From the Dorian mode to the dominant seventh chord, many of the mainstays of jazz can seem completely foreign to guitarists trained in classical, rock and metal playing styles that require an entirely different chord and scale repertoire.
Luckily, jazz guitar is surprisingly easy to learn once you understand the basics of music theory and the specific techniques used in jazz music. From the top licks for jazz solos to the best chord progressions, read on to learn the basics of jazz guitar.
Are you just starting your jazz guitar lessons? Before you start learning jazz scales, chord progressions and specific techniques, master the basics of playing an electric guitar with our Complete Guitar System: Beginner to Advanced course.
The basics of music theory for jazz rhythm guitarists
Since so much of jazz guitar is based on improvisational ability, it’s essential to have a strong command of music theory. From scales and modes to chords and arpeggios, knowing what note to play – and when to play it – is part of what makes the best jazz guitarists stand out from the pack.
Jazz guitar songs are built around the same foundations as al genres of guitar-based music: rhythm, chord progressions and melody. What gives jazz guitar its distinctive sound is the type of chord progressions – and more importantly, the type of chords – that are specifically used in jazz music.
Most of the chords used in jazz music are modified versions of the standard major and minor chords. Jazz music gets its specific rhythm sound from the addition of new notes to these chords – extra intervals like fourths, sixths and sevenths.
Before you start playing jazz rhythm guitar, it’s important to learn the fundamentals of constructing major and minor chords on the guitar in open and bar positions. Mastering the Art of Guitar Chords will teach you step-by-step how to play chords in any position on the neck of the guitar using open and bar chord techniques.
Constructing the chords used in jazz rhythm guitar
Rather than the I-V-VI-IV chord progression used so frequently in pop and modern rock, the most frequently used chord progression in jazz is the II-V-I pattern. This chord progression is one of many popular chord progressions used in jazz music.
Although the II-V-I chord progression is simple, it can be spiced up using a number of ‘color chords.’ Color chords are variations on standard major and minor chords that add extra notes such as the fourth, sixth and seventh intervals.
The most common color chord in jazz guitar is the seventh chord. The simple II-V-I chord progression listed above is usually played with the major and minor seventh variants of the standard chords.
Played in the key of C in a modern pop or rock song, the chord progression would be built around the following chords: D minor, G major and C major. It’s a simple chord progression that, although written with jazz in mind, still suits modern pop music.
In jazz, however, color chords like sixths and sevenths are used to spice up a chord progression that’s remarkably simple in structure. In jazz, the chords used would in the above progression would be: D minor 7th G major 7th and C major 7th.
Jazz rhythm guitarists might even spice up the rhythm chord progression even more by adding in a 6th interval to the final chord to create resolution. When this chord is added, it becomes: D minor 7th, G major 7th, C major 7th, and C major 6th.
These color chords are what give jazz its unique, stylish sound. With basic musical theory knowledge, constructing color chords to add to your chord progressions is straightforward and simple.
Would you like to learn how to give your rhythm guitar chord progressions a jazzy and unique sound? Learn the basics of constructing jazz chords and making chord progressions in any key with our course, Jazz Guitar Chords: Introduction.
Learning how to play jazz lead guitar solos and melodies
Most jazz compositions have two guitar parts: the rhythm guitar part, which plays chord progressions, and the lead guitar part. Jazz lead guitarists play a variety of different melodies, solos and improvised leads during a performance.
More so than other forms of contemporary guitar music, jazz lead guitar involves a lot of improvisation. Because of this, jazz lead guitarists need strong knowledge of the scale that they’re playing in and its various modes.
The standard eight-note major scale has seven different modes, the sixth of which – the Aeolian mode – form the natural minor scale. The most popular mode for jazz guitar is the Mixolydian mode, which is used to construct the famous Bebop scale.
Understanding how to choose the right scale and mode to improvise over common jazz chord progressions will help you stand out as a guitarist. Learn how to create the seven basic modes from any scale in our Theory and Practice of Modes on the Guitar course.
Beyond learning the modes of the major scale – as well as other interesting scales like the Bebop and Blues scale – one of the best ways to improve your lead guitar skills is by memorizing simple licks, arpeggios and picking patterns.
Do you want to add some unique and memorable licks to your repertoire of jazz guitar solos? Learn how to naturally improvise great solos over any jazz backing track or chord progression with an Introduction to Lead Guitar.
Learn more about how to play jazz guitar
While the basics of jazz guitar are surprisingly easy to learn, it’s one of the hardest styles of modern electric guitar to master. From complicated chord progressions to fast and challenging licks, mastering jazz guitar requires a great deal of practice.
If you’d like to master the basics of jazz guitar in just a few hours, read our blog post on the three easiest jazz guitar chords to add to your musical vocabulary. Also, read our blog post on jazz chord progressions to learn three basic jazz progressions that you can use to improve your jazz rhythm guitar skills today.