Comping Like a True Jazz Guitar Master is Only a Few Clicks Away - Start with Basic Shell Chords!
Jazz guitar chords: don’t worry! Keep calm and play good comping. The jazz chord symbols may look like ZIP codes, but they’re totally possible for your fingers to play. You just relax, follow this guide and enjoy the ride. Our ultimate guide (actually, YOUR ultimate guide!) contains everything you’ll need to:
A) get started with jazz chords and harmony (from the beginning!); or
B) further refine your comping skills on the guitar
So read on and please make this page a reference! Bookmark it and come back often.
Comping Should be Your #1 Priority
Not just any comping however. The goal of this whole endeavor is for you to comp good jazz guitar chords on songs (jazz standards — see our list here). Playing the chords in the context of a song is really the best way to learn them. You’ll discover the true worth of the exercise when you hear it give shape and sound to your favorite tunes. It won’t be long before you see how how vital these songs are to your learning and your enjoyment!
When you’re playing with other musicians, you'll be comping most of the time. Therefore, jazz guitar comping becomes your #1 priority! It’s the skill on which you’ll depend on and use the most.
Take your time. Read slowly through the material, and begin applying these ideas on your guitar. It may take a while to digest everything, and that’s ok! It’s a lifelong process.
Here’s a tip: When first starting, don’t skim over the basics. Before jumping into a complicated chord melody comping style over a jazz standard — or navigating more intricate chord progressions — you should have a few "chord shells” memorized. You’ll also want to have some basic chord shapes at your command as well. Get really comfortable with these fundamentals before attempting the more complicated stuff such as using chord substitutions. Ensure you know the basics, and you’ll have a better understanding of what comes later. The underlying building blocks you establish early on will be very valuable once you attempt the fancier ideas.
Remember, be musical and tasteful in your comping! It’s really not how many chords you know … it’s how well you use them. Using a large selection of chord changes or cool chord substitutions works best if the final result SWINGING! So keep it simple, and the rest will follow. Trust me. Have fun and make good music!
Beginners: How to Read Lead Sheets (Using Chord Shells)
Getting started with jazz guitar chords is pretty easy. In fact, there’s a practical way to play on any jazz standard (or blues) as an accompanist using only 3-note chords, and it's called playing shell voicings. Shell voicings are easy to play (easier than barre chords!), sound good immediately and ultimately define the harmony of the song without frills.
Shell voicings are three-note chords: root, 3rd degree and 7th degree
Here's an example of the three shell chords you'll need to comp on a basic blues in Bb.
When you read a lead sheet, notice the chords with 9, 13 and other numbers added. These are called “extensions.” It’s a strange concept to grasp at first, so your job is to always simplify the chords into their basic 7th form. For example, if you see Am9, you will play Am7. Therefore, to begin, there are only three types of shell voicings to learn:
- Minor 7, with m7 or -7 for the symbol (example: Am7)
- Dominant 7, with "just 7" in the symbol (example: A7)
- Major 7, with maj7 in the symbol (example: Amaj7)
Work thoroughly through this shell voicings lesson, and come back here when you're done.
Beginners: Learning Basic Jazz Guitar Chord Shapes
Next, we’ll work on the most basic chord shapes on the guitar. You can think of this like learning the basic E, A, D, etc. chord shapes when you first learned to do barre chords. One thing that’s different in jazz music, however, is the chords always have numbers added them. You'll find 7, 9, 13, 11, sometimes 6 or even 4.
If you’ve mastered the chord shells above, and if you’ve started adding extensions to chord shells, the next logical step is learning chord shapes. Here is a very decent jazz guitar chord chart with dozens of useful shapes. And here’s a second chord chart, featuring more “complicated” chords using altered tones.
Many of these chord shapes will become your go-to “grips,” because they are all movable on the guitar, just like barre chords. Usually the root (bass) note is found at the bottom, and it’s therefore very easy to transpose. See the red dot in the picture above (its, the root).
Always think like a barre chord and identify the bass note at first. For example: you have a barred G major at fret 3, and the same shape at fret 5 is an A major. Same concept applies to these guitar chord shapes.
To wrap up, the first chord chart is your reference. The second chord chart is useful sometimes too, especially as you advance. And don’t forget — the “chord shells” are always useful, and they’ll remain in your bag of tricks for their simplicity and ease.
In a hurry? Learn all these shapes (and more) in one sitting in with this "96 chords in 10 minutes" lesson here ...
Beginners: Learn Basic Chord Construction
If you’re a beginner, and you’re interested in music theory, then I urge you to look at all the resources available in the theory section here.
