Exploring Jazz Guitar Basics

jazz guitar basics

Over the years that I’ve been playing, I’ve collected, used and thought through a lot of information. I’ve borrowed a hell of a lot of stuff – or should that be stolen!


So in honour of all the people who’ve done the hard work for me, here is the simplest way to explore jazz guitar basics. I’ve also written down who I took the idea from. None of this is new but aligning it all in one place is.


We’ll deal with the 2 major components: Chords and Solos. Let’s starts with Chords!




Joe Pass said that he grouped chords into 3 families: Major, Minor and Dominant chords.


He included diminished and augmented chords in the dominant chord family. His reason was, we usually use diminished sevenths or augmented sevenths, both have a kind of flat 7.


If we jump in and have a quick look at some, we get:



Major Chord Family

  • Major 7
  • Major 9
  • Major 6/9
  • Major 6



Minor Chord Family

  • Minor 7
  • Minor 9
  • Minor 7b5
  • Minor 6



Dominant Chord Family

  • 7b5
  • 7b9
  • 7#5
  • 7#9
  • 9th
  • 9b5
  • 13th



This is far from a complete list of chords or even guitar voicings. However, it does cover all you need to know to get started and be able to play the majority of jazz standards. Think songs like ‘Fly Me to the Moon’, ‘All of me’, ‘Blue Bossa’, ‘Kind of blue’, ‘Girl from Ipanema’, etc.


If you don’t know many of these, then make sure you get a copy of my Essential Jazz Guitar Chords eBook. This book covers all of the jazz chords you’ll ever need.



Jazz Chords and Comping

Over time you’ll want to move away from using full chords and learn some partial chords (start with my ebook!).


Piano players are a great source of ideas when it comes to playing behind the soloist. It’s worth listening to as many as possible and try to nick their lines, chord movements and ideas.



Jazz Guitar Solos

The best place to start is with arpeggios as they are easy to play and memorise. Also, if you swing them, can make you sound halfway there to faking a jazz guitar solo!



When you’re comfortable with arpeggios, then don’t think in terms of scales, think in terms of melodies. I’ve probably said this a hundred times, no one wants to listen to you play scales (however incredible you might be at them!), they want to hear something melodic which moves them.



Once those arpeggios are happening, you might want to use some scales. Here are Emily Remler‘s general scale rules that work quite nicely.


Major scale

Use the Major scale over the I, IIm, IIIm, IV and VIm chords. It’s simple and sounds great and can be used to resolve any tension super-imposed on the V chord.


Non-resolving dominants

For any dominant chord which isn’t resolving (i.e. going back to the I chord), then play the jazz minor scale up a 5th from the chord your starting on (the jazz minor scale is a major scale with the third note lowered by a half step).


Resolving dominants

However, if the dominant IS going home (V to I chord movement), play the jazz minor scale a half step above the dominant chord.



If this all seems to complex then take one new scale and work on that. After a few attempts, you should get it. It will seem quite simple while sounding beautiful.



Record your own backing

Another soloing tip from Emily Remler is to play over simple homemade rhythm tracks. She used to tape record (remember this was the 80s!) herself play through the chord changes with a metronome on 2 and 4. Then she’d play the tape back and try to solo over the changes.


If she couldn’t make a lick or messed up over a certain chord change, then she would stop the tape and either figure out what she should play or she would play the lick 15 to 20 times until she got it and could play the idea.


Not only did her timing improve this way, but she also became a great soloist. This is a great way to improve no matter what the style is.



It’s about that swing

Jazz is about swinging the groove. The easiest way to make the music swing is to practice with the metronome on 2 and 4. This is very difficult to start with but will do wonders to your playing and timekeeping.


Set your metronome on the slowest setting, which is usually 40 BPM. Instead of counting each click as a beat, we will only count beats 2 and 4 with clicks; hence the gap in between the click will be either 1 or 3.


This will feel odd if you’re a rock musician, as you’ll be used to the strong beats being 1 and 3 – not 2 and 4. This means the actual tempo that we are playing at, is double what the metronome tempo is, therefore we’re playing at 80 BPM.


Start by counting out loud ‘2’ and ‘4’ in time with the clicks, when you feel confident, then try to add in ‘1’ and ‘3’ into the spaces. After a while, you’ll get comfortable with this and you can try to play something simple like the chords to the tune ‘Blue Bossa’.



Jazz Guitar Basics

A final tip, try to take it slowly, get the chords down first, then the arpeggios and finally move on to trying to add in some licks. Build your jazz guitar playing solidly from the start.


Remember, Jazz doesn’t have to be complex and can be broken down to be quite simple, I hope you enjoyed this quick look at jazz guitar basics.

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