Jazz Improvisation Pillar #2: Connecting Chords Logically

Let’s continue our exploration of the 3 jazz improvisation pillars. In this blog post, we are going to learn about Pillar #2: connecting chords logically. “What does that mean?”, you may ask. It means that you aim to outline the changes from the current chord to the next one. Your single note lines should reflect the chord progression you play on.

Also, you need to maintain the ability to play only 100% correct notes as we saw in our previous blog post. It is extremely important to keep doing what you did in the previous pillar in order to become a great improviser.

You can get the PDF with the musical examples we refer to by clicking the link below:

“Jazz Improvisation Pillar #2” Exercises on Tune Up PDF

The Basics: Guide-Tones

In order to connect chords smoothly, you need to know about the guide-tones of your chords. Guide-tones are the most defining tones of a chord or the strongest ones.

Usually, they are the 3rd and the 7th of your chord. Forget about extensions and alterations for a minute. These tones are the only information you need to qualify a chord. They identify if the said chord is major, minor or dominant.

It easily relates to Pillar #1 since you are playing 100% correct note and those notes happen to be the foundation of your chords.

Try to comp over Miles Davis’ amazing tune, Tune Up, only with guide tones. You will see how amazing it is that, even without playing the root, you make your point perfectly clear in terms of chord progression.

Connecting Chords: Comp With Guide Tones

Connecting Chords with Motion

The essential, smooth and logic motion: going from the 7th of the previous chord to the 3rd of the next one.

This idea works very well when you encounter a ii-V-I progression (which, apparently, is everywhere in jazz standards, just saying). It creates a tension that is immediately resolved. This is the most recognizable sound in jazz that you should aim for. Afterward, you may add any note you want to “embellish” your guide-tone lines (we will talk about this very shortly).

This is the foundation, you may after that you may add any note you want to “embellish” your guide tones’ motions.

One interesting fact that you will notice, either visually or by ear, is that this 7th -> 3rd motion is always one half-step or whole-step away. You do not have to play any weird interval, your “bridge” to connecting chords is a very short one.

Don’t believe me? Try it on this ii-V-I progression in D that corresponds to the first bars of “Tune Up”. Play the 3rd for 3 beats, the 7th of the same chord for 1 beat and then play the 3rd of the next one:

Connecting Chords: Motion

Embellish With The Good Notes

When you start to get it, you will be bored by those two-note lines. This means that it is time to bring back Pillar #1 again and play the 100% correct notes and connect chords.

The best way to start shifting gear is to include arpeggios into your playing. As I mentioned in the previous section, the 7th -> 3rd motion is a good bridge for connecting chords. This means you can play the arpeggio from the root to the 7th (R-3-5-7) and land on the 3rd of the next chord. How cool is that?

Connecting Chords: Embellish

To make things more interesting, you can replace the arpeggio tones with other scale tones (or you can simply add notes). At this point, you are starting to mix Pillar #1 and #2 together and you should just have fun with it, while still playing under the constraints of landing on guide-tones and play the good notes.

For an example in the context of a full song, you can check the PDF follow the exercise on Mile Davis’  Tune Up

That’s it. Start working on connecting chords logically to make your solo “tell a story” or “giving a speech”. Next week, we will finish our series with an article on Pillar #3: Articulate You Lines.

Do not forget to grab the PDF with the musical examples to really get a hand of the concept here:

“Jazz Improvisation Pillar #2” Exercises on Tune Up PDF


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.

6 thoughts on “Jazz Improvisation Pillar #2: Connecting Chords Logically

  1. HI Ny great asvice here. I try to do tha t with the songs I m studyng with my jazz guitar instructor. I actually use to write down the guode notes (3 and 7) next to each chord of the chaty and look at it while improvising
    . I manage to get them right more or less and slowly while improvising . After numerous choruses. I also manage to remember some on the frearbord so as to solo in a consistent way along practice sessions. However I seem to be at a loss when soloing ( I e jam) on a new tune. Without having pre identifies
    them on paper i have a hard time in hitting the guide tones. Any avdice?

    • Hi Angelo, Nathan here, replying to this comment and your previous comment. This is probably the hardest and most frustrating part for beginning jazz guitarists. One thing I’d highly recommend is to sing the guide tones of each chord against the bass note of each chord (played on your guitar). Just sing them, 3rds first, then try again with 7ths; don’t play anything except the root note. This is great practice for actually starting to hear the essence of each chord instead of just identifying the “right” notes consciously. As you achieve proficiency in this exercise, you’ll notice your ears will begin to gravitate toward those specific notes that you practiced – you’ll be able to hear them better, and you’ll actually want to hear them on your guitar!

  2. Hi Nathan thank you so very much for this specific and highly practical advice. I ‘ll start this immediately with my 4 tunes I m learning ( for more than a year now) and i ‘ll integrate this in my practice routine, probably on rotation ( all 3rds first tune, all 7ths first tune, all 3 rd s4cond tune, etcv) to make more digestible and less boring.Much appreciated !

  3. Great little “micro” lessons with broad implications. Smooth transitions are often overlooked and/or delayed as we find the next chord as it is being played not the measure before…

    thanks, dkw

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