I became the guitarist for a community big band and I got the opportunity to learn to use jazz chords in a real context! Here are the exercises I came up with to learn to comp jazz charts based on that experience.
I could give you some theoretical explanations of which chords are possible given an exhaustive list of extensions, but ultimately what I’m interested in here is a memorable catalog of chords that will actually get used in context. The main exercise I came up with was what I call the “Guide Tone Scaffold” – feel free to suggest a better name if you come up with one X-D
I found this real cool way to chromatically probe the space around a tritone on dominant chords, and I realized it was a fairly effective method for memorizing and discovering rootless voicings (which are notoriously unwieldy). Granted, when I started this exercise I had been playing professionally for some years so a lot of the technical space had already hit me. This was a really good way to organize stuff and fill in the gaps. I am building this exercise up very slowly for those who are learning from scratch. If you are more advanced, maybe jump in at level 2 or 3.
There are layers and dimensions to this exercise, so even advanced players will probably take time to understand and benefit from working with it. I recommend compartmentalizing a bit and working on it in little pieces over the course of a few weeks until you master it!
What is the Exercise?
In essence, this exercise starts with this idea of inverting the guides tones of a 7th chord shell voicing up the guitar neck and adding extensions around it systematically. I will be doing all of these on A at first and then perhaps moving them to other pitches.
You can either start by learning one type of seventh chord (probably the dominant since it’s the most useful) and then going into the deeper layers. You can also learn the first level with all the 7th chords and then go up the layers. It’s up to you. Just realize that layer three gets a little hairy and will take time for almost anyone to process.
The other thing I recommend is to practice embodying these chords. I’ve written an article about embodiment of theoretical exercises that you can read here! I also reiterate some specific recommendations for embodying this exercise at the bottom of the page.
The Three Layers of the Rootless Scaffold
The first layer is 7th chord guide tone/shell voicings. You can exhaust these possibilities somewhat quickly because there are very few of them. You basically have a root (we’re going to use A at first) and then the guide tones (the 3rd and 7th of the chord). There are only four types of 7th chords we will logically use this way since the 3rd and the 7th only typically show up in a major or minor position. This leaves us with four combinations and four chords (we’re not using the 5th of the chord just yet).
- Major 7th = Major 3rd, Major 7th
- Minor 7th = Minor 3rd, Minor 7th
- Dominant 7th = Major 3rd, Minor 7th
- Minor-Major 7th – I bet you can figure it out…
Here’s a tab of the way that I invert the guide tones, basically by starting in the lowest register and then inverting the guide tones by throwing the lower one up an octave onto the next string and ascending in a diagonal pattern.
Embodying this exercise
If there are any voicings that fall out of this that you find interesting and/or challenging, I encourage you to use them in real music, either in composition, improvisation or performing covers. They say ‘use it three times and it’s yours forever!’ Here are some concrete suggestions that work well for these types of chords.
- Play in jazz charts
- Write them into short jam progressions
- combine with fingerpicking techniques to make jazzy fingerpicking riffs
- arpeggiate them melodically and integrate them into sweep riffs in a solo
- Compose songs any style that uses this type of chord. Latin, Neo Soul, Fusion, Straight-Ahead, anything you can think of!