Jazz Music Theory for Guitarists

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


Looking to add some Jazz flavor to your guitar playing? Check out this blog for Jazz Music Theory for Guitarists. You’ll find information on chord progressions, soloing, and more.

Introduction to Jazz Music Theory

Jazz music theory can be a bit daunting for guitarists, especially if you’re just starting out. There are a lot of different concepts to learn and it can be tricky to know where to start. However, learning jazz music theory can be incredibly beneficial for your playing. It can help you better understand the music you’re hearing and make you a more well-rounded musician. In this article, we’ll give you a basic introduction to jazz music theory.

The Difference Between Jazz and Other Genres

So what makes jazz different from other genres? To understand this, we need to take a look at the history of jazz and how it developed. Jazz originated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in African American communities in the Southern United States. At that time, most popular music was based on European classical music traditions. Jazz was a new type of music that combined elements of European and African music, creating a unique and distinct sound.

One of the most important aspects of jazz is improvisation. Improvisation is when a musician creates new melodies or solos on the spot, without having planned them out in advance. This is in contrast to most other genres of music, where everything is planned out and rehearsed before a performance. Jazz musicians often improvise based on the chord progressions of the song they are playing. This can be a challenge for guitarists, as they need to be able to memorize complex chord progressions and improvise over them convincingly.

Another important aspect of jazz is swing. Swing is a type of rhythm that gives jazz its distinctive “groove”. It’s created by subdividing each beat into two unequal parts, usually an “eighth note”(often called a “beat”) followed by a “sixteenth note” (often called an “off-beat”). This creates a loping, shuffling rhythm that is different from the even beats of most other genres of music. Swing can be challenging for guitarists to play because it requires precise timing and rhythmic accuracy.

Jazz also makes use of blue notes. Blue notes are slightly flattened or extended versions of more common notes. They give jazz its distinctive “bluesy” sound. Many blues guitarists use blue notes in their playing, but they are also important in jazz.

Lastly, jazz employs Syncopation . Syncopation is when accents fall on normally unaccented beats or when weak beats are accented . This gives the music a more complex rhythm and can make it feel “ungrooveable” to some listeners . It can be challenging for guitarists to play with syncopation , as it requires greatRhythmic precision .

The Building Blocks of Jazz

When learning jazz guitar, or any style of music for that matter, it is important to have a strong foundation in the basic principles of music. This foundation will give you the tools you need to better understand, play, and create the music you love. In this lesson we will be covering the building blocks of jazz, which include improvisation, chords, and scales.

In jazz, improvisation is key. This means that musicians are constantly making up new melodies on the spot, often using chord progressions as a guide. If you’re new to improvisation, it can seem daunting at first, but there are some great resources out there to help you get started.

Chords are an essential part of jazz guitar. They provide the harmonic foundation that allows soloing musicians to improvise over. If you’re new to jazz guitar chords, check out our lessons on chord theory and voicings.

Scales are important for two reasons in jazz: they provide a framework for improvising melodies, and they help define the sound of specific chord progressions. If you’re new to scales, or just want to brush up on your theory, check out our lessons on scale theory

The Major Scale

In music, there are many different types of scales that you can learn. The major scale is one of the most important scales for any musician to learn, especially guitarists. The major scale is a diatonic scale, meaning that it contains seven notes. The major scale is also the most commonly used scale in Western music.

Tonic, Dominant, and Subdominant

The tonic is the starting note of a major scale and the dominant is the fifth note. The subdominant is the fourth note. In a major scale, these three notes are separated by whole steps except between the third and fourth notes (which are only separated by a half step).

The II-V-I Progression

In jazz, the II-V-I progression is one of the most common chord progressions and is used in many standards. The II-V-I progression is made up of a series of chords that are based on the 2nd, 5th, and 1st notes of the major scale. In a II-V-I progression, the II chord is usually a minor 7th chord, the V chord is usually a dominant 7th chord, and the I chord is usually a major 7th chord.

One of the defining characteristics of jazz music is that it often uses chromatic passing chords to link the different chords in a progression together. Chromatic passing chords are simply chords that are not part of the key that the song is in. For example, if a song is in the key of C major, a chromatic passing chord would be any chord that contains notes that are not in the C major scale.

Guitarists can use chromatic passing chords to link together any two chords in a II-V-I progression. In this lesson, we will look at how to use chromatic passing chords to link together the II, V, and I chords in a II-V-I progression.

