3 Minor Swing Chords

Published Categorized as Chords

The epic, all encompassing, omnipotent jazz standard. Each and every one, simply by having been covered and performed so many times by so many different artists, occupies some special relevance in one’s mind, seems to operate beyond its bounds and exude a special power all its own, so evasive is it to typical notions of song or song writing.

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There are arguably no standards more relevant to the realm of gypsy jazz than the infamous ‘Minor Swing’, so much so that any jazz enthusiast, no matter in what area they specialise, will have at least heard of it. And so ubiquitous are the chords, so simple and boundless, that it makes little sense how they can be the springboard for such kaleidoscopic expressions of human achievement.

And yet they are. These minor swing chords, much like the ‘rhythm changes’ or ‘Coltrane changes’ in American jazz circles, are a rite of passage for any aspiring gypsy jazz musician. Their veritable simplicity is so inviting as to lure any one in, even those not necessarily interested: ‘Sure, I can do it. I mean those chords are simple enough, right? What’s the big deal?’ However, it is their surface simplicity that filters the real from the fake, the genuine enthusiasts and talents from those not entirely built for it.

Similarly though, this simplicity evens the playing field and invites all to try, this hallowed gypsy jazz gauntlet, the Minor Swing Chords Cup. So, what are you waiting for? Unsheathe your axe and let us begin!

The History of Minor Swing Chords

‘Minor Swing’ has roots firmly planted within the gypsy jazz genre, no doubt. This style of music was essentially created by the composers of this song, both Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli, not to mention their seminal group, the Quintette du Hot Club de France.

There were of course other musicians, and even other guitarists, doing and performing similar things at same time and place, as well as performing in the same ethnic lineage, that of Romani-French.

Reinhardt, though, is universally acknowledged as being the most talented of improvisers amongst this original roster, either improving upon techniques previously established or utterly recreating the style as he went along, credited as he is as the progenitor of the style of ‘hot’ guitar many generally label gypsy jazz, or perceive at the archetype of the genre on guitar.

This song was first recorded by the group onto a 78 rpm acetate disc in 1937, hence the inherent crackle in almost every authentic recording of the period, though no doubt this song would have been performed many, many times before. For, like all jazz, the point was the performance, the electricity of the moment.

Ask any jazz musician of the day and they will tell you that, far from being their own unique artistic statement, recording technology in this form began merely as a way to advertise and spread the word about an artist, to arouse interest in areas of the world that mightn’t otherwise even have heard of them (see Globalisation), simultaneously making money selling the physical product of an art form that is otherwise ephemeral and intangible.

This seminal composition is considered by many to be one of Stephane Grappelli’s and Django Reinhardt’s signature compositions together, forming the basis of what makes jazz itself: namely chord changes upon which any musician posit their own wisdoms, a format that relies on evolution in the span of a moment or two. Thus, these minor swing chords have become the go to changes for any aspiring gypsy jazz musician to exhibit their mettle, cutting the wheat from the chaff.

Structure of Minor Swing Chords

As with so much jazz, the structure and form is open to interpretation, the only constants being the brief melodic introduction and the final loop of the chord sequence in which some conclusion is met by the respective members of the band. The length of the song is utterly dependant on the wishes of the band, how long each member wishes to improvise or continue playing, much of which is communicated almost telepathically by the band.

This introduction is comprised of a series of basic arpeggios atop the most harmonically simple versions of the chords:

  • Am
  • Dm
  • Am
  • Dm
  • Am
  • Dm
  • E7

This is typically repeated, as on the original recording, twice before embarking into the changes at large, eschewing a main melody in favour of simply moving straight into improvising. It is in this way that the song is so often considered a platform for artistic and improvisational chauvinism.

Minor Swing Intro 1
Minor Swing Intro 2, into the Main Chord Sequence

Following this, the chords, in whatever permutation they may be, will cycle around until the band is duly satisfied.

The Minor Swing Chords

The structure, thus, is unchanging. However, there are an endless series of iterations, and chances are your favorite version will be inflected with the personal stylings of the musician performing. That’s the beauty of such a simple tune: it provides a relatively blank canvas upon which to paint however you see fit!

