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How to Play Jazz Guitar (Complete Beginner’s Guide)

The smooth sway of jazz guitar has won many fans over the last century. Its complexities and intricate patterns astound listeners but simultaneously make it hard for guitarists to conquer. Still, it’s not impossible! Take the leap and learn how to play jazz guitar with some beginner pointers below.

Basic Jazz Chords to Get Started

Perhaps one of the most surprising things about learning how to play jazz guitar is that it requires unique chords. You can’t use your standard G major and C major chords and expect to get the same smooth jazzy feel like you hear in popular jazz guitar songs.

chord chart for the G major guitar chord.Pin
G major guitar chord example chart

We won’t go over all the jazz chords here because there are numerous options and variations. We will only go over the base chord shapes, which you can build on later once you have a solid foundation.

In jazz, you’ll often hear 7th chords. They are based on the following notes of each scale: the root (1st), 3rd, 5th, and 7th. 

While this four-note pattern may change slightly with each type of 7th chord, it isn’t a gigantic jump from the chords you have probably already learned on guitar, which include the root, 3rd, and 5th. We’re just adding in one more note in the scale: the 7th.

However, since the notes on the guitar aren’t organized like those on a piano, the fingerings for the 7th chords can vary greatly from the generic ones. 

There is some good news, though: to master the 7th chords for various scales, all you need to do is learn one basic shape for each chord type. 

You can move the major-7 shape (which we will learn below) up and down the guitar neck to get different chords. For example, if you play it on the 7th fret, you’ll get a Cmaj7, but the same shape on the 9th fret is a Dmaj7. The same goes for the minor 7, dominant 7, and the other 7th chord types.

A Few Things to Consider

Since these are chord shapes that you can move up and down the guitar neck, we have marked which note is the root. When you know which one is the root, you can figure out where to place your fingers to get the desired chord. 

Remember, since these are moveable chords, always mute any string not fretted, so you don’t get a strange, ugly-sounding chord.

Also, all of the following chords are C chords for the sake of consistency. Start using these shapes for the C chord, then move that shape further up the fretboard to play more chords.

Even though we will look at just a couple of chord shapes, remember that there are other ways to play these chords. We will look at fingerings that have the root on either the 6th string or the 5th string to give you some versatility. 

With those things in mind, we’re going to take a look at two ways to form each of the 7th chord shapes. 

Major 7 (maj7)

The major 7 chord uses the root, 3rd, 5th, and 7th notes in the scale. For a Cmaj7 with the root on the 5th string, play the following:

  • Index finger: 3rd fret, 5th string (Root)
  • Middle finger: 4th fret, 3rd string
  • Ring finger: 5th fret, 4th string
  • Pinky: 5th fret, 2nd string

(Mute strings 1 and 6)

If you would like the root on the 6th string, use the following fingering:

  • Index finger: 8th fret, 6th string (Root)  
  • Middle finger: 8th fret, 2nd string
  • Ring finger: 9th fret, 4th string
  • Pinky: 9th fret, 3rd string
  • (Mute strings 1 and 5)

Minor 7 (min7)

Like a regular minor chord, the minor 7 takes the same notes as the major 7 chords but lowers the third note a half step. The only difference is that it has the 7th note, which is also lowered a half step. The notes are, therefore, the root, flat 3rd, 5th, flat 7th. To play a Cmin7 with the root on the 5th string, use this fingering:

  • Index finger: 3rd fret, 5th string (Root)
  • Middle finger: 3rd fret, 3rd string
  • Ring finger: 4th fret, 2nd string
  • Pinky: 5th fret, 4th string
  • (Mute strings 1 and 6)

To move the root to the 6th string, try this shape:

  • Index finger: 8th fret, 6th string
  • Middle finger: 8th fret, strings 2-4 barred
  • Ring finger: don’t use
  • Pinky: don’t use
  • (Mute strings 1 and 5)

Dominant 7 (7)

You’ve probably already seen dominant chords annotated in other guitar songs — they usually have a 7 (or 9 or 13) after the chord name. Their composition includes the root, 3rd, 5th, and flat 7th. However, do note that there are variations that include the 9th and 13th notes. 