But if you’re not a theory buff, and you'll want to get the straight dope. Here’s the dope: Chords are built in intervals of thirds. Start by looking at a scale. You start with one note, and skip a note to get the next note in the chord. The first note is “1,” the third note is ”3”
For instance, look at the C major scale: C D E F G A B. If you want to sound a CMajor7 chord, play only the notes in bold: C D E F G A B. And we say that the CMajor7 chord contains the notes 1-3-5-7. That’s it!
You’ll soon be confortable with this basic principle, and you’ll also notice there’s more about chords and harmony than just going “up a third.” Chords used in jazz almost always include four notes, reaching at least up to the 7th. See this basic jazz chord construction article here to learn more.
Jazz players also commonly add extensions to chords such as 9, 11 and 13, as explained in this article on adding extensions to chords.
The Jazz Chords Beginner MILESTONE Test
If you’re just starting out using jazz guitar chords, here’s what you should strive towards during the next 3-6 months:
- Comping shell voicings on 3 standard tunes of your choice
- Being (at least) familiar with comping on II-V-I using shells as demonstrated in this PDF
- Ideally, being able to play through the PDF above.
Once you're able to do all of the above, you’re ready for the next level! You’re no longer a beginner and you’ll be looking into more advanced comping topics soon. See below, keep reading!
What About Rhythm?
Right, great question. What about rhythm?! A good complete “Ultimate Guide” needs to address rhythms — at least some basics. So often we’re focussed on the notes, the chords shapes, the chord progressions … that we forget the rhythmic component needed to play these ideas! My perspective: play jazz guitar comping from your heart, and let the rhythms flow. Don’t play against the grain, and listen with great focus to whoever you’re accompanying.
Here’s a little something to sink your teeth into. Try these three dependable rhythmic comping ideas:
Four to the floor (aka "chunk chunk chunk ..." or "poum tchak")
Simply play quarter-notes throughout. Easy enough?
Half-notes (aka "Half-time" or "playing in two")
Simply play in half-notes. Many older musicians call this "playing in two, or will say "let's play in two for the first chorus". You'll play two half-notes rhythms in each measure, thus the term "two!"
Did you know? You can get creative, and rhythmically displace the half-note rhythm around the bar to create variety. Here's a video about this...
The Charlestons (aka "dotted-quarter, eighth")
This is a very common rhythm in (virtually) all music genres, including non-jazz. We hear the Charleston rhythm even in ethnic music, hip hop, classical, etc. It’s a very natural rhythmic figure to play.
Did you know? You can take that Charleston figure and displace it around the bar to create an almost infinite amount of rhythmic combinations. See this video to discover about displacing the Charleston rhythm.
Jazz Guitar Chords: Intermediate
(or at least "non-beginners")
As an intermediate player, you’re beginning to know what you are looking for when comping. Your aim is to comp on tunes … lots and lots of tunes. Your instincts, and rhythmic feel and your chordal vocabulary are improving. Now it’s time to add some more complexity to your playing. Here are some resources to get to work and add some more depth to the harmonic component of your playing.
Comping on Blues
Learning to comp and improvise on blues is an extremely valuable tool for understanding and mastering harmony on the guitar. See our the blues section here for our selection of recommended blues tunes. What’s more, the blues form (in a jazz context) is a great way to get playing with strangers at a jam session.
Words of wisdom: play blues in several keys, ideally in all of the keys! I was once sitting in at a jam session and the horn player asked me what I wanted to play. I said: “Db blues”. He immediately replied: “Alright. Gb.” He counted in the band, and he had a huge grin on his face. True story! So always be prepared for the unexpected … Db OR Gb! ;)
Learning (More) Chords: Altered and Diatonic
As an intermediate player, it’s a great idea to launch yourself into learning some altered chords. You’ve seen these on lead sheets and in fake books. Some of the chords look like ZIP codes!
For instance, G7#9b5 … or G7alt.! Here’s a chord chart to get your started playing altered chords properly. There is a lot of color to be found using these types of chords. The alterations are interchangeable, so learn as many as you can. Then you can choose which ones are right for the situation.
Another great way to learn several chords efficiently is to understand where chords come from. Learning this area of music theory is an important step towards a having a solid understanding of the cool hip stuff you’re starting to get into. The simplest answer to the question "Where do chords come from?" is “From within scales!”
