Jazz Guitar Chord Theory – How to Construct Chords?

What are jazz guitar chords? How are jazz guitar chords built? What makes a chord minor or major? In this lesson, you will learn how to construct jazz guitar chords. Learning the (relative) simple theory behind chords will make your life as a jazz guitar player a lot easier and is essential when learning how to play guitar chords, so let’s dive straight in!

Major Chord Construction

To get started, we begin with a scale we all know, the C major scale. The 7 notes in this scale are numbered, these numbers are important (they are like a formula).

C Major Scale C D E F G A B
1 2 3 4 5 6 7

 

Chords are based on third intervals. There are 2 kinds of thirds (or 3rds):

Minor Third Interval of 3 half steps Symbol: minor 3rd
Major Third Interval of 4 half steps Symbol: major 3rd

 

Let’s start by stacking 2 thirds on the first note (1, also called the root) of the C major scale:

C E G
1 3 5

 

The result is a C major triad or C (a triad is a chord that contains 3 notes).

  • From note C to E is a major 3rd (4 half steps)
  • From note E to G a minor 3rd (3 half steps)

 

Every major chord has this structure: first a major third, then a minor third. A chord like this is called major because there is a major 3rd (4 half steps) between the root and the 3rd.

Memorize the chord formula for major chords: 1   3   5

Minor Chord Construction

Now let’s stack 2 thirds on top of the second note (2) of the C major scale. This might be a bit confusing, but we now call that second note of the major scale “1”, because it becomes the root of our chord:

D F A
1 b3 5

 

The result is a D minor triad or Dm.

  • From D to F is a minor third
  • From F to A is a major third

 

Every minor chord has this structure: first a minor third, then a major third (the mirror of a major chord).  A chord like this is called minor because there is a minor 3rd (3 half steps) between the root and the 3rd.

Memorize the chord formula for minor chords: 1 b3 5

 

Important: the b (aka flat) before the 3 means a half tone lower (than 3). Further in this tutorial we’ll encounter a # (aka sharp), which means a half tone higher. A half tone on the guitar is 1 fret.

Dim Chord Construction

Back to the C major scale. Now we’re going to skip a few notes and stack thirds on the 7th note (7) of the C major scale:

B D F
1 b3 b5

 

The result is a B diminished triad or Bdim.

  • From B to D is a minor 3rd
  • From D to F is also a minor 3rd

 

Every diminished triad chord has this structure: a minor third and another minor third.

Memorize the chord formula for diminished chords: 1 b3 b5

Diatonic Chords

I’ll summarize and complete the other notes of the C major scale:

Notes Formula Chord Name Symbol
1 C E G 1 3 5 C major C
2 D F A 1 b3 5 D minor Dm or Dmin or D-
3 E G B 1 b3 5 E minor Em or Emin or E-
4 F A C 1 3 5 F major F
5 G B D 1 3 5 G major G
6 A C E 1 b3 5 A minor Am or Amin or A-
7 B D F 1 b3 b5 B diminished Bdim or B°

 

These chords are called the diatonic chords of C major.

Finding Chord Tones

Next you’ll learn how to find the notes of a chord in a convenient way. There are actually 2 methods to construct chords. The first method is explained here, the second (more practical) method, you’ll learn a bit further in this lesson:

The first method starts from the major scale and involves 3 steps:

1) Find the major scale of a given key.

Example: to find the notes of a Gm chord, first find the notes of the G major scale:

G Major Scale G A B C D E F#
1 2 3 4 5 6 7

 

2) Construct the major chord by using the major chord formula: 1 3 5

Example: In our G major example that would be:

G B D
1 3 5

 

3) Apply the minor chord formula to the major chord. The chord formula for minor chords is 1 b3 5.

Example: This means the 3rd of the major chord (G B D) has to be lowered half a step. This is because in a minor chord (1 b3 5) there is a b in front of the 3, meaning the 3 is a half tone lower than the 3 in the major chord (1 3 5), where there is no b before the 3.

Making the 3 (B) a half note lower is done by placing a b behind the note, like this: Bb (aka B flat). This is a bit confusing because in formulas we place the b before the note, but with actual chord tones, we place the b after the note.

The other notes of the chord don’t change, so these are the notes of a G minor chord:

G bB D
1 b3 5

 

To visualize this, have a look at the notes on the guitar neck:

At the left are the 3 notes of G (1 3 5 = G B D).