One way to play the C7 chord with the root on the 5th string is as follows:

  • Index finger: 3rd fret, fifth string (Root)
  • Middle finger: 3rd fret, 3rd string (Instead of adding this, you can barre strings 2-5 with your index finger)
  • Ring finger: 5th fret, 2nd string
  • Pinky: 5th fret, 4th string
  • (Mute strings 1 and 6)

Now, to get the root on the 6th string, switch the finger to this:

  • Index finger: 8th fret, 6th string (Root)
  • Middle finger: 8th fret, 4th string
  • Ring finger: 8th fret, 2nd string (Another option is to barre strings 2 through 4 with your middle finger.)
  • Pinky: 9th fret, 3rd string
  • (Mute strings 1 and 5)

Minor Seventh Flat Fifth (min7b5)

The minor seventh flat fifth is simply what the name implies. It takes the minor seventh notes and adds a flat fifth. As such, the notes include the root, flat 3rd, flat 5th, and flat 7th. Here is the fingering for the Cmin7b5 with the root on the 5th string.

  • Index finger: 3rd fret, 5th string (Root)
  • Middle finger: 3rd fret, 3rd string (You may also barre strings 3 to 5 with your index finger.)
  • Ring finger: 4th fret, 4th string
  • Pinky: 4th fret, 2nd string
  • (Mute strings 1 and 6)

Move the root to the 6th string with the following fingering:

  • Index finger: 7th fret, 2nd string
  • Middle finger: 8th fret, 6th string (Root)
  • Ring finger: 8th fret, 4th string
  • Pinky: 8th fret, 3rd string (you can also play the 3rd and 4th strings together with the ring finger if able.)
  • (Mute strings 1 and 5)

Diminished 7 (dim7)

Our final 7th chord is the diminished 7, which takes the previous chord’s components and moves the 7th note down another half step, creating a double flat 7th. The complete composition is the root, flat third, flat 5th, and double flat 7th. 

The Cdim7 with the root on the 5th string is as follows:

  • Index finger: barred on the second fret on strings 1 to 3
  • Middle finger: 3rd fret, 5th string (Root)
  • Ring finger: 4th fret, 2nd string
  • Pinky: don’t use
  • (Mute strings 4 and 6)

To move the root to the 6th string, try this fingering:

  • Index finger: barred on the 7th fret on strings 2 to 4
  • Middle finger: 8th fret, 3rd string
  • Ring finger: 8th fret, 6th string (Root)
  • Pinky: don’t use
  • (Mute strings 1 and 5)

Tips Playing Jazz Guitar

Again, jazz guitar is an incredibly complex style of playing. With the chord shapes above, we’ve only scratched the surface. However, they can give you a solid foundation to begin playing some jazz songs.

Once you feel confident with those chords, try the following tips.

Learn from the Masters with Jazz Standards

Like with any subject matter, it’s best to learn from the pros. When it comes to jazz, certain songs date from around the 1920s to the 1950s that are quintessential to the genre. 

Take the time to listen to those pieces intently. Learn the melody, study the notes, download the sheet music. In short, learn everything you can from them. Play along with them until you get comfortable with the style, chords, and strumming. 

Check out a complete list of jazz standards and choose a song to get started.

Consider next: Playing essential blues licks

Learn How to Play Jazz Guitar Comp

A crucial component of jazz guitar is learning how to “comp” or accompany the music. As you listen to the jazz standards — or more modern jazz pieces — try to use your chords to accompany the song. 

Make sure the chord progressions are smooth and fit the key of the song. However, that is easier said than done. The best way to ensure you are matching the key and adding appropriate chords — and eventually solos! — is to improve your musical ear. 

Discover How to Play by Ear

This takes time, so be patient with yourself. If you want, you can start with a simple, non-jazz song with a clear, slow melody. Try and pick out the notes and play them without researching them. Listen closely to the music, and replicate what you hear with your guitar.

From there, try the same thing with jazz music. You may not be able to recreate complicated jazz licks or rapid strumming only by ear right away, but establishing a solid accompaniment is an enormous accomplishment. 

Once you can play simple chords by ear, the next step is developing solos and improvising. Take just a few notes at a time and create your melody. Slowly build upon that, and you’re on your way to becoming a pro jazz guitarist!

Read next:

Playing blues guitar, a guide

Mastering the acoustic guitar, how to play

Learn to play guitar from scratch

Mastering the 12 bar blues progression

Last Updated on May 8, 2021 by Liam F. Admin