What Are Diatonic Chords?

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 examples of diatonic chords on the guitar.

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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 ScaleCDEFGAB
1234567

 

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 TriadsCDmEmFGAmBdim
IiimiiimIVVvimviidim

 

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 ChordsCmaj7Dm7Em7Fmaj7G7Am7Bm7b5
Imaj7iim7iiim7IVmaj7V7vim7viim7b5

 

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.

 

Listen & Play Along


diatonic-chords-1

 

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.

 

Listen & Play Along


diatonic-chords-2

 

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.

 

Listen & Play Along


diatonic-chords-3

 

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.

 

Listen & Play Along


diatonic-chords-4

 

Once you have these examples under your fingers, try this exercise using any chord shapes you know or are working on, 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.

 

Listen & Play Along


diatonic-chords-5

 

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 Along


diatonic-chords-6

The final example progression in this lesson uses two chords per bar to form a iii-vi-ii-V-I-vi-ii-V progression.

 

Listen & Play Along


diatonic-chords-7

 

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.

 

The Easy Guide to Jazz Guitar Chords

  • Wilson says:

    Best foundation for beginners

  • Paul says:

    Hey there
    Sorry to be such a booby, I’m rather elderly now and first learned guitar when I was about 10. Then (after an embarrassing school gig) a long break. I took it up again recently as a singer who can’t find an accompanist, and try to play jazz style… But I’m a very slow reader and I don’t understand tablature. Jazz theory seems to be another language. My classically trained teacher couldn’t follow the logic either!
    I know how to form and extend most of the chords noted in the exercises (except the really way-out extensions, that aren’t in my chord books) but they just don’t sound the same as in the played examples.
    I conclude therefore that we are playing in different places on the board. I tend to play barred 6-string chords, for instance. This often wastes fingers on duplicating root notes, it’s not very ergonomic.
    It might help converts like me to have diagrams occasionally showing how and where you are playing chords, because yours sound jazzy and mine don’t – even when I try to follow the video, which is tricky as it keeps moving….
    Weeble, weeble.
    Anyway, I’m building a fantastic learning resource thanks to you. I really appreciate the stuff you are sending me, I just need to understand it better.
    Paul

  • JamesK says:

    Hi Robert

    The Minor scale can be harmonised in exactly the same as the major scale, but the results are less pleasing i.e. if you work out the 4 note (7th) chords in the same way you get a whole bunch of chords which are not as familiar. However, a minor II-V-I is understandable when compared with a major II-V-I.

    When it comes to common fingering, there’s just two or three I find useful. I saw a TV program about Dianna Krall (the one where Elton John interviewed her). She said that when she began playing jazz on the piano, she worked out the II-V-Is all over the piano keyboard. I did the same for the guitar, I didn’t make reference to the CAGED system because I don’t care for it, but the results were pretty much the same i.e. 5 versions of each of the seventh chords derived from the harmonised major scale. It took a long time, but was worth it.

  • Robert says:

    Thanks Matt, I found this lesson quite useful and look forward to the follow-up exercise with the minor keys! It may also be helpful to have some photos of common fingerings for some of these shapes (such as comparing the major 7 to the half-diminished 7 chords rooted on the sixth string).

  • JamesK says:

    The ‘Harmonised Major Scale’ (HMS) – Is it a difficult concept? I have no idea – I discovered it about 20 years ago, so I’ve lost the perspective of someone who is new to it. What I can say is: “If I didn’t know the HMS inside out, I would know nothing”. It was the first step of my understanding of music. I couldn’t play ‘Autumn Leaves’ or ‘Summertime’ without it, because I need to understand the construction of a tune before I have the confidence to improvise over it.
    If you know the HMS, you’ll quickly learn every note on the fretboard. If you know the HMS, then MODES and the CAGED system become relatively easy to understand. If you don’t know the HMS, then learn it using this excellent lesson – you will treasure it forever!!!
    Thanks Matt for spreading the word.

  • Mohammed says:

    GOD BLESS YOU MATT….FROM MOTHER AFRICA… LONG LIFE U S A….@..QTHY..@…..

  • helmut says:

    Great lesson
    even for me as a Delta slide guitar player, it is easy to understand. I’m totally new to jazz but I see nothing complicated in your lesson. Thank you for your professional work

  • Geoff George says:

    I think your series of lessons is excellent and thank you for your generosity in making them available. I make sure all my students know about them.
    The only thing is,in the words of the old saying, you can take a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink!
    Best wishes, Geoff

  • Michael says:

    i think this again is an example how jazzmusicians overcomplicate things “may be to impress their girlfriends” how Jimmy Bruno used to say. I have not come across one single song where standard comping uses other but chords form the key the melodie is in (obviously this can change over a song). If you play in a band and start to use chords outside the key you might really start to stress the audience ;-). So bearing in mind that there are only 12 tones in western music and 8 of them are in each key anyway I thing its just not a big deal. Play the chords within the key and if you and the band are good enough start to colour them and create tensions where suitable. thats all ther is to it really.

    • helmut says:

      are there not only seven notes in the diatonic scale – from the 12?
      The 8th for me is just a repetition in the octave. As far as I know

  • Nicolás says:

    TYVM!! Matt for president!

  • helmut says:

    Thank you for this important lesson. I think I understand the concept behind it.
    But if the chord is built on top of the melody note, it is possible to build the chord below the melody note? Then that would be the beginning of playing chord melody?
    regards

    • Matt Warnock says:

      Thanks for checking it out. Yes, you can think of the melody note as the chord tone and build down from there, which is a good first step to getting from chord shapes to chord melody and chord soloing.

  • The Hutch says:

    Great piece. Thank you. Slightly off-topic: where do you get the music staff graphics or should I say how do you do them? 🙂

    • Matt Warnock says:

      Thanks. We use Sibelius to build those.

      • Paul says:

        Hi Matt—I hate to criticize because I love the site and all the work you do, but I have to be frank—the backing bass really sucks. It just sounds crappy and wrong and has a negative effect on the guitar work. Check out Garrison Fewell’s books to hear how it should really sound.

        • Matt Warnock says:

          Hey. We use a program to build all our backing tracks. It isn’t perfect but without hiring a bass player to do the track, it’s the best option right now. Hopefully the software will continue to evolve to get better and better over time.

          • phume says:

            you’ve got a great spirit matt

  • Bruce says:

    What about minor Keys.
    I’m reading they are much more mixed with bvi or vi, and bvii or vii.
    Harmonic minor for minor key with Melodic minor for variation and Aeolian and Dorian minors from related major keys?

    • Matt Warnock says:

      Hey, Minor Keys are much more complicated usually, so we’ll do a follow up lesson digging into those chords since they need more explanation.

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