The Minor Scale

The minor scale is one of the most important scales in jazz. It is the foundation of many chord progressions and melodies. In this lesson, we will learn how to play the minor scale on the guitar and how to use it in your improvisation.

The Dorian Mode

The Dorian mode is the second mode of the major scale. It is generated by starting on the second note of the major scale (D) and playing every other note up to the next octave. So, in C major, the Dorian mode would be D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D. The Dorian mode has a minor third ( flattened 3rd), a perfect fifth (5th), and a minor seventh (flattened 7th). In terms of its interval pattern, it is very similar to a natural minor scale (1-2-b3-4-5-6-b7).

The distinguishing feature of the Dorian mode is its use of a minor third. This gives it a distinctive sound that can be described as both dark and exotic. The Dorian mode is commonly used in jazz and rock music. It is also often used as the starting point for improvisation.

The Phrygian Mode

The Phrygian mode is the third mode of the major scale. It is related to the major scale because it has the same notes, but it starts and ends on the third note of the major scale. So, if we were in the key of C Major, the Phrygian mode would be made up of the notes E, F, G, A, B, C, and D. Like all modes, it has a unique sound that is different from the major scale.

The Phrygian mode is often used in Spanish or Flamenco style music. It has a dark and exotic sound that can be both mysterious and haunting. Many metal guitarists also use this mode to create shredding solos with a lot of attitude!

If you’re new to modes, don’t worry about memorizing all seven. Just focus on finding the sound of each one and getting comfortable with using them in your playing.

The Aeolian Mode

The Aeolian mode is the sixth mode of the major scale. It is also known as the natural minor scale or the pure minor scale. The Aeolian mode is formed by starting on the sixth note of the major scale and playing all the notes up to, but not including, the octave.

If you were to take the C major scale and start on the sixth note, A, and play all the notes up to but not including C, you would be playing in A minor. The notes in A minor are:


The Aeolian mode is a very important mode for jazz guitarists to know because it is one of the most commonly used modes in jazz. Many of the most famous jazz standards are written in minor keys and use the Aeolian mode. Some examples include “All The Things You Are”, “Autumn Leaves”, and “My Funny Valentine”.

The Chromatic Scale

The Half-Step

The half-step is the smallest interval in music. When used in the chromatic scale, each note is separated from the next by a half-step.

On the guitar, a half-step is equal to one fret. For example, if you play a note at the first fret of the low E string and then move your finger up to the second fret, you have played a half-step. If you move up another fret, you have played a whole step (two half steps).

The chromatic scale is simply a series of notes played in succession, each separated by a half step. In other words, it is all 12 notes of the musical alphabet played in order.

The chromatic scale can start on any note, but for our purposes we will start on C. Starting on C, we would play C – C# – D – D# – E – F – F# – G – G# – A – A# – B – C.
You might notice that we have included both natural and sharp notes in our scale. This is because the chromatic scale is an important tool for understanding key signatures, which we will discuss in a later lesson

The Whole-Step

In music, a whole step (or tone) is a distance of two semitones. On the chromatic scale, a whole step represents a interval of two frets on the guitar. A whole step can also be thought of as the distance between two consecutive notes on the chromatic scale.

In jazz, the whole-step is an important interval because it is the building block of most scales and modes. For example, the major scale consists of seven different tones, each separated by a whole-step. The harmonic minor scale also consists of seven tones, but with a different pattern of whole-steps and half-steps.

Whole-steps are also important when soloing because they can create tension that needs to be resolved. For instance, if you are playing in the key of C major and you use an A# (the note that is a whole-step above A) in your solo, this will create tension that will sound unresolved until you play an B (the note that resolves the tension created by the A#).

You can also use whole-steps to create suspense in your solos by targeting chordtones that are a whole-step below or above the chord you are currently playing over. For example, if you are playing over a C7 chord, you could target the note Bb (a whole-step below C) or Db (a whole-step above C). This would create tension that would resolve when you eventually target the notes B or D (the notes that make up the C7 chord).

The important thing to remember is that intervals are not just distances between notes, but they also have emotional connotations. So when you are using intervals in your soloing, be aware of how they make you feel and how they will affect the overall mood of your solo.


If you have a basic understanding of music theory, you can start to apply it to jazz guitar. By learning about chord progressions, scales, and arpeggios, you can start to improvise and create your own jazz guitar solos. Jazz guitar is a wonderful style of music that can be enjoyed by musicians of all levels.

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