Jazz is well-known for long, improvised solos and melodies. Being able to improvise over jazz chords is often the pinnacle of expert guitar playing. Not only does it mean you understand music theory and the entire fretboard, but it also broadens your musical horizons. You can play with countless musicians if you know how to improvise.
To improvise over guitar jazz chords, start slow, play in the right key, and find a common root chord. You should start with two or three chords and fingerpick near the bass notes until you’re comfortable with the rhythm. Play semitones to stay with the improvisation. You can also try free jazz.
Throughout this post, we’ll explain how to improvise over guitar jazz chords, which chords work the best, and how you can incorporate your unique style into the music session. Enjoy!
Start Slow and Develop a Melody
Improvising over jazz chords on the guitar can be quite difficult. It’s best to start slow before going into a long solo. You’ll get the hang of the current melody and rhythm of the other musicians. Consider listening to the drums if possible. You’ll learn the tempo much quicker if you pay attention to the percussion.
Try these five suggestions to find your jazz rhythm through improvisation:
- Ask about the tempo before starting the music session. It doesn’t hurt to find out what tempo you need to work with because you’ll be able to stay in rhythm with everyone else. Knowing the tempo will keep you from going too slow, too fast, or out of focus with the bulk of other instruments.
- Find out if the other jazz musicians are playing longer or shorter notes. You can make the music light and bouncy or slow and warm. Guitars add incredible notes to jazz music, but it’s essential to know the length of the notes you need to play. If everyone else is playing slower notes, your fast notes might sound out of place.
- Don’t rush into the session. If you’ve never improvised over jazz music with guitar chords, it’s important to take it slow and stay in the background. Turn down your amp’s volume and gain until you have everything down. As long as you stick with the tempo, as mentioned above, you’ll be good to go.
- Consider adding tapping or percussion to your guitar chords. These techniques make it easy for you to make your mark on the jazz improvisation. That being said, it’s best to talk with the percussion members of the jazz group. Try to stay with the rhythm of the drums and anyone else tapping in the song.
- Follow the bassist if there is one. Bassists are the foundation of most jazz songs. The bass and percussion guide everything else. If you want to know where to start, listen to the bassist and the drummer. You’ll quickly find out where and how to start. Wait until they’ve established a repetitive rhythm to make your move.
Following the melody is the most important part of improvising over jazz chords. If you don’t know the melody or chord progression, you’ll have a very challenging time keeping up with everyone else. Read on to learn how to play in the right key to ensure you don’t break out of the rhythm and tone.
Play in the Right Key
A musical key is what lets everyone know how to play together. If you’re in the wrong key, you’ll never be able to improvise over guitar jazz chords correctly. Establish the key before figuring out your place in the jazz group. Keep in mind that you can use a capo to instantly change your key and catch up with everyone else.
Another way to play in the right key is to ask which chords everyone’s playing. Stick with the chords or stay one half-step behind everybody else. Make sure you keep the pace. The tempo is typically more important than anything else, especially when it comes to playing in the right key. Jazz keys often stick with modified major chords.
Once you have the key and melody recognized and applied, you can start thinking about which strumming patterns or fingerpicking patterns you want to apply to the jazz improvisation. If you’re worried about taking too much control of the song’s progression, consider the root chord tips in the section below.
Find the Common Root Note
Jamie Holroyd Guitar recommends finding the root note of each of the chords. For example, if someone plays a C major chord, the C is the root note. You can rely on any C string on the guitar to stay in key with everyone else during your improvisation. Feel free to add the 7th note to these major root notes if you’re worried about not mixing enough into the melody.
You could also stick to the root note higher up the fretboard. Work your way down the neck with the same root chord. With the previous example, you can play a C note multiple times on each string. This method lets you change your guitar’s pitch without straying from the root note. You’ll never sound out of rhythm if you have the picking pattern down.