At the right are the 3 notes of Gm (1 b3 5 = G Bb D). The Bb is one fret (= half tone) lower than B:

G chord tones vs Gm chord tones

Maj7 Chord Construction

Let’s have a look at seventh chords.

Seventh chords are chords that contain 4 or more different notes and are the bread and butter of jazz music.

Again, let’s start with the C major scale:

C Major Scale C D E F G A B
1 2 3 4 5 6 7

 

The construction of seventh chords follows the same principle as constructing triads: stacking thirds on top of each other. Triads were made by stacking 2 thirds on top of the root.  Seventh chords are constructed by stacking 3 thirds on top of the root.

Let’s stack 3 thirds on the 1 of the C major scale:

C E G B
1 3 5 7

 

The result is a C major 7 chord (Cmaj7).

  • From C to E is a major third.
  • From E to G is a minor third.
  • From G to B is a major third.

 

Every major 7 chord has this structure: first a major third, then a minor third, followed by a major third.

Memorize the chord formula for major 7 chords: 1 3 5 7

m7 Chord Construction

Let’s do the same for the 2nd note of the C major scale:

D F A C
1 b3 5 b7

 

The result is a D minor 7 chord or Dm7.

  • From D to F is a minor third.
  • From F to A is a major third.
  • From A to C is a minor third.

 

Every minor 7 chord has this structure: first a minor third, then a major third, then a minor third.

Memorize the chord formula for minor 7 chords: 1 b3 5 b7

Dominant 7 Chord Construction

Now let’s skip some notes and stack 3 thirds on top of the 5th note of the C major scale:

G B D F
1 3 5 b7

 

The result is a G dominant 7 chord or G7.

  • From G to B is a major
    third.
  • from B to D is a minor third.
  • From D to F is a minor third.

 

Every dominant 7 chord has this structure: first a major third, then a minor third, followed by another minor third.

Memorize the chord formula for dominant 7 chords: 1 3 5 b7

Learn more about dominant chords in this lesson: What Is a Dominant Chord?

m7b5 Chord Construction

We’ll skip some more notes and stack 3 thirds on top of the 7th note of the C major scale:

B D F A
1 b3 b5 b7

 

The result is a B half diminished chord or Bm7b5.

  • From B to D is a minor third.
  • From D to F is a minor third.
  • From F to A is a major third.

 

Every half diminished 7 chord has this structure: first a minor third, another minor third, followed by a major third.

Memorize the chord formula for half diminished 7 chords: 1 b3 b5 b7

Diatonic 7th Chords

I’ll summarize and complete the other notes of the C major scale:

Notes Formula Chord Name Symbol
1 C E G B 1 3 5 7 C major 7 Cmaj7
2 D F A C 1 b3 5 b7 D minor 7 Dm7 or Dmin7 or D-7
3 E G B D 1 b3 5 b7 E minor 7 Em7 or Emin7 or E-7
4 F A C E 1 3 5 7 F major 7 Fmaj7
5 G B D F 1 3 5 b7 G dominant 7 G7
6 A C E G 1 b3 5 b7 A minor 7 Am7 or Amin7 or A-7
7 B D F A 1 b3 b5 b7 B half diminished 7 Bm7b5 or Bmin7b5

 

Now that we know how seventh chords are constructed, we’ll focus our attention on tensions in the next section.

Maj9 Chord Construction

Tensions (aka extensions) are notes that are part of a chord, but are not chord tones (1 3 5 7).

The first extension we’ll have a look at is the 9

Here’s the C major scale again:

C Major Scale C D E F G A B
1 2 3 4 5 6 7

 

There are 3 notes left in the major scale that are not chord tones: 2, 4 and 6

If we add these tones to the chord, they become tensions. Most of the time we play tensions an octave higher than chord tones because otherwise they get in the way of the chord tones (the chord would sound “muddy”). That’s also the way tensions are notated:

  • 2 becomes 9: 2 + 7 (the amount of notes in an octave) = 9
  • 4 becomes 11
  • 6 becomes 13

 

So if we add the 2 to Cmaj7 we get Cmaj9:

C E G B D
1 3 5 7 9

Special Cases – 4ths and 6ths

The two other notes that are left in the scale (4 and 6), are special cases in combination with major chords:

  • First of all, there is something we call avoid notes: notes that are a half tone above a chord tone. Avoid notes sound dissonant, that’s why they are generally avoided.The 4 of the C major scale (f) is a half step above the e (the 3rd of Cmaj7). So the 4 (f) is an avoid note for Cmaj7 and is not often used on this chord.
  • The 6 is also a special case in combination with major chords. Most of the times when we add a 6 to a major chord, the 7 is omitted and there is no octave added to the 6. This is because the 6 and 7 get in each other’s way.

