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How To Learn Every Jazz Chord...Ever


The following piece comes from modern jazz guitarist Jake Hertzog (aka Guitar Player Magazine's Hey Jazz Guy).

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We have all been there: On stage, happily strumming through some piece of music, silently congratulating yourself with every correctly fretted chord. Then you see it - two bars off in the distance and your mind starts to panic - Gb7(#9b5)! 

You go into fight or flight mode, your brain racing through every voicing it ever learned, trying desperately to find one that matches what you see on the page. Before you know it, it's too late. You might have missed the change and survived a glare from the rest of the band, but you live to fight another day and remember to go look up the offending symbol after the gig.

Yes, we have all been there one way or another. The good news is, this experience will never happen to YOU again. Learning every chord ever is not about memorizing voicings, it's about understanding how harmony is constructed. That, and doing a little counting.First, let us examine a basic C Major scale. If we give each note a number, starting with 1 for C then we get:

C  D  E  F  G  A  B       {Fig 1}
1  2   3   4  5   6   7

C will always be "1" in the case of any C scale. If we were working with an Eb scale, then Eb would be “1”. The numbers simply reflect the basic relationship of any note to the root note of the scale. Continuing up another octave, these are the numbers that follow:

C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C  D  E  F  G   A   B         {Fig 2}
1  2   3  4   5  6   7  8   9 10 11 12 13 14

Now lets start to construct a chord in thirds starting on C. First we will get a C Major Triad. Note that the respective numbers are 1, 3 and 5:

C  E  G      {Fig 3}
1  3   5

If we continue stacking in thirds, we get a CMaj7 chord:

C  E  G  B     {Fig 3.2}
1   3  5   7

Now, something very interesting begins to happen. If we continue in thirds from this point, we encounter the notes that we skipped over in the first place.

C  E  G  B  D  F   A     {Fig 4}  {note: Not really possible to play on guitar!}
1  3   5   7  9  11 13

There you have it. We have eliminated the repeated notes, and are left with 7 notes - the entire C Major scale (except they are in a different order over two octaves). If we  could play all these notes together (works on a piano), we would be hearing every note in the scale at once, and it would be called CMaj7(9,11,13). The chord and the scale are one and the same. This is true for every chord in existence. There is a corresponding scale that covers all of the notes in a given chord.

Continuing on our path to harmonic enlightenment, we can separate our chord-scale into two distinct parts, the 7th chord and the tensions.

CMaj7                   Natural Tensions       {Fig 5}
C  E  G  B                 D  F    A
1  3   5   7                 9  11  13

Describing all the different types of chords and tensions would take a bit more space than we have here, suffice it to say that the relationship between the 7th chord and the tensions is a bit like barbecuing. You begin with a protien, like chicken or pork and then season it with a variety of sauces; spicy, sweet, smokey ,etc. The 7th chord has some basic varieties such as Maj7, min7, Dom7 and min7(b5) that can be "seasoned" with natural tensions (9,11,13), Lydian tensions (9,#11,13), and Altered tensions (#9,b9,b13, b5) as well as various combinations. Remember, the alterations in the numbers reflect alterations in the notes. So in our “Key of C” example above a b9 would be a Db.

Knowing the theories that govern how all these chords work together is another lesson for another time. Do keep in mind however, the variations of the basic 7th chord types, remembering that a dominant 7 has a b7, a min7 has a b3 and a b7 and so fourth.

The next step is to throw down some examples so we can see how this works:

Cmin9     {Fig 6}

We know we need a C min triad (1,b3, 5) and the 9th. The chord symbol does not mention a 7th per say, but it's a safe bet that the 7th is implied; otherwise the chord would read "Cmin add 9". Here’s what we get:

C  Eb  G   Bb   D

1   b3   5   b7    9

C7b9b13    {Fig 7}

Ahh, this is a good one! Well, we know it’s a dominant chord, which designates a b7. From there we go up the scale and make the alterations as stated. Notice that 11 is not mentioned therefore not implied or required here.

C  E  G  Bb  Db  Ab
1   3   5  b7   b9  b13

Now you’ve done it! You can now build every chord ever! In order to more effectively play these types of chords, I recommend condensing the voicings down to three or four notes. The bass player will usually be playing the root note. So you in this case you don't have to play a C. If the fifth is natural (as opposed to diminished/b5 or augmented/#5), feel free to leave that note out as well unless it is specifically needed in a chord such as C7(b5). Applying this to our C7b9b13 gives us:

E  Bb  Db  Ab       {Fig 7.2}
3  b7   b9 b13

A simple, four note, very playable voicing. Using this method, every chord ever is within your grasp. I wish you the best of luck! Going slowly and patiently through different keys and chord types will go a long way toward cementing this concept. Give a man a chord, he will play a chord. Teach a man to build chords, he will play forever. Jazz Hard!

jazz chords

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