If you don’t know how to find the common root note, wait until the pattern restarts. Since jazz music often sticks to C-G-F progressions, you can try one of these root notes. Stay near the lowest note, then consider going up the fretboard once you know the correct pattern. Remember, you don’t have to use too many chords to make a difference.
Stick to Two or Three Chords
There’s no need to try all of the chords up and down the neck. There are countless chord variations, but attempting too many of them will make it difficult to keep up with the jazz improvisation. Learn Jazz Standards suggests keeping it simple by only playing a few chords before worrying about triads, bar chords, and other setups.
So, what should you know about using a couple of chords to improvise?
- Jazz uses a lot of 7th chords, including G major 7, F major 7, and C major 7. It’s best to learn as many 7th chords as possible before trying to improvise over jazz music. These chords don’t have the same hand positions as most major chords, so they can be a bit tricky to learn. However, they’re well worth the effort.
- You can repeat the same chord twice, such as G-G-F-F. Repeating a chord with a different picking or strumming pattern can make a world of difference. You’ll hear different strings each time, especially if you fingerpick your way through the progression. You can mix major 7th chords with basic major chords if necessary.
- Guitar jazz chords heavily rely on mixing hammer-ons, pull-offs, and slides. Once you learn your chord progressions and keep the pace with your improvisation, you can incorporate these tricks. Slides are incredibly useful in jazz music, especially when you have two chords that contrast each other.
- Make sure you adjust your hand positions if you use a capo. Capos let you change your key instantly. However, they switch the hand positions required to play each chord. With each fret you go up the fretboard, the key increases by one semitone. For example, a C becomes a C sharp or a D flat.
- Most jazz chords don’t sound as bright and melodic as folk music or bluegrass. Don’t expect these chord progressions to mimic other music styles. Jazz often intentionally incorporates the aforementioned 7th chords and semitones to sound much more distinguishable compared to other genres.
Regardless of which two or three chords you choose, it’s important not to overwhelm yourself. If you don’t know how to play enough 7th chords, consider basic major chords (G major, F major, and C major). You’ll learn the sounds and fret positions before progressing to the 7th chords. You can also incorporate additional strings.
Stay Near the Bass Notes at First
Bass notes aren’t quite as noticeable as notes with higher treble. The low E string produces more resonance and sustain than the high E string, but it’s not as bright. You can use these strings to your advantage. If you want to take it a step further, switch to nylon strings. Nylon strings are known for being smooth and mellow.
It’s always better to rely on the bass notes, especially if you stick with the aforementioned suggestion of finding the common root notes. They reduce the risk of overtaking the other instruments, but they’re enough to make your presence known. In most cases, you’ll be able to find notes on higher strings when you’re ready to improvise more.
You could also increase the bass on your amplifier if you’re using one. Turn down the treble and increase the gain while raising the bass. Some guitars have built-in pickups with bass, treble, and gain adjustments. Switch them around while you’re improvising over jazz chords to find out which combination works best.
Fingerpicking Is an Excellent Choice
Fingerpicking will drastically improve your ability to improvise over jazz chords on the guitar. Rather than strumming and trying to carry the melody, you can add a unique touch with each string. You can choose specific fingerpicking patterns or move up and down the fretboard on one string during a solo.
Here’s a handful of reasons fingerpicking helps:
- Fingerpicking is much less overpowering, which lets the other musician take the lead. You can be quite light on the strings when you’re fingerpicking (unlike strumming). When you’re ready to stand out more with your improvisations, you can fingerpick a bit harder to increase your guitar’s volume.
- You can match a rhythm much quicker through fingerpicking. Fingerpicking is popular because it’s quick and easy to change. Each string pluck changes the guitar’s sound, so you can edit your mistakes with ease. Once you know the rhythm or the direction the jazz music is going, you can make the necessary adjustments.
