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How To Play Great Jazz Guitar Chords

Are you overlooking these 4 essential concepts when you play jazz guitar chords? 

Most guitarists simply grab random chords when they read a lead sheet or chord chart at a gig. They play one chord that they learned from a website, another from a YouTube video and a few from some that a friend showed them. 

This is okay if you’re just playing for fun but, if you’re looking to sound exceptional, there’s a better way.

The very best players study in-depth to create more options when they perform. As a result, their playing sounds unique and interesting. This represents part of the puzzle. 

Here are 4 key concepts that will make your comping more organized and sound awesome.  

1. Density 

This is how many notes in a voicing. 

Sometimes when comping it’s better to use less notes, for example in fast tunes, most player will choose to use 2 or 3-note voicings. Using less notes allows for the player to outline the harmony, yet still be flexible to change chords fast and fluidly. In other situations, like in a jazz  ballad - it’s desirable to use more notes since you can sustain the voicings longer. 

PRO-TIP: When a song is fast, play 2-3 note voicings. When a song is slow, use 4-5 note voicings that you can sustain. Include voicing with open strings.

2. Texture  

This refers to how the notes are spaced.

Having an open voicing will create a different texture than using close voicings. On some instruments, open voicings will sound better. Depending on the composition or the melody, a comper may choose a different texture to complement the piece. 

PRO-TIP: Open voicings are easier to play on guitar and close voicings are easier on piano. Therefore, these sound idiomatic on the respective instruments. However, playing them on the opposite instruments can make your voicings sound refreshing.

3. Color  &  Mood  

This is what does the choice of notes makes you feel. 

Often, this part is left out of most jazz comping guides because it’s harder to explain. It’s funny because it’s actually the most important aspect for a professional comper. In a melancholic ballad, darker chords with more extensions may be the best choice and in a lighter groove-oriented piece, sparse open triads and interval may be the correct choice.

PRO-TIP: By studying pieces that envoke similar moods, we can emulate the voicings choices made by the heroes we love. On the other hand, we can always choose to mix and match ideas from different pieces we’ve studied. For the modern jazz musician, experimentation is essential to develop a personal voice on the instrument. 

4. Context  

Context is when & why one voicing would work best in a particular style, groove or moment  in a piece. Closely related to color and mood, this is a consideration that guides the choice of color & mood in comping. Also, this could be the performance context as well for example whether you’re performing solo, in a duo, with a singer or in a trio.

PRO-TIP: Experiment using the same voicings in different situations & on different instruments - discover what works best for your music, in your setting and circumstances.


What to do now?

1. Pick a jazz standard that you really love. Here are 5 examples of classic tunes that are worth studying: 

  • Stella By Starlight
  • Autumn Leaves
  • All The Things You Are
  • Misty
  • You Don’t Know What Love Is 

2. Consider the 4 concepts: (Density, Texture, Color & Mood and Context) and decide on what you want to do on a tune.

For example: 

Song Title: Stella By Starlight
Density: 3 note voicings
Texture: Open Voicings:
Color & Mood: Dark
Context: Solo Guitar 

3. Write one chorus of voicings that reflect these choices.
4. Record these voicings with no rhythmic variations (i.e. one or two voicings per bar)
5. Record a version that includes rhythmic interpretation, like how you would actually play it in performance
6. Listen back to the recordings, comment & critique.
7. Use the elements you loved in your live performances.
8. Repeat steps 1 to 7 on different songs or with different choices of the 4 concepts. 

Good luck and hope this helps accelerate your development as a modern jazz guitarist!

Related Posts: 
[BLOG POST] 7 Things For Jazz Guitarists To Practice 
[BLOG POST] The B.O.P. of Learning
[VIDEO LESSON] How Do I Understand Modes?


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