dorian, and even the mixolydian scale patterns. Almost every article I’ve ever read has taken the time to patiently lay out the patterns to each one, but you only need to know one.

The minor pentatonic scale. Huh?

That’s right! When you understand the chord-scale relationship, you’ll see how silly it is to obsess over scale patterns.

Jazz’s 2nd Truth

A lot of Jazz is built on a very fundamental harmonic device called a ii – V chord change. All this means is that you’ll see a lot minor chords moving to a major chord in this genre. More specifically, you’ll see many versions of minor 7th chords moving to dominant 7th chords.

Gm7 to C7 is an example.

You need to practice seeing the minor 7th chord shapes of Gm7, as well as dominant 7th chord shapes like C7, and then use scales, arpeggios, or whatever to play over it. This is most of jazz right there!

Now not every Jazz chord progression is going to be based in a minor key, or use that change. However the move from a m7 to a dominant 7th is very key to the sound at most times.

Other harmonic devices include all the funny chords you see like D7#9, Am7b5, C9, Bmaj7, Em9, and so forth are also a part of the vocabulary. These are all used in ii-V changes, as well as building a major or minor key signature as a song’s framework.

It’s impossible to give a complete lesson in Jazz harmony here unfortunately. But if you were to look for all of this in the music of jazz guitar gods like Wes Montgomery or Django Reinhardt’s, you’ll find it.

By the way, the 7#11 chord is in the song “Four On Six” by Wes Montgomery, if you’re curious.

Jazz’s 3rd Truth

It’s about playing over a normally giant chord progression, and it has a structural pattern you can identify. I’ve picked up my Jazz Fake Book and randomly selected a page to demonstrate the previous two truths to you.

Fmaj7 – F#dim7 – Gm7 – G#dim7 – Fmaj7/A – Cm7 – F7 – Bbmaj7 – Eb7 – Fmaj7 – Dm7 – Gm7 – C7 – A7 – D7 – Gm7 – C7

This is the main progression to a song called “Easy Living” by Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger. All the musical knowledge I’ve given you so far can tell you how to play over it.

Telling you to forget about choosing a magic scale would let you adapt to each chord change, or even use several scales for each appropriate harmony. Most of the problems with teaching jazz guitar is thinking that there’s only one scale that can be used for each chord.

Seeing the ii-V progression is tough because it’s buried deep in there. However you do see a lot of the extended chords I’ve already mentioned like dominant 7th chords and minor 7th chords. Again, explaining how it all relates to the home key of F major is difficult, but know that Jazz guitar is all about the mixture of those two key harmonic concepts.

And Gm7 to C7, as well as Cm7 to F7, are the ii – V progressions.

Jazz’s 4th Truth

The big secret to making your guitar lines sound jazzy is to hit a jazz chord tone at the appropriate beat, with the right harmony. These tones include the ones you see in the chord progression above, but also the flat 5th, major 9th, sus4, minor 2nd or flat 9th, etc of each appropriate harmony.

The big advantage that I have over you is that I can see all these chord shapes and jazz tones intersecting each other, even in the progression above even though I’ve never seen it before.

That’s okay, it took me a long time to learn that, and these four truths are what will unlock all of it for you.


Harmony and Theory are dense subjects. They’re not easy to summarize in lessons like this, which is why many before me have refused to address them.

But to really get jazz guitar, you’ll have to learn things like:

  • Why several Jazz chords are “polytonal”
  • How to use mixolydian and dorian scales (hint: they’re just variations of the standard pentatonic scale patterns)
  • Setting up a chord progression like “Easy Living” and then understanding how it relates to the key of F major it’s placed in
  • See several chord shapes across the neck for playing several harmonies
  • Understanding how ii-V changes work in Jazz

That’s a little about what Jazz guitar really is, and a silly lesson about C7#11 chords won’t help you learn it. But the four truths I’ve just told you will help.

To repeat them, they are:

  • You only need to understand the chord-scale relationship, and not memorize dozens of scale patterns that differ very little from each other. The minor pentatonic, as well as the major and minor scales, are all you need to know.
  • Jazz is mostly about m7 chords going to dominant 7th chords, like from Gm7 to C7. These are ii-V changes and they’re a fundamental harmonic concept in Jazz.
  • The chord progressions are long, but understanding how they work will prepare you better than any lick can. The more you know about maj7, m9, m7b5, and other polytonal jazz chords and how they fit into a key signature, the more control you’ll gain over jazz structures.
  • Jazz lines are usually nothing but major or minor scales with diminished 5ths, minor 3rds played as passing tones to major 3rds, minor 2nds-flat 9ths, and of course the chord tones of the harmonies you’re playing over.

I base all my knowledge of Jazz by studying the great guitarists Wes Montgomery, Django Reinhardt, and Joe Pass. There are more like Charlie Christian, but it’s better to stick with one or two people to learn from, at least at first.

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