Cool Jazz Chord Progressions for Guitar

Jim Josselyn
Playing a guitar chord

The chords employed in jazz music typically are more extended than they are in rock, folk, and blues. In these genres, it's not likely a guitar player will play anything but major, minor, or seventh chords most of the time. However, jazz is a different animal. Jazz progressions typically employ sixth, ninth, and eleventh chords. If you're going to be able to play seamlessly through these progressions, you'll need to know exactly how to play these chords, so grab a chord chart and try the progressions that follow.

The Vamp

Moving from rock, blues, and pop styles into jazz is a big step. A great place to start is with a vamp, which is simply a one, two, or four bar chord progression that repeats. Start with one chord, Dm7, and focus on rhythm, the most important element of jazz. Vamp on the following rhythms in 4/4 time:

  • Swing: Use all downstrokes and play even quarter notes while lightly accenting the second and fourth beats of the measure.
  • The Charleston: Play an eighth note on the first beat of the measure and an eighth note on the "and" of two. Rest on all other beats.
  • Funk: In measure one, play quarter notes on the first three beats, rest and play a quarter note on the "and" of four. In the second measure, rest and then play an eighth note on the "and" of one, rest on two, play a quarter note on three, and rest on four.

A few well-known examples of vamp tunes are Eddie Harris's Freedom Jazz Dance, Billy Cobbham's Snoopy's Search/Red Baron, and Herbie Hancock's Chameleon.

The II - V

One of the basic progressions in jazz is the II - V. Extend the one chord vamp to two chords and now add G7, G9 or G13 to Dm7. This is a II - V in the key of C. Play the Dm7 - G7 progression with the rhythms in Example 1. Tito Puente's Oye Como Va and Grover Washington's Mister Magic are great examples of songs that feature extended solos on the II - V vamp. John Coltrane's Moment's Notice and Lazy Bird feature combinations of the II - V in many keys. Add these rhythms:

  • Latin clave: Play two quarter notes, rest and play on the "and" of three, rest and play on the "and" of four. Rest for one and a half beats, play an eighth note and two quarter notes.
  • Bossa nova: One of many bossa nova patterns is two quarter notes, two eighth notes, a rest, and an eighth note.

The Blues in Jazz

Jazz musicians all the way back to Louis Armstrong and beyond took the blues to places it had never been. The chord substitutions they implemented added motion, harmony and an overall sense of sophistication. The first progression is a basic three chord 12-bar blues progression. Stevie Ray Vaughn's Pride And Joy and Jimi Hendrix's Red House exemplify this form. The second progression includes basic jazz harmony, featured in many blues by Wes Montgomery, such as Missile Blues and The Thumb.

First Progression

C7 | F7 | C7 | C7 |

F7 | F7 | C7 | C7 |

G7 | F7 | C7 | G7 ||

Second Progression

C13 | F9 | C13 | Gm7 C13 |

F9 | F#dim | C13 Fm7 | Em7 A7#9 |

Dm7 | G9 | C13 A7#9 | D7 G sus ||

The Minor Blues

The same concept of chord substitution applies to blues progressions in minor keys. Double Trouble by Otis Rush and I Put A Spell On You by Screamin' Jay Hawkins are terrific simple minor blues. Stolen Moments by pianist and arranger Oliver Nelson is one of many great jazz minor blues numbers.

First Progression

Cm | Fm | Cm | Cm |

Fm | Fm | Cm | Cm |

Gm | Fm | Cm | G7 ||

Second Progression

Cm7 | Fm7 | Cm7 | Gm7b5 C7#9 |

Fm7 | Fm7 | Cm7 | A7#5 |

Dm7b5 | G7#5 | Cm9 A7#5 | Ab7 G7#9 ||

The Giant Steps Effect

In 1959, jazz saxophone giant John Coltrane released one of his many masterpieces Giant Steps. This ground breaking harmonic progression based on the augmented triad changed how jazz musicians thought about harmony. Mentioned by Sting in the lyrics to his hit song Walking On The Moon, this chord progression is a challenge to play, much less improvise over.

Bmaj7 D7 | Gmaj7 Bb7 | Ebmaj7 | Am7 D7 |

Gmaj7 Bb7 | Ebmaj7 F#7 | Bmaj7 | Fm7 Bb7 |

Ebmaj7 | Am7 D7 | Gmaj7 | C#m7 F#7 |

Bmaj7 | Fm7 Bb7 | Ebmaj7 | C#m7 F#7 ||

I-VI-II-V-I

This progression, known as the "one/six/two/five/one" is one of the most common progressions in jazz music. It's as close to a standard progression as the art form has. Try it using these chords: Dmaj7 | Bm7 | Em7 | A7 | Dmaj7. This progression is used in the George Gershwin song I Got Rhythm and also the theme song for The Flintstones. This is a great beginning progression to play with another guitarist.

I-II-II-V-I

This progression is more complicated since it uses major seven and minor seven chords. Try it with these chords: Cmaj7 | D7 | D7 | Dm7 | G7 | Cmaj7 | Cmaj7. To play this correctly, you'll play:

  1. The Cmaj7 for two measures
  2. The D7 for two measures
  3. The Dm7 for one measure
  4. The G7 for one measure
  5. The Cmaj7 for two measures

Songs that use this progression are Take the A Train and The Girl from Ipanema.

I-II-V-IV

The "one/two/five/four" progression is another jazz standard used in songs like Satin Doll and There Will Never Be Another You. Try it with these chords: Cmaj7| Gm7 C7 | Fmaj7. To correctly play this progression, play:

  1. The Cmaj7 for one full measure
  2. The G7 for half a measure
  3. The C7 for half a measure
  4. The Fmaj7 for one full measure

I-IV-III-V-II-V-I

This more complicated progression is famously used in the classic song All of Me. Here's how it would be played in the key of C: Cmaj7 | C7 | Fmaj7 | Fm7 | Em7 A7 | Dm7 G7 | Cmaj7 | Cmaj7. Play:

  1. The Cmaj7 for one measure
  2. The Fmaj7 for one measure
  3. The Em7 for half a measure
  4. The A7 for half a measure
  5. The Dm7 for half a measure
  6. The G7 for half a measure
  7. The Cmaj7 for two measures

Find a Friend

The best thing you can do after you learn these cool jazz chord progressions is to find another guitar player or pianist to practice with. Once you can both play the progressions, it's great practice to take turns soloing over the chords. Before you know it, you'll impress all your friends with your smooth jazz chops.

Cool Jazz Chord Progressions for Guitar