Studying jazz chords means two things, learning how to play chord shapes on the guitar, as well as learning how to use theory to apply these shapes to jazz tunes and chord progressions. One of the first theoretical concepts that jazz guitarists will need to get down is the theory behind diatonic chords and how to use this theory to improve your jazz comping, chord melody, and chord soloing lines and phrases.
In this lesson, you will learn what diatonic chords are, how to apply them to keys and scales, and study examples of diatonic chords on the guitar.
Diatonic Chords Definition
To begin our study of diatonic chords, here is a short definition to help you get your head around the theory behind diatonic chords. From there, we’ll look at examples both on paper and on the guitar that you can study further.
Diatonic chords are chords build from the notes in a single key. These are most commonly triads and 7th chords, but they can also be 9th, 11th, sus, 13th, and other chord types as long as they only use notes from the underlying key.
Now that you have a definition of diatonic chords to work with, here is an example of both diatonic triads and four-note chords to explore in your studies.
Here are the notes of the C major scale written out with each scale degree under the notes in the scale. One thing that you will need to understand when exploring diatonic chords, is that when writing scale notes you use Arabic numerals, but when writing out chords, you use Roman numerals.
|C Major Scale||C||D||E||F||G||A||B|
Now that you have the notes of the scale written out, as you can see above, you can add a chord on top of each of those notes.
Here are triads (three-note chords) for each note in the C major scale. These are the basic diatonic chords for any major key and are mostly used in rock and pop music, but you will encounter them in jazz as well. Though they are not used in jazz that often, it is important to understand the order of diatonic triads as it will make it easier to learn the diatonic four-note chords in the next section, which are more commonly used in the jazz idiom.
|C Major Scale Triads||C||Dm||Em||F||G||Am||Bdim|
Because we normally use chords with four or more notes in jazz, here are the diatonic chords in the key of C major with each chord being a four-note chord. To help you understand these chords, try writing them out in various keys in order to memorize the order of diatonic four-note chords as applied to different root notes.
|C Major Scale Chords||Cmaj7||Dm7||Em7||Fmaj7||G7||Am7||Bm7b5|
With this theoretical knowledge under your belt, let’s move on to exploring diatonic chords on the fretboard.
Diatonic Chords Exercises
Now that you know what diatonic chords are, here are a few exercises that you can use to take that knowledge directly to the fretboard. Each of these examples is a variation of the same exercise, just played on different strings on the guitar.
Here is the exercise in point form to read through before trying out the examples below.
• Pick a key to work on
• Play the scale for that key on one string, preferably 6 or 5 in the beginning
• Move notes up or down by an octave if you run out of room on the fretboard
• Play diatonic chords on top of those scale notes in that given key
• Repeat on other string sets and in other keys on the fretboard
Here is an example of that exercise as applied to a G major scale, which you can see here written out with each note on the 6th string of the guitar.
Now, you’ll add diatonic chords above those scale notes to play each of the chords in the key of G major. If the F#m7b5 chord is too difficult to reach up on the 14th fret, you can play it down the octave on the 1st fret no problem.
We’ll now take this exercise to the 5th string with a C major scale written out on just that one string to begin with.
Again, you will now play chords on top of those scale notes in order to play the diatonic chords in the key of C on the fretboard.
Once you have these examples under your fingers, try this exercise using any chord shapes you know or are working on in the woodshed, as well as practice building diatonic chords in all 12 keys on the guitar.
Diatonic Chord Progressions
To finish your introduction to diatonic chords, here are three common chord progressions that are built from diatonic chords that you can learn and add to your harmonic practice routine.
The first chord progression is the highly popular I-vi-ii-V progression, which can be found in many jazz standards.
Here, the chords are in the key of C major, but feel free to work these chords in other keys, as well as practice other chord shapes for this progression as you take the exercise further in your studies.
The second diatonic progression can be found in the first four bars to the jazz classic “Autumn Leaves,” and outlines a ii-V-I-IV chord progression.
Listen & Play
The final example progression in this lesson uses two chords per bar to form a iii-vi-ii-V-I-vi-ii-V progression.
Once you can play each of these progressions, in a few different keys, try to come up with some of your own practice progressions using diatonic chords in various keys on the guitar.
Do you have a question or comment about diatonic chords? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.