- It’s easier to tap the guitar strings if you fingerpick. Guitar tapping is incredibly popular in jazz because it matches the old-school groove that the genre is loved for. If there are no percussion instruments in the group, you can easily create percussive sounds by tapping and hitting the guitar’s body with the palm of your hand.
- Most jazz musicians rely on combinations of individual notes. Rather than strumming and creating an overlapping melody with numerous chords, you can pluck each note with everyone else in the jazz group. This technique lets you glide through the chords at the same rate as pianos, trumpets, and similar instruments.
- Fingerpicking lets you blend throughout the seven notes in a chord progression. Many chord progressions and note progressions rely on seven notes. While there are twelve notes in an octave, they’re not generally all used. Fingerpicking provides an easy way to slide and pick your way up the scale.
If you’re not comfortable with fingerpicking, you can also try strumming. Stick to simple up-down strumming patterns until you get used to the melody. Keep in mind that fingerpicking with jazz music doesn’t necessarily mean you have to play the same pattern repeatedly. Whether or not you fingerpicking, you can use the half-note (semitone) suggestion found in the next section.
Use Half-Step Notes
According to Fret Dojo, jazz utilizes half-step notes (semitones) more than almost any other musical genre. These semitones give it a unique sound that separates it from the rest. You can easily go up and down one half-note on the fretboard. These notes are typically referred to as approach notes because they’re used right before the major 7th and major chords.
Try these methods when adding half-notes to your jazz guitar chords:
- Never go a full note behind each chord. It’ll change the chord completely. A G chord will become an F chord, which is out of key.
- Not every fret is a semitone. For example, the 7th and 8th frets on the high E string have a full note between them. Switching between these strings would change the key.
- One sharp note is the flat of another note. For instance, an A sharp is a B flat, and a B sharp is a C flat. Learning the terminology will make improvising over jazz chords much easier on any instrument.
- Sliding is the best way to transition between semitones and full notes. It’s less abrupt and jarring, so it’s significantly better for blending purposes.
Consider Free Jazz
Free jazz is one of the most impressive and unique forms of music. Whether or not you love jazz, everyone can enjoy bits and pieces of this musical collage. Free jazz consists of numerous instruments, such as pianos, guitars, trumpets, and drums. All of these instruments play over each other without a specific melody.
So, why is free jazz an excellent choice for improvising guitar chords?
- You don’t have nearly as much pressure to perform correctly. Free jazz encourages musicians of all experience levels to play at any rate, chord progression, and style they prefer. You can switch between fingerpicking and strumming or rely on as many chords as you want to.
- You can learn how to randomly blend your music with other jazz instruments. Think of free jazz as a free space to practice new chord progressions. You can do your best to match everyone else and enjoy when it all blends together. Consider the other instruments as an ever-changing platform to improvise with.
- Free jazz lets you experiment with multiple styles of jazz. You can try major 7th chords, slides, and many other sounds without ruining the improvisation. Nobody expects perfection, but that’s the beauty of free jazz. It’s a perfect space for beginners and experts to mix their styles and learn from one another.
- The chaotic melody occasionally creates some of the most wonderful sounds in music. Free jazz is loved for many reasons, including the fact that everyone’s creativity randomly overlaps. These moments lead to some of the best jazz solos you’ll come across. You can write them down and reproduce them down the road.
- Free jazz has been a part of music history for many decades, so you can experiment with some of the best musicians of all time. Research some of your favorite melodies and consider adding them to your free jazz routine. Keep in mind that you can drop the set and improvise whenever you want to.
Free jazz is often seen as unpredictable, but it’s truly a work of art. You can improvise over guitar jazz chords with any form of free jazz. There’s no need to rehearse or prepare a chord progression, nor do you have to worry about sticking to strumming or fingerpicking.
Semitones and free jazz are two of the best suggestions. They both let you master the fretboard while improvising over jazz music. With free jazz, you don’t even have to worry about matching everything throughout the song. If you prefer sticking with the melody, try the three-chord tip or the common root chord method.