Jazz Guitar Tips: Chord Cycles

Jazz Guitar Tips: Chord Cycles

And we're back to jazz guitar harmony with today's tip, which is:

Play your chords through jazz chord cycles!

This is a very straightforward little jazz guitar trick to add to your arsenal. Personally, I basically see the chord cycles as a simple tool to play in all keys. For instance, once you learn a chord, a lick or a song, it can be beneficial to attempt to play it in 12 keys. How? Using chord cycles!

And, yes: usually it's the cycle of fourths. And it's exactly what were are doing in the video here. But just for comping (don't worry, we are not about to play Donna Lee in twelve keys now!) 



Chord Cycles? (Some background)

Yup. This has been discussed at length on the JazzGuitarLessons.net website already. See this page for chord cycles that are chromatic (i.e. not in a specific key) such as the cycle of fourth (picture below).

And also see this page for diatonic (i.e. chords all pertaining to one key signature) chord cycle.

jazz chord cycles

"Ok. So what now?"

Well, in the video lesson what we are doing is playing the cycle of fourths (up a fourth) starting from C. Basically, the roots happen in this order:

jazz chord cycles

In the video, we play this together in shell voicings (see the jazz guitar tip: 3-note chords) applied to dominant chords. But, as mentioned in the video, it's also a good idea to apply the same concept to major 7th and minor 7th type of shell voicings

Cycling Jazz Chords: Why?

As always, some sort of "the teacher needs to justify the material" part of the blog post here ...


If you play in chord cycles, you'll learn all keys as a result. You simply get used to the key centers changing often (just like what happens when performing jazz tunes for real.)

Plus, playing chords through the cycle of fourths is a great technical exercise.

Listen now: I'm not really fond of pure technique. I don't like moving fingers just for the athletics of it. To me, technical exercises need a solid musical foundation (I mean, I need a good reason beyond muscle memory to get practicing something. I'm lazy like that! )

So here it is. Best advice: play your chords in the cycle of fourths, it's great for your technique!

(That went well, wow!)

Last reason (and a good one indeed) for practicing chord cycles: music naturally happens in cycle and sequences. The cycle of fourths happens in virtually all standard tunes. It is the basis for the II-V-I cadence and many more timeless chord progressions.

Thus, by working on chord cycles, you gain insights into how harmony naturally occurs in most familiar songs. You'll better grasp cadences and chord sequences from a theoretical perspective.

Getting It Under Your Fingers

The workout:

  • Take shell voicings for dominant 7th, minor 7th and major 7th chord types and play them through the cycle of fourths.
  • Go! Do it!

See the video above, or ...

A Little Help ...

I know this can be a tremendous task. You need precise exercises and chord grips to get you started. Here's an interesting course:

How to play jazz guitar: comp lots!

If you can already play some jazz chords on familiar tunes, I highly recommend you check out the online course Jazz Guitar Chords: Lessons 2In this video eCourse, we cover many chord cycles, including the II-V-I progression (with different extensions), advanced jazz blues and more... PDF with tabs included.