Jazz guitar chord vocabulary can often be seen as a vast and infinite subject…. and it really is!!! But when using the right approach to break down this aspect of jazz guitar it is possible to build a solid vocabulary that can be used to express ideas and ultimately build your own chordal syntax.
In this lesson series I will try to break down ‘chord vocabulary’ into different categories and utilities to help you organize your thoughts and give you tools to get the most out of your actual harmonic knowledge.
First I think it is very important that I demystify some myths about learning chord melody style and chord soloing in general:
- First, you don’t have to know every chord voicings of every possible chord types to effectively implement jazz chordal works into your playing. In fact, there is no jazz guitarists that know all voicing possibilities and even less… use all the voicing possibilities. Even some of the best jazz guitarists like Wes Montgomery or Joe Pass are using the same few voicings 90% of the time.
- Working musicians are not scientists. Learning jazz guitar vocabulary should not be a mathematical process. Approaching music with a language learning approach will save you countless hours. Although it is important to understand basic music theory like chord construction and intervals, learning by imitation will always be the more efficient learning approach in music.
Now that you know where I stand, you will understand why these lessons will not try to list every voicing possibilities and they will not explain every theorical concepts used. They will be focused on giving you tools to implement this style to your playing. It will be up to you then to expand around these concepts to develop your own sound.
Block Chords – Introduction
Block chord soloing is a guitar soloing style that have been popularize by Wes Montgomery in the late 50s and 60s. These are voicings that can be moved melodically to create an ‘ensemble’ feel, like a big band arranger would arrange a brass section. Wes Montgomery was using them to create solos similar as those he was doing with his famous octaves. They consist mostly of chord shapes including 4 notes or less, and are played on adjacent strings most of the time with some exceptions on the lower register to avoid the muddiness that would result when having to much staked notes in the lower register. Avoiding 2nd intervals… especially major 2nd, make them relatively easy to play and help keeping the melodic movement clear.
Why starting with block chords…. I don’t know! It’s just the subject I am inspired to start with and I think there is a lot to say about them.
Block Chord Basics
So, let’s start with playing some basic block chord voicings. Here is some block chords possibilities for the A minor 7 chord:
The first example is in a more vertical fashion while the second one is more horizontal. Most of the time; horizontal playing is used on the higher register. Jazz guitar giants like Joe Pass or Barney Kessel use horizontal playing to expand positions playing, we will cover this in future lessons. Here are similar examples for D minor 7:
Note that this isn’t an exhaustive list of minor 7 block chord possibilities, but put together, these four examples give you a very good starting point to build around. Minor 7 voicings will be the most important voicings to focus on when learning block chord soloing style.
Now for the Maj7 Chord:
Same as for the minor 7th shapes, this is far from exhaustive. Also, there are some of these voicings that aren’t played much in real context like the one in the (4th beat-1st bar) in ex.5. The seventh on bass paired with the root on melody aren’t very pleasant to the ear…although, Kenny Burrell is using it sometime, so there are no such kind of rules to follow… just trust your ear!
Finally the natural dominant Chord:
Again this isn’t a very exhaustive list, and also, natural dominant voicings aren’t used a lot in post Wes Montgomery ‘block chord’ soloing style. They were used a lot by Charlie Christian thou, but Wes Montgomery push this style to another level. We will see in the next chapter how Wes Montgomery created a more mature jazz sound than his predecessors using chord extensions.
Note that I provided examples for those three chord types with key notes on the 6th string and key notes on the 5th string. 90% of the time, Jazz guitarists will stick to these positions.
So… I know this can looks a lot like a reference work and I said I would not go into that, but to stay with my previous analogy; you need to learn some words before starting making phrases. Although these exercises can look simple, these chord shapes and movements are a very solid foundation to build around. In the next part, we will be looking at adding extension notes to these voicings and building phrases that can be used in real context.
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