Learn the Basics of Jazz Guitar

Published Categorized as Basic Techniques, Other Lessons and Tips, Rhythm, Scales, Theory
Basics of Jazz Guitar

Many thanks to Marc-Andre Seguin from JazzGuitarLessons.net for providing this guest post. Learn more about the author at the end of the post.

Even if you have no intention of ever being a jazz guitarist, learning the vocabulary is essential to anyone looking to really expand their understanding of improvisational music and music in general.

Jazz has historically been known for pushing the envelope in every aspect of music: melody, harmony, rhythm, and improvisation.

While getting into this style of music, you may feel a little bit overwhelmed and it may seem a bit too daunting a task, but keep pushing. This is normal in the beginning and the rewards are definitely worth the effort.

In this article, we will discuss some of the basics of the music and how it applies to guitar. It would help if you know some very basic music theory, but if not, you will still get something from this lesson. With that said, grab your guitar and join me for the ride, there’s some work to do!

Table of Contents


One of the most recognizable traits of straight-ahead jazz music is its use of swung 8th notes. You can hear this all over the music. In essence, all this means is that a pair of 8th notes is played as if you were playing an 8th note triplet and the first two beats of the triplet were tied.

Here’s a little diagram to give you an idea:

Swung 8th notes

You will hear this applied in any sort of lines at a medium tempo or by the drummer’s hi-hat pattern. With that said, it’s important to note that at really fast and really slow tempos, this practice tends to go out the window. This is because it can sound really clunky at extreme tempos.

Further, accents in this music are often placed on beats two and four. This is typically marked by the drummer’s hi-hat pedal. For a good example of both of these things in action, it’s usually a good idea to listen to a drummer! Check out this video for a good example.

Building Chords with 6ths and 7ths

In jazz, chords with 6ths, 7ths, and upper extensions are often used. To be able to build these, first, we should review some basic triad construction.

These are the four basic triads:

  • Major = C(1) E(3) G(5)
  • Minor = C(1) Eb(b3) G(5)
  • Diminished = C(1) Eb(b3) Gb(b5)
  • Augmented = C(1) E(3) G#(#5)

And now, here are the basic 6th and 7th chords built from adding to these triads:

  • Major 7th = C(1) E(3) G(5) B(7)
  • Dominant 7th = C(1) E(3) G(5) Bb(b7)
  • Major 6th – C(1) E(3) G(5) A(6)
  • Minor 7th = C(1) Eb(b3) G(5) Bb(b7)
  • Minor 7b5 = C(1) Eb(b3) Gb(b5) Bb(b7)
  • Minor 6th = C(1) Eb(b3) G(5) A(6)
  • Diminished 7th = C(1) Eb(b3) Gb(b5) Bbb(bb7)

These are the basics and, of course, there are alterations for these, but that is beyond the scope of this lesson.

Chords and Their Respective Modes

It is common in jazz improvisation to treat each chord as its own sound. With that in mind, I should also mention that it is perfectly acceptable to play over one key if that is all the song needs. But let’s discuss how different modes can fit nicely over different chords. Here are some options over a standard ii V I progression in C major.

Dorian (ii)

Jazz guitar Dorian (ii)

Mixolydian (V)

Jazz guitar Mixolydian (V)

Ionian (I)

Jazz guitar Ionian (I)

Or Lydian for the #11

Jazz guitar Lydian

If you take a look at how each scale fits over each chord, you will notice that the chord tones fit perfectly.

  • Dm7 = D F A C / D Dorian = D E F G A B C
  • G7 = G B D F / G Mixolydian = G A B C D E F
  • Cmaj7 = C E G B / C Ionian = C D E F G A B or C Lydian = C D E F# G A B

This method of teaching this system is often the subject of some debate, but I do think it is a good place to start as it gives you a quick understanding of why certain things fit and other do not.

Chord Shapes

Here is one area where many look at jazz guitar and think, nope!

With chords, the idea is to develop your vocabulary little by little. There is really no hurry and with some of the shapes I am going to give you here, you can get started right away.

These shapes are known as “shell voicings” because they only use the most important notes in the chord: root, 3rd, and 7th. With these shapes, you should be able to get through almost any comping situation. You will find that they will be useful to you for years to come.

6th string

Maj 7 –

Jazz Chords Amaj7
Amaj7 2

Maj 6 –

A6 2

Dom 7 –

A7 2

Min 7 –

Amin7 2

Min 7b5 –

Amin7b5 2

Min 6 –

Amin6 2

Dim 7 –

Adim7 2

5th string

Maj 7 –

Dmaj7 2

Maj 6 –

D6 2

Dom 7 –

D7 2

Min 7 –

Dmin7 2

Min 7b5 –

Dmin7b5 2

Min 6 –

Dmin6 2

Dim 7 –

Ddim7 2

You may have noticed that some of these shapes are identical. This is not a mistake. This occurs because these shapes leave out the 5th of the chord, which is sometimes one of the notes that distinguishes them from one another.


So there you have it. As you can see, with a strong understanding of the fundamentals, getting into jazz guitar is really not as impossible as it seems! Sure, as with anything, it will require rigorous study and research, but that is a lifelong pursuit and, for me, it is totally worth it.

Please note that with the material covered here, the best way to go about really practicing this stuff effectively is to take it and try to apply it to different tunes right away. This is really the best way to get the most out of this material as each tune presents a different challenge or obstacle for you to overcome.

Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

  • Autumn Leaves
  • Mr. PC
  • Days of Wine and Roses
  • Stella by Starlight

I hope you enjoyed this lesson and good luck!

About the Author

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.

By Nate Pallesen

Nate is just your average (above average) guitar player. He's no Joe Satriani, Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page - wait this site is about acoustic guitars (sorry) He's no Django Reinhardt, Chet Atkins, or Michael Hedges, wait? who!? He's no Robert Johnson, Eric Clapton or Ben Harper - more familiar? Anyway you get the point :-)

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