You’re able to play barre chords, you might’ve tried experimenting with your finger positioning, moving frets or taking fingers off. If you have, you’ll have found that the sound of the chord changes drastically with even small changes, unlocking a whole new dimension to your playing and to the chords that you choose to use in songwriting.
However, there are other chords all over the neck that aren’t necessarily barre chords. These chords can come in odd shapes, and can sometimes even sound a little weird. These are the jazz chords – chords that jazz musicians usually use to write music, create more interesting chord progressions and songs, and that can be used to make up that stereotypical jazz harmony sound.
In this guide, we’re going to explain what jazz chords are, explore where you might have heard them in famous songs already, take a look at some common major and minor versions of them, and give you a chart of common jazz chord shapes that you can move up and down the neck.
What are Jazz Chords?
Jazz chords are chord triads with a little extra on the side. Usually, they incorporate a seventh note into the chord to add some tension to an otherwise normal chord. The most interesting thing about these chords is that they’re almost entirely as complex or as simple as you want them to be. If you’re very comfortable with music theory and jazz theory you might find that you can improvise and do all kinds of things with a basic chord; removing the fifth note is quite common – you could even remove the root of the chord if you’re playing with a group and somebody else is holding that note down (for instance, a bassist). However, removing notes is only half of the equation.
Particularly on a guitar, when you remove a note you free up a finger – which you can then use to add an additional note to the chord. This is definitely the area where some knowledge of musical theory is useful, especially knowledge about how scales work. You could add in a ninth note, or a thirteenth – I personally like to use 11th chords. There are no real limits here, and as far as your harmony goes it really becomes up to you; are you leading the melody, or providing the rhythm? Are you in the spotlight, or do you need to blend in with the band and make sure you don’t pick chords and notes that will clash with other members and make the music sound sour?
For this post though, we’re going to keep things a little more simple – the chords won’t sound any less great, but we’ll save the music theory lessons for another time. Let’s move on to where you would have heard some jazz chords before in popular music – and a few of these might surprise you.
Jazz Chords in Popular Songs
You might not think it – but you can find jazz chords in one of the biggest songs from one of the biggest grunge bands of all time. If you’re a fan of grunge, you’ll know how unique Stone Temple Pilots sound. From their debut, Core, an album widely accused at the time of ripping off Pearl Jam, they grew and matured hugely over the next two albums until they were playing a strange kind of bossa-nova influenced alternative rock on Tiny Music… Songs From The Vatican Gift Shop. Dean DeLeo, the guitarist for Stone Temple Pilots, takes a lot of influence from jazz and jazz musicians like Wes Montgomery – and this is absolutely the most evident on one of my favourite songs of all time, Interstate Love Song. The jangly intro gives way to an undeniably jazzy walkdown through a number of chords over the verses, including three 7th chords and an 11th chord at the end of each verse.
The Beatles were also fans of jazz chords – particularly 7th chords. 7th chords have a very late 60’s kind of sound to them (to me at least!) and I’m sure this is in no small part thanks to the Beatles’ uses of them in massive chart-topping hits like Let It Be (which features 7th and 6th chords), And Your Bird Can Sing (which has a few 7th chords), and Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (which is almost entirely built from 7th chords). This seemed to spread over into the individual members of The Beatles themselves, with George Harrison incorporating 7th chords into his 1970 album All Things Must Pass, and even John Lennon using them in arguably his most famous solo work, Imagine.
Of course, no mention of jazz chords would be complete without, in my opinion, the most famous jazz chord of all time – the Hendrix chord. Used in Purple Haze, the Hendrix chord is an E chord with a 7th and a sharpened 9th note. It’s impossible to play this chord and not think of Hendrix – here’s a diagram of how to play it:
Here, the low E, high E and the E note (fret 7 on the A string) are providing the root of the chord. The G# note on the D string (fret 6) is the third of the chord, while the D note on the G string (7th fret) is where things start to get interesting. This is the minor seventh of E, turning this chord into a dominant seventh chord. However, the addition of the higher G note (8th fret on the B string) turns this chord into a dominant seventh sharpened ninth chord, written like this: E7#9. Jazz chord names can sometimes look more than a little daunting when you see them written out, with a combination of letters, symbols and numbers. It’s nothing to worry about though, you can easily break them down just by looking at the names.
With those out of the way – let’s move on to look at some common major chords used in jazz.
Major Jazz Chords
As with basic chords, jazz chords have both major and minor-sounding variations.
Major Seventh Chords
Probably the most common of the jazz chords — the way to make a major seventh chord is to simply add a seventh to an existing major chord. This typically is done with the pinky finger – so I hope you’ve been doing your stretches! You can add to your open chords like this:
Or create a moveable barre chord with these shapes:
In the above examples, I’ve highlighted the “root” note of the chord. The root indicates what chord you’ll be playing (in this case, for both chord shapes we’re putting the root on the 3rd fret – meaning we’re playing a C on the fifth string, or a G on the sixth string). To change the chord, all you have to do is move the shape up or down the neck, so that the root matches the note that you want. For example, if you wanted to play a D7, with the root on the fifth string, you’d simply move the first chord shape up so that you’re barring the fifth fret.
There are also some 7th chords that have more interesting shapes – these are a little more complex, so if you look into playing these, practice shifting your fingers in and out of these shapes slowly at first! I won’t be including those here, as this is a beginners introduction to jazz chords and the above barre shapes will give you a good foundation to understand how they work.
Major Sixth Chords
These are a little more tricky than the 7th chords, requiring slightly more complex finger positioning. They’re also more tricky to use in songs, as while they are major chords, they can carry a bit of a minor sound. They’re typically used for jazz chord progressions or melodies that switch between major and minor – a really interesting thing to master! Here’s how you can make moveable major 6th shapes to play up and down the neck:
The C6 isn’t so tricky to play as it’s essentially just the open C7 (without playing any open strings), and then moving your pinky back one fret to hit the sixth. However, the G6 is a more difficult shape – make sure you practice slowly at first, because you really need to mute the fifth string and make sure it doesn’t ring out. Don’t worry if it sounds bad at first, just keep trying!
With the major shapes out of the way, let’s move on to where things get really jazzy – the minor shapes.
Minor Jazz Chords
Minor jazz chords are interesting, because realistically as a solo guitar player you might struggle to play a minor 11th or minor 13th and have it sound good. This is because the chords you can make on a guitar are a little more limited than a piano; on a piano, you have ten fingers to work with – that’s ten notes. With a guitar, you’ve got four fingers — maybe even a thumb over the top if you’re like Jimi Hendrix!
When jazz musicians play minor 11th and minor 13th chords, they typically remove some extra notes from the chord, for instance the root or the fifth, and rely on other musicians to fill that space for them, creating a chord as a band rather than as one instrument. This takes skill, teamwork and experience – so don’t be discouraged if you’re looking at the chords for a song, and you play a chord correctly but it sounds a little weird. It took me ages to figure that out!
There are still minor jazz chords that you can play, though – here’s a couple of examples:
Minor Ninth Chords
Again, I’ve highlighted the roots in red. There are multiple ways to play minor ninth chords, but these shapes are moveable around the fretboard and in my experience are the easiest to play – it doesn’t mean they’re simple though, so get some warmups and stretching in first!
Minor Seventh Chords
Back to a little bit of simplicity with these chords – an easy way to spice up any minor chord progression or sad song. These are the minor versions of the major seventh chords we learnt earlier, and as always these shapes are moveable up and down the neck.