Simpler Minor Swing Chords

In their most simple form, the minor swing chords are really no more difficult than a standard twelve bar blues, and can even be played as such if you aren’t so fussed about stylistic accuracy:

  • Am – 2 bars
  • Dm – 2 bars
  • E7 – 2 bars
  • Am – 2 bars
  • Dm – 2 bars
  • Am – 2 bars
  • E7 – 2 bars
  • Am – 1 bar
  • E7 – 1 bar
Simplest Version of Minor Swing Chords

The minor swing chords here outlined are at their most simple, even eschewing the bass note at points. It is typical in jazz and other such styles for the accompaniment instrument to avoid playing the lower bass notes so that the instrument dedicated to bass, usually a double bass, can maintain a monopoly on the sounds. This is especially prevalent in gypsy jazz music, where the band is typically comprised entirely of string instruments, a timbral spectrum that doesn’t need another instrument muddying the already busy frequencies of the bass.

However, if you are playing in a smaller group and / or setting, feel free to modify these chords to your needs. You might need a fuller sound if there are less of you, and perhaps you are in a slightly larger space than might otherwise accommodate such a small group, making this doubly important. Thus you might need to use the fuller voicings to fully fulfil the textural requirements of the situation. Do feel free to use the voicings detailed here as a board from which to spring. The whole point of jazz standards, and this song in particular, is to make it your own.

More Advanced Minor Swing Chords

The inherent structure remains the same in essentially every single version of the song or chord changes, the main change occurring in the length of the piece, as adjudicated by the tempo and the length of each band member’s soloing.

The harmonic changes, however, are subject to a considerable amount of adaptation, each musician seeming to have their own take on the legendary sequence of minor swing chords. Those detailed below are more true to the original chords, found in the original 1937 acetate recording by Reinhardt and Grappelli’s legendary quintet.

  • Am6 – 2 bars
  • Dm6 – 2 bars
  • E9 – 2 bars
  • Am6 – 2 bars
  • Dm6 – 2 bars
  • Am6 – 2 bars
  • E9 – 2 bars
  • F9 – 1/2 bar
  • E9 – 1/2 bar
  • Am6 – 1 bar
  • E9 – 1 bar
More Complex Version of the Minor Swing Chords, Truer to the Original Recording of the Quintet

The minor swing chords and the changes of which they are formed remain the same more or less, but are simply extended harmonically to include more varied tones and scale degrees. A lot of this had to do with the laid back aesthetic that the guitarists of these bands wanted to exude, playing chords with two fingers while the smoke from a cigarette twirled through their moustaches and around their slicked back hair like a halo.

However, some of this technique owes something to Reinhardt’s inability to use two of the four fingers on his fretting hand. During an accident at a campsite he was staying at, he was involved in a fire in his caravan, eventually sustaining injuries to his hand that prevented him from fully using the ring finger and pinky of this very hand. This is why you will see these fingers of his fretting hand almost as though poised and ready to strike, though always retaining their cool.

If you are otherwise inexperienced with these kinds of chord extensions, then this is an ample opportunity to engage with them and learn what makes them tick. Comparing them side by side with the simpler chords detailed earlier, in their sound and appearance on the fretboard, will prove a most fruitful exercise if you come at it patiently.

Take it one chord at a time to start with, and try playing the minor swing chords slower. This backing track, for example, uses a much slower tempo, enabling you to grapple with the changes of the chords before throwing yourself in at the deep end and playing along to the rather swift original recording!

Final Tones

Hopefully this has been a digestible and exciting introduction to the world of gypsy jazz, through the lens of the minor swing chords, the most well worn in the gypsy jazz song book. If anything boggles or confuses you, just approach it slowly and intelligently, infusing it with yourself and your own strengths & weaknesses. Taking it at your own pace, you’ll make a gypsy jazz guitarist out of yourself yet!

FAQs 3 Minor Swing Chords

How do you solo a Minor Swing?

Much like the blues on which this is based, it can at its most simple be tackled by playing the minor pentatonic on the home key, in this instance A minor. The fun comes from moving through the chord changes as they come, creating your own unique passageways through the chords. Try playing the minor pentatonic of each of the chords in the song, and then add a major 3rd anytime the 3rd chord, typically E, is played.

What key is Minor Swing in?

The original recording, and almost every permutation, rearrangement, rendition, and cover since, has been in the key of A minor.

What scale is Minor Swing in?

There is no one scale we might say Minor Swing is in. Whatever you might typically use to navigate a minor blues would be ample here. Any excursions on the minor pentatonic of the home key, here A minor, would go down a treat to begin with.

Is Minor Swing a jazz standard?

Absolutely, yes. As far as jazz standards go, it’s one of the few that have found their way from a wholly gypsy jazz context to a more broad place within the jazz songbook. In the world of gypsy jazz, however, this is a rite of passage, and is often the first song any aspiring gypsy jazz musician will learn, to be shown the ropes and tropes of the style on any typical instrument from the genre.

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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