 

So if we add the 6 to C major chord we get a C6:

C E G A
1 3 5 6

 

The same goes for 6 in combination with minor chords: the b7 is omitted.

If we add the 6 to Dm7 we get Dm6. Note that the 6 is no longer A like in the C6 example above because the root of the chord changed to D.  The 6 is now B (D E F G A B C).

D F A B
1 b3 5 6

 

The 4 is not an avoid note in combination with minor chords because it is two half tones above the b3 and not one half tone.

When you add the 4 to Dm7, you get a Dm11 chord:

D F A C G
1 b3 5 b7 11

(Note: theoretically, the 9 should be included as well in a minor 11 chord)

 

The 4 is also a special case in combination with dominant chords. When a 4 is added to a dominant chord, the 3 is omitted. Chords like these are called sus4 chords and often function as a delay for a dominant chord.

Sus4 chords often include a 9. Here’s the G9sus4 chord:

G C D F A
1 4 5 b7 9

 

There’s also something called altered tensions (b9, #9, b5, b13). These tensions come from the harmonic minor scale or from the altered scale and will be covered later in another lesson. The same for goes for #11, which comes from the Lydian dominant scale.

Diatonic Tensions

Here’s a list of all chord types we’ve seen so far and their tensions:

Chord Type Extension Symbol
Major 9 (=2) Cmaj9
4

#11 (=#4)

/

Cmaj7#11

avoid note

#11 comes from the lydian scale

6 C6 7 is omitted
Minor 9 (=2) Cm9
11 (=4) Cm11
6 Cm6 b7 is omitted
Dominant 9 (=2) C9
b9 (=b2) C7b9 b9 comes from the altered scale or the 5th mode of the harmonic minor scale
#9 (=#2) C7#9 #9 comes from the altered scale
4 C7sus4
13 (=6) C13
b13 (=b6) C7b13 b13 comes from the altered scale or the 5th mode of the harmonic minor scale

Chord Formulas

Here’s a summary of the chord formulas we covered until now + some additional chord types.

Chord Type Chord Formula
Major Triad 1 3 5
Minor Triad 1 b3 5
Diminished Triad 1 b3 b5
Augmented Triad 1 3 #5
Major 7 1 3 5 7
Minor 7 1 b3 5 b7
Dominant 7 1 3 5 b7
Half Diminished 7 1 b3 b5 b7
Diminished 7 1 b3 b5 bb7
Augmented 7 1 3 #5 b7
Suspended 4 1 4 5 b7
Minor/Major 7 1 b3 5 7

 

A Practical Method For Chord Construction

Earlier in this lesson you learned a first method to construct chords. Now you’ll learn a faster and more practical method.

The first step is memorizing the chords and chord tones of the C major scale and their chord formulas:

Cmaj7 C E G B 1 3 5 7
Dm7 D F A C 1 b3 5 b7
Em7 E G B D 1 b3 5 b7
Fmaj7 F A C E 1 3 5 7
G7 G B D F 1 3 5 b7
Am7 A C E G 1 b3 5 b7
Bm7b5 B D F A 1 b3 b5 b7

 

You must be able to picture the chord types, chord tones and formulas of C major without thinking.

The rest of this method is best explained with some examples…

 

Chord Building Examples

Now that you know the chords of C major, it’s easy to find chords of other keys.

 

Example 1: to find the chord tones of Cm7:

  1. You know the chord tones of Cmaj7: C E G B
  2. You know the chord formula of Cmaj7: 1 3 5 7
  3. You know the chord formula of minor 7: 1 b3 5 b7
  4. Adapt the chord tones of Cmaj7 to the formula of minor 7: bring the 3 and the 7 a half step down.
  5. Conclusion: the chord tones of Cm7 are: C Eb G Bb

 

Example 2: the chord tones of Ddim7:

  1. You know the chord tones of Dm7: D F A C
  2. You know the formula of Dm7: 1 b3 5 b7
  3. You know the formula of diminished 7: 1 b3 b5 bb7
  4. Adapt the chord tones of Dm7 to the formula of diminished 7: bring
    the 5 and the 7 a half step down
  5. Conclusion: the chord tones of Ddim7 are: D F Ab B

 

Example 3: the chord tones of F#7:

  1. You know the chord tones of Fmaj7: F A C E
  2. To find the chord tones of F#maj7 you just have to raise each chord tone a half step: F# A# C# E#
  3. You know the formula of major 7: 1 3 5 7
  4. You know the formula of dominant 7: 1 3 5 b7
  5. Adapt the chord tones of F#maj7 to the formula of dominant 7: bring the 7 a half step down
  6. Conclusion: the chord tones of F#7 are: F# A# C# E

 

Now you know how to find the notes of a chord, but how do you translate this to the guitar?

