Learning jazz chords on the guitar has always been very intimidating. Most books give you pages and pages of chord diagrams to memorize and very little in the way of explanation as to how to use these chords. When I would look at most of those 200 page chord books with nothing but endless chord grips to memorize, I would get pretty depressend and disillusioned – “I must be an idiot, ’cause I can’t memorize all these chords… I’ll never be any good!” Not a particularly good self-esteem builder. Frankly, I think rote memorization of anything is a big waste of time, so here is another approach that should get you playing jazz chords pretty quickly.

Basically, jazz is built around 7th chords. A 7th chord is a 4-note chord made up of the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 7th notes of a major scale. There are five families of sevent chords:

Chord Family Degrees of Major Scale Written (examples in C)
Root 3rd 5th 7th
Major 7th 1 3 5 7 Cmaj 7, CM7
Dominant 7th 1 3 5 b7 C7
Minor 7th 1 b3 5 b7 Cmin7, Cmi7, Cm7, C-7
1/2 – diminished 1 b3 b5 b7 Cm7b5
diminished 7th 1 b3 b5 b7 Cdim7 – C7

Here’s how we’re going to play these on the guitar:

2) Next play the root or 5th on the low E or A string. In jazz, we like to build chords with as few notes as possible – they sound better and are easier to play – so get used to leaving out notes. Never leave out the 3rd or 7th !!! Flat the 5th if you have to

3) Finally, play 9ths, 11ths and/or 13ths on the high E and B strings (Don’t get freaked out – the 9, 11 and 13 are just 2, 4, and 6 octave higher). 9ths, 11ths and 13ths are called extensions. First, try adding just one extension, as you get more experienced expiriment with adding two. Experiment with b9, #9, #11 and b13. We don’t use b11 (same as 3rd) or #13 (same as b7).

The nice thing about this approach is that it allows you to be flexible with how you want to play your chords. You can play just color tones for 2-note chords, play 3-note chords by adding the root or 5th (this is called "Freddie Green" style; Freddie was the grooving rhythm guitarist in [pianist] Count Basie's grous for many, many years); play full chords by playing root/5th, color tones and extensions; or "comp" by playing just color tones and extensions.

Here are a couple of common chord progressions to start with:

I hope this takes some of the mystery and confusion out of jazz chording. Don’t be afraid to use your ear and, above all, trust your instincts.