Jazz can be intimidating – the songs, the musicians, the clubs - but it really doesn’t have to be. You just have to know where to start and that’s where we come in. 

The truth is, playing jazz standards or sounding “jazzy” simply isn’t that hard. In fact, learning bar chords (a staple of rock guitar) is probably harder than learning to play some of the most popular jazz chords. With an open mind and a bit of patience, it’s easy to get a grasp on the language of jazz.

Let’s get to playing right away!

Learn an easy jazz chord

Grab your guitar and try out this ▵7 (AKA major7 or maj7) chord voicing below.

What your fretting hand does:

  • Index finger = low E string (R)
  • Middle finger = D string (7)
  • Ring finger = G string (3)

How to read this graphic:

  • The ▵7 stands for “major seventh” chord.
  • An X above a string means you don’t play the string or you mute it. 
  • The numbers on the strings (7 & 3) refer to the intervals you’re playing in relation to the root note. If you’re not much of a music theory nerd, you can disregard this information for now. 
  • The R stands for “root note” and tells you how to find the right fret to start on.
  • For example, if you want to play a C▵7 (or Cmaj7), you'd play the 8th fret on your low E string as your root note (R).

Three easy jazz chord shapes

The chord shapes you’ll learn today are called shell chords. The name says it all: no filling, just the outer dimensions. 

  • Each chord has three notes
  • One is the root note, it gives the chord its name. 
  • The other notes are the 3rd and 7th intervals and define the quality of the chord (major vs. minor & dominant 7 vs. major 7).
  • We don’t use the 5th in a shell chord because it doesn’t give us much useful sonic information.

You already know the blue maj7 chord. Give the other two chords a try, and then we’ll talk more about how to find these on the lead sheet.

  • Play the red shape on the 3rd fret. This is a Gm7 (because the root note is a G).
  • Play the purple shape so that the root note is on the 3rd fret. That makes it a C7.
  • Play the blue shape so that the root note is on the 1st fret. That makes it a F▵7.

Want to take the next step as a guitarist?

How to play the most common jazz chord progression

At the core of many jazz tunes is a series of three chords commonly referred to as a II-V-I (pronounced “two-five-one"). 

Each roman numeral represents a different chord. Roman numerals are a neat communication system because they generalize information that you can apply to any key. 

In the key of C major...

  • II - V - I = Dm7 - G7 - C▵7
  • II = Dm7 because it's the second chord in the key of C major. (Just trust us and accept this as a fact if you haven’t learned about scales and diatonic chords yet.)
  • V = G7 is the fifth chord in the key of C major.
  • I = C▵7 because it's the home (or root) chord in our key. 

Here’s how that looks on the fretboard when the root note of our I chord is on the low E string. 

Let's play:

  • Play the three notes a few times and memorize the order: II-V-I.
  • Play the three chord shapes you just learned in the same order.
  • That's it! You now know a II-V-I progression in the key of C major

5th-string root shell voicings for a II-V-I

If you play the chord shapes you just learned and only know how to build them from the low E string, you’ll be sliding around the guitar like crazy. 

  • To fix that, we’ll show you the same group of chords, just starting the root on the 5th string.
  • This way, you can mix and match II-V-Is that start on the 6th string and the 5th string.

Learn a jazz standard:
Solar” by Miles Davis

  • This jazz standard was released in 1954. 
  • It’s associated with iconic jazz trumpeter and composer Miles Davis. 
  • An early version of the tune was written by jazz guitarist Chuck Wayne.

This type of evolving nature of songs, borrowing from one another, and the fact that different people recorded the same tune explains why lead sheets of jazz standards sometimes come in different versions.

  • This song is unique in that it contains multiple II-V-I chord progressions in different keys.
  • Luckily the II - V - I progression is easy to shift around once you memorize your chord shapes.

The following II-V-Is are all in Solar. One after the other, the same three chord cluster, just different root notes (and therefore different frets).

  • II - V - I in F major = Gm7 - C7 - F▵7
  • II - V - I in Eb major = Fm7 - Bb7 - Eb▵7
  • II - V - I in Db major = Ebm7 - Ab7 - Db▵7

How to play "Solar"

Step 1: Play the bass notes.
  • Before you try to play this song using chords, figure out the order of the root notes on the guitar fretboard.
  • Play only those notes as if they were a bass line: C - G - C - F- Bb - Eb - Ab - Db - D - G 
Step 2. Add in the chords.

While this song contains two chords we haven't covered today, the majority of it involves the II-V-I progression shifted to different keys.

Here are the two new chord shapes you'll need to know for this song:

Here's the full chord progression. Take your time and start off at a snail's tempo.

A chord chart for solar by miles davis

Remember, the II-V-I's below all occur in Solar. One after the other. The same three chord cluster, just different root notes (and therefore different frets). See? Jazz isn't so hard!

  • II - V - I in F major = Gm7 - C7 - F▵7
  • II - V - I in Eb major = Fm7 - Bb7 - Eb▵7
  • II - V - I in Db major = Ebm7 - Ab7 - Db▵7
Step 3. Get it up to speed.

Try playing the chords along with the video. It'll help you figure out how long every chord lasts. Feel free to make use of the slowdown playback function on YouTube.

What’s next?

There are different routes you can take from here. You could:

  • learn the melody of the song.
  • learn the chords to a new song.
  • learn what a minor II-V-I looks like. (The one you learned today was a major II-V-I.)
  • learn a scale so you can improvise over the chords.

While it's relatively easy to get a few jazz chords under your fingers, jazz guitar can get overwhelming if you don't know where to start learning or what to practice.

If you're looking to become a jazz guitarist, check out a free 14-day trial to our Jazz Learning Pathway. In this 3-month program, you'll learn everything you need to solo like an advanced jazz guitarist, and you'll know exactly what to work on at every step of the way.