How to Play Jazz Guitars for Beginners

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Written By Tanya

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Although learning to play jazz guitar may seem like rocket science, there are many resources and methods that can help you get started.

Music is not a contest. It is art for its sake.

This lesson will give you a broad overview of the basics, while also being as thorough as possible. This lesson assumes that you are familiar with basic music theory, such as building triads and basic scales.

If you need a refresher on these things and more, with an emphasis on the relevance to guitar playing, is a great resource, as is our growing music theory column.

It is likely that you are already quite skilled at playing the guitar, as you have expressed interest in the topic. That’s great.

If you’re a music theory student, you’ve already won half of the battle. If this is the case, you are definitely ready for…

Before you move on, make sure that you like the music before you start listening to it. It won’t be easy to understand if you don’t listen. It’s as simple as that. Ok, let’s get started.

Triad Shapes & Inversions

The majority of intermediate and beginner guitarists don’t spend much time learning the basic triad shapes or their inversions across the fretboard.

Many feel that they have enough by using barre chords or open position shapes. However, these shapes are not sufficient to navigate the complex jazz world.

This lesson is not about triads or triad pairs, but it will help you save a lot of trouble in the months ahead.

Below are all the shapes required for the G-chord. You will soon be able to identify the chord tone in each form and start developing your chord vocabulary. Practice moving the root position and first & second inversions around the neck for each chord

These can be moved around the fretboard, and then taken to the various sets of strings. As the 2nd and third strings are tuned to major 3rds, you will need to adjust accordingly in order to move each chord around.

This will increase your knowledge and enable you to access the shapes regardless of where you are located on the fretboard.

The chord vocabulary is the basis of this section and the next. To be able “comp” effectively, you will need to expand your chord vocabulary.

Comping is shorthand for accompany. Comping simply refers to the chords that you play behind the soloist/singer.

Shell Voicings For Beginner Jazz Guitar

When I started studying beginner jazz guitar, shell voicings were the first thing I learned. Shell voicings are the only ones that play the notes that define the quality of a chord. They leave out the 5th. This means that we have the 3rd, 7th, and 1st.

These types of voicings were popular among Freddie Green, the guitarist of the Count Basie Orchestra. Big band arrangers are known for playing with the fifth, sometimes raising it or lowering its pitch. These types of situations require you to be in control.

Shell voicings can also be used as a foundation to help you find other colors and expand your vocabulary. This is a different story.

We will continue to build them from the 5th and 6th strings for this lesson.


Below are a few sixth-string shell voicings, in root position. They are not grouped together in any particular order. You should note that they are all identical if the 5th scale degree has been absent. The A major chord with a major 7th and the A major sixth chord The A dominant seventh chord and the A minor chord with a minor 7th The A minor chord with a major 6th and the A minor 7 with a diminished fifth The A diminished seventh chord features a diminished triad plus the interval of a diminished 7th

You may have noticed that the shapes of the min7/min7b5 or the min6/dim7 were identical. They both miss the 5th as they do with all of them.

It was important that you know this so that you don’t get surprised when playing live. This is also true for the shapes on the fifth string.


Below is a selection of fifth-string shell voicings that exhibit the same peculiarities, but without the 5th scale degree. Again, all in root position. The D major chord with a major 7th and the D major chord with an added 6th The D dominant seventh chord and D minor chord with a minor 7th The D minor chord plus a major 6th and D minor 7 with a missing diminished fifth The fully diminished D diminished seventh chord

Once you have mastered the shapes, you can start applying them to tunes immediately. To get you started, I recommend that you find a chart for “Autumn Leaves” as a starting point.

Google Images has countless images of this song, and YouTube has a lot of backing tracks.


It’s important to practice voice leading when practicing this. To give you a quick explanation of voice leading, it is the act of switching between chords by using the closest notes.

Here are some examples of progressions ii VI: The ii V I progression above includes Amin7, D7, and back to Gmaj7 tonic

This progression travels from Dmin7 to G7 and then to Cmaj7

The most commonly used progression in jazz music is the iiV I progression. It is important to learn it as many times as possible with as many ideas and phrases.

This is bread-and-butter stuff via the dominant, subdominant and tonic keys. You will be able to see how the 7th chord of the ii chord shifts to the 3rd chord of the V chord.

You may have also noticed that the 3rd chord of the ii chord became 7th chord of the V chord. This is important to understand. These movements will make you a pro at your job.

Although I felt it was a little too long for an introduction lesson, I recommend reading more about drop 2 and 3. These are also very useful!

Guide Tone Lines

Guide tone lines, much like shell voicings’ deceptive simplicity, are extremely useful and can be made into modern and hip sounding phrases.

The term “guide tones” refers to hitting the key notes of the chord. These notes are the 3rd, and 7th. These phrases are also intended to ensure that guide tones land on the correct parts of the beat. Let’s look at that.

It is important that you land on down beats so it sounds like you are hitting the moves. You will likely want to experiment with these things as you get more experience, but for now it is important to learn the basics.

