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Learning Jazz Guitar Chords with the Number System

jazz guitar lessons with chuck loeb

After the jazz explosion in the early 1900s, musicians were eager to transfer the new sounds emanating from New Orleans onto the guitar. Although initially conceived as a rhythm instrument, a slew of stellar six string geniuses quickly elevated the guitar to its current status. Guitarists like Eddie Lang, Tiny Grimes, Charlie Christian and Django Reinhart are some of the most influential early players who were using jazz guitar chords in their music. By the time electric guitars became popular, the floodgates were open and jazz guitar soon became its own genre.

So how did they do it? How did the early 20th century guitarists capture the jazz sound on their instruments and become pioneers of a new genre? To understand this better, let's closely examine how to create jazz guitar chords by using the number system from the Online Jazz Guitar School with Chuck Loeb.

First we learn the major scale as a pattern of half steps and whole steps. 

guitar scales - major scale

This is easy to visualize on guitar because you can always remember that a half step is ONE fret and whole step is TWO frets.

This is the most common sound in all of western music, so common in fact, that we use this scale as an absolute to measure all other guitar scales against. We do this by implemeting Chuck's "Number System" to each note:

jazz guitar chords

From here we can build jazz guitar chords based upon these numbers.

Simply put we need to start with a triad, which means three notes. Start with C, our root note. This is number 1 in the above diagram.

Then we skip the second note and add the third, 3.

Repeat the process, skipping 4 and adding 5. This gives us a major triad - 1,3,5. Because we began on C, we have a C Major triad

An extremely important concept here is to notice the ratios, the distance between the 1 and the 3 is two whole steps and between the 3 and the 5 is a whole step plus a half step. This gives you a recipe to create a major triad beginning on ANY note. A good game is to look at the guitar and see if you can pick a random note and build a major triad from it. Sometimes it helps to write out which notes you need: [Ex 1]

jazz guitar chords Exercise 1

Exercise - Write the notes to F major triad, Ab major triad and B major triad. Then play them!

From this simple idea we can create all the other musical sounds we are used to hearing by altering the major triad. If we change the spelling to 1,b3,5 by lowering the third by a half step, we have a minor triad. Chuck goes over the remaining two types of triad in a more advanced lesson of the Online Jazz Guitar School, which are the Diminished Triad 1,b3,b5 and the Augmented Triad 1,3,#5: [Ex 2]

jazz guitar chords - exercise 2

Exercise - Write the notes required for a C minor triad, E minor triad, G diminished triad and D augmented triad using the number system, then play them!

With these number system concepts under our belts, let's turn our attention to how this applies to learning jazz guitar chords. As a reference, we'll use another lesson from the Online Jazz Guitar School with Chuck Loeb called "Intro to Chords".

In this lesson he explains how to make the transition from playing triads, generally found in rock and folk music, to playing the most common jazz guitar chords: 7th chords. To create a 7th chord from a triad, we simply refer to the number system and add the 7 to our formula of 1,3,5, giving us a new spelling of 1,3,5,7: [Ex 3]

jazz guitar chords - exercise 3

Jazz chords have been streamlined into a notation system over the years to make them easy to read and clear to the musicians. There are many variations on 7th chords but let's look at the most common four for the moment. When you see a jazz chord symbol such as CMaj7, we can break this down into two pieces.

jazz guitar chords - diagram 4

Here's how to create this chord - start with the Root - C. In the lesson, Chuck reviews the qualities of Maj7, 7, min7 and min7(b5). From this we know that a Maj7 chord will include the major 3rd and the major 7th degree of the scale. Check out how the Maj7 compares to the other three most common qualities:

jazz guitar chords - diagram 5

Exercise - Write the notes required for Cmin7, E7, AMaj7 and Gmin7b5

This basic format can help us understand what jazz guitar chords are and how visualize them on paper.

Now let us examine the way to actually apply this material. For our purposes we will focus only on these four chord qualities for now, leaving others for future posts. In the "Intro to Chords" lesson, we see Chuck go from a CMaj7 chord in root position to an AMaj7 on the fifth fret. It sounds great, but what is actually happening?

Let's bring it back to the number system: we have 1,3,5,7 in the key of A to spell AMaj7. Then watch how this chord is adapted for guitar by rearranging the notes to make them convenient to finger. These are called the drop 3 inversions**, which means that the 1,3,5,7 has now become 1,7,3,5: [Ex 4]

jazz guitar chords - exercise 4

Drop 3 chords sound great and can be easily adapted to fit any of the qualities, Maj7, min7, 7, and min7(b5).

Finger each shape in the key of C, and listen to how the qualities change as you cycle through them. Finally, let's put these ideas into music by practicing several chord progressions using the drop 3 chord shapes. [Ex 5]

jazz guitar chords - exercise 5

The most common progression in jazz is the iimin7-V7-IMaj7. In simple terms we can reference our number system again and for the key of C we come up with Dmin7 - G7 - CMaj7. Check this one out as a drop 3 progression: [Ex 6]

jazz guitar chords - exercise 6

Next we want to practice this in several keys to become more accustom to the sound. As a practice exercise for lessons contained later in the Chuck Loeb course, let's apply our shapes to a ii-V-I in a minor key. This time we will use the min7(b5) instead of a min7th chord for ii chord. Notice how the roots stay the same. Dmin7(b5) - G7 - Cmin7: [Ex 7]

jazz guitar chords - exercise 7

This gives us a great excuse to practice our min7(b5) shapes as well as getting your ears going in the minor tonality.

Now we have an excellent grasp on spelling and playing basic jazz guitar chords. In Chuck's online lessons, you will quickly progress from learning these basic chords to more complex chords, and you’ll learn all about the jazz standard repertoire and how to improvise your solos.

The early guitarists really paved the way and brought the instrument into the forefront of the new musical landscape called jazz. Their approach to jazz guitar chords captured the music and translated it to a new generation of players like Kenny Burrell, Wes Montgomery, Barney Kessel Tal Farlow, Joe Pass and many others. Make sure to check out as much of their music as you can and always jazz hard!

 **Drop 3 voicings are an arranging technique in music that applies very well to playing jazz chords and harmony on the guitar. This can be explained simply using our number system. If we begin with 1,3,5,7 we end up with four combinations called inversions:

jazz guitar chords - exercise 8

Though these voicings are easily played on keyboard instruments, even the largest hands will have a difficult time playing these on guitar. However, as Chuck Loeb demonstrates in the lesson, if we take the third note from the top in each case and drop it down one octave - we get the easily playable and great sounding Drop 3 voicings.

This article was written by Jake Hertzog, learn more at www.jakehertzog.com 

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