Earlier, I suggested that we might just pass over some of theory information. Now that things are getting more advanced, it’s a good idea to have a closer look at how all these fancy chords are developed. We also use the term diatonic chords a lot. The word “diatonic” means “according to the tonic.” Therefore chords that are derived from a scale are deemed “diatonic” to that scale.
Here’s an interesting article covering the seven diatonic chords from three important scales. There’s 21 chords in total, and they’ve been extracted from the major, melodic minor and harmonic minor scales.
Stepping Up to Rootless chords
After “graduating” from a beginner into the intermediate comping world, it’s a great idea to explore jazz guitar chords that do not use the root as the bass note. A practical introductory way to do so is to assemble and play the inversions of typical chord qualities (Maj7, min7, etc.) on the top strings of the guitar.
This is exactly what's happening in the Drop 2 Challenge for jazz guitarists. You'll learn to work through all the inversions of all drop 2 chords onto two string set. Worth taking a look!
Curious About Chord Melody?
If you’ve been comping for long enough, you’re probably starting to explore the world of chord-melody playing. It’s fantastic stuff, and doing so will improve your comping significantly. It’s not the topic of the current post, but here’s a great place to get started. You first steps into chord melody: the FREE 7-day course on Summertime.
Understanding: More Theory for intermediates
As your experience with jazz guitar comping and chord shapes grows with time, you’ll want to add new layers of understanding to your practice. Here are three great places to gather information on the topic of the inner workings of jazz chords and chord progressions.
This Chord progression #1 is a good place to continue. By taking these exercises and playing straight from the chord symbols (using chord shells or chord grips) you’ll understand some of the building blocks of harmony. Very important — DO read all the accompanying instructions!
The no-nonsense guide to jazz harmony (and beyond) strives to answer ALL questions relating to harmony and theory, all in one place. You’ll find answers to questions like “What is a II-V-I and how does it work?” with practice tips, PDFs with voicings and all.
If you’ve got the itch to add extensions to your chords, here’s an introductory look at adding extensions to basic 7th chords. Another good way to access chord extensions os through the use of chord equivalents -- check it out!
The Jazz Guitar Chords Intermediate MILESTONE Test
If you want to consider yourself an intermediate at jazz guitar comping, here’s some of the skills your should master:
- Comping with shell voicings on any standards, while sight reading the chord symbols.
- Know some (or a lot) of altered and extended chords
- Be able to use at least some rootless voicings, in certain context (for instance, on II-V-I)
- Lastly, getting a deeper understanding of chord progressions found in songs (beyond the II-V-I)
How are you doing? If you’re still working on the skills described just above, I recommend you stop reading here. The following tips are for guitarists that are advancing towards the advanced reaches. See you soon!
For "Beyond Intermediates" Players
(because, hey, who says advanced anymore?!?)
Below you’ll find the best resources to take your comping and playing to the next level. Because you're a more experienced jazz guitarist, you'll have to devise your own ways to “divide and conquer” this material. It’s a lifelong journey, so take your time and enjoy the ride!
More Understanding and Applications of Jazz Chords
The “Big Five Exercise” for chords is a great way to warm up, practice diatonic chords, and to understand the usage of the same chord through different voicings. It covers (implicitly) drop 2 and drop 3 chords. More advanced players can take through different keys, and scales — even in melodic minor!
- A thorough lesson on the use of rootless chord voicings over a blues form is found here in The Comping Lesson of Your Dreams
- Some of the best-applied comping instruction in history can be found in Barry Galbraith's (excellent) book Guitar Comping, Volume 3 in the Jazz Guitar Study Series. It's a classic. Many jazz guitar instructors have been using this book for one or two decades! Including yours truly.
Some More Theory
- Chord progression #2 - Modulation and Chord Progression #3 - Minor Progressions give you a good overview of how chords work together. Once again, play through those using the shapes you know. And read the instructions thoroughly, that's where the juice is! :-)
- Jazz Chord Cycles help you to play in all keys. Starting with the cycle of fourths, of course. Next, take a look at some diatonic cycles.
- Chord Substitutions: Jazz Guitarist's Survival Guide. Now that you understand chords and progressions it's time to create effective variations on them. One of the most popular articles on the website!
- Of course, it is recommended that you read ALL the theory available on this website to get better at comping. More specifically how to construct chords, how scales are made, the different types of dominant chords and modes. And more! Enjoy! :-)
Marc-Andre Seguin is the webmaster, “brains behind” and teacher on JazzGuitarLessons.net, the #1 online resource for learning how to play jazz guitar. He draws from his experience both as a professional jazz guitarist and professional jazz teacher to help thousands of people from all around the world learn the craft of jazz guitar.
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