Translating Chord Theory to the Guitar

The first thing you need to know is that not every chord tone is equally
important
:

  • 3 and 7 are the important notes of a chord because they determine the chord type. They are also important for voice leading.
  • The 1 is the least important note, because it is usually played by the bass player.
  • The 5 is not so important either and can be disturbing sometimes.
  • Tensions add color and interest to a chord, so it’s preferable to use tensions instead of 1 and 5.

 

The second thing you need to know is that 1 half step equals one fret on the guitar.

Here’s an example with chord diagrams, we’ll start with a C: C E G (1 3 5)

Let’s have a look at the chord diagram:

 

Guitar Chord Chart: C

X15135:  C

 

From bottom to top (from low E string to high E string) we have:

  • X: the low E-string is not played
  • 1: the 1 or root of the chord is played on the A-string
  • 5: the 5th of the chord is played on the D-string
  • 1: again the root, but now on the G-string
  • 3: the third is played on the B-string
  • 5: the 5th is played again, but this time on the high E-string

You see that it is OK to duplicate chord tones, like the 1 and the 5 in our example.

This chord doesn’t sound very jazzy though, so let’s spice it up a bit and make it a Cmaj7 (1 3 5 7) by replacing the 1 on the G-string with the 7:

 

Guitar Chord Chart: Cmaj7

X15735:  Cmaj7

 

Instead of duplicating the root on the G-string, we exchanged it for the 7 of the chord.

Now let’s add some color, let’s make it a Cmaj9 chord (1 3 5 7 9):

 

Guitar Chord Chart: Cmaj9

X1379X:  Cmaj9

 

We exchanged the 5th on the D-string for the 3rd and we changed the 3rd on the B-string to a 9.

This Cmaj9 would be a nice chord if you’re playing Bossa Nova, solo guitar or in duo setting, but if you play with a bass player and you don’t want to get in his way, it’s better to omit the root and to play on the higher strings only:

 

Guitar Chord Chart: Cmaj9/E

XX3795:  Cmaj9/E

Chord Inversions

Instead of playing the root of the chord, we play the 5th on the high E-string in the previous example. A chord like this is called a chord inversion

A chord inversion is a chord that doesn’t have its root as its bass note.

There are three types of chord inversions:

  • First inversion: the 3rd in the bass.
  • Second inversion: the 5th in the bass.
  • Third inversion: the 7th in the bass.

 

In our previous example we have a Cmaj9 chord with the 3rd (E) in the bass, notated like this: Cmaj9/E

 

What do you need to do if you want to make this chord dominant? Simple, just look at the chord formulas: the 7 has to go a half step down (major is 1 3 5 7, dominant is 1 3 5 b7).

Have a look at the chord diagram, the b on the g-string has to become a b flat. The result is the first inversion of C9: C9/E

 

Guitar Chord Chart: C9/E

XX3b795:  C9/E

 

And if we want to make this chord minor? Starting from the dominant chord we have to lower the 3rd a half step (dominant is 1 3 5 b7, minor is 1 b3 5 b7). On the guitar, this means we have to lower the e note on the d-string half a step to an e flat. The result is the first inversion of Cm9: Cm9/E

 

Guitar Chord Chart: Cm9/E

XXb3b795:  Cm9/Eb

 

To learn how you can effectively use chords in jazz, how to use chord tones to solo (arpeggios) and how to play chords and melody at once, check our Easy Guide to Jazz Guitar 3 eBook Bundle

 

The Easy Guide to Jazz Guitar eBook Bundle

28 thoughts on “Jazz Guitar Chord Theory – How to Construct Chords?”

  1. Anmol Ghale

    This was awesome. I didn’t know these things …

    1. Dirk Laukens

      Oops 🙂 Anything in particular you don’t understand?

  2. j eaj

    This is an awesome lesson. I can see I need to study more.

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