These chord tones can be played on the downbeats, not the ‘ands. This will make the changes clear even without background accompaniment.

Similar to shell voicings and jumping into tunes is a great way of practicing this. You will need to focus on all the progressions in the tune’s ii VI section.

Important Note: It is vital to be able to recognize ii VI chord progressions quickly.

These are two great phrases or tone guides to help you get started.

Dmin7 G7 Cmaj7 E :----------------|----------------| B :----------------|----------------| G :----2-5-4-2-----|----------------| D :--3---------5-3-|2---------------| A :5---------------|----------------| E :----------------|----------------| Dmin7 G7 Cmaj7 E :----------------|----------------| B :----------------|----------------| G :2-------------2-|----------------| D :--3---------3---|5---------------| A :----5-3-2-5-----|----------------| E :----------------|----------------|

For minor key iiV i progressions, lower the 5th chord for the ii chord. Lower the 3rd chord for the I chord.

Another great song to start with is “Autumn Leaves”. Find the progressions in the iiV I keys and hit them on your play-along track. YouTube has many great YouTube play-along videos that cycle through the progressions in major and minor, through every key.

You will soon be able to add your own flair to these phrases. It is important to learn the basics so you are able to hit the right spots. You must first understand the rules before you can break them!

Tone, Touch, & Vibrato

This aspect of learning a new style is both the most difficult and the most important. You will need to practice a lot more if you are familiar with playing blues and rock genres.

Listening to Pat Martino, Wes Montgomery, Pat Metheny, and others will show you that they rarely use vibrato, or bend. Jazz guitarists prefer to leave the note alone.

Paying attention to how your notes sustain is another important aspect of this topic. It is important to pay attention to the way players release and end notes and where they are located. This will help you sound authentic and idiomatic.

It’s not only the release that defines a guitarist’s tone, but also the attack of the notes. Pat Metheny’s picking style is so smooth it sounds as if it’s been through a compressor, even though it hasn’t.

Watch the Pat Metheny Group perform some Jazz Fusion in their song First Circle Live: Keep going until the end of the intro to hear Metheny at work.

Transcribing is the best way to get the hang of it.

Transcribing Licks

Transcribing refers to the act of listening attentively to another player’s playing and then writing it down. If I am only looking for a small part of something, I may skip the writing down.

This method is controversial. Some men believe that transcribing creates copycats.

Some say that trancribing is the best way to expand your vocabulary and learn new words as a player and improviser. I respect both sides of the argument and have great respect for them. However, I tend to favor the latter.

It is similar to everyday language. It’s like learning a new language. You learn phrases by listening to them and then repeating them. You might use the phrase again if you like how it sounds in casual conversation.

It becomes part of your daily vocabulary after a while. Transcribing is similar, but requires a little more effort.

Imagine that you’re listening to Wes Montgomery’s solo and hear a lick you want to try. You can find the song on the internet. However, I recommend that you learn the tune by ear and then see where the lick is located.

You can then transcribe the lick to see how he approached each chord or progression. Take the time to study each note, its dynamics, articulation, and so forth. After that, you can start to play the lick.

You can try it in different keys and with different tunes. It will eventually find its way into your playing. It is important to remember to use it and to make it part of your vocabulary.

Beginner Jazz Guitar Gear

I believe that players should not obsess about gear too early in their careers, but instead focus on getting the best sound possible with the tools they have. It is easy to fall into the trap of trying to buy your way to success.

Not to be overlooked is the fact that many of the hollow-body archtop guitars jazz players love can be quite expensive. However, the best ones are worth it. You don’t need the right equipment or the money to buy it. Here are some ideas to give your voice some “jazz”.

My favorite thing about my strat is to roll off the tone control quite a bit. This makes things sound warmer. This can also be achieved by using equalization skillfully.

Let’s get back to proper gear. Jazz musicians usually have a set of tools. They tend to prefer semi-hollow or hollow guitars, although there are exceptions.

Flatwound strings are sometimes used to give their sound more “roundness”. These are not my favorite as they sound too flat for me. I like some brightness.

Amplifiers have received mixed reviews. Solid state amps are preferred by some guys because they have more headroom than a standard tube amp. The sound is much more muffled than a tube amp.

Personally, I prefer tube amps because I play different styles. Solid state is not for me. However, both make it to our top guitar amps.

It’s easy to learn jazz guitar!

There you have it. It’s not difficult and most men will tell you that they try to think as little in a real-life setting. All of the thinking and cognition takes place in the practice room.

You will almost certainly lay an eggs if you force people to do things in a live environment. Practice all you can in your practice room. Try to simplify your ideas as much as possible. It is not a good idea to think too much.

Kenny Werner’s Effective Mastery is a great book about the topic of “not thinking while performing”.

Effortless mastery is highly recommended for all performers. It is particularly relevant for anyone who just learn how to use guitar, or is starting a new journey with beginner jazz guitar.

It is important to practice correctly, not how many times you practice. It can be difficult to break bad habits that have been ingrained in your playing.

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