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How to Read Jazz Chord Changes

One of the most common issues that beginning and intermediate jazz guitarists run into is how to properly read and interpret jazz chord changes.







When first reading chord changes for popular jazz standards in lead sheet form, we are confronted with what look like very plain chords, such as Dm7, G7 and Cmaj7. But, when you hear great players comp over these tunes they aren’t sticking to these written chords, instead they use m9, 7b9, 13, maj6, and other chord colors and tensions to decorate these changes.

We know that this kind of comping approach sounds cool, and is something many of us desire to add to our own playing, but how do you take the basic chords on the page and make them sound as colourful as the great players’ comping lines?

In this lesson you will learn about how lead sheet changes are written, how to add chord colors and tensions to these changes, and learn a sample comping study to help you take these ideas into your playing. By the end of this lesson you’ll be able to look at any Real Book lead sheet, understand the changes, and comp over them in a musical and practical fashion.


Lead Sheet Chord Changes

The first aspect of learning how to read jazz lead sheet changes is to understand how most chord changes are written in fake books such as the Real Book. Lead book changes are often written in a simple style such as Dm7, G7, Cmaj7, Em7b5, A7alt, etc., rather than very specific chords such as Dm9, G13, C6, Em11b5, A7b9, etc.

It is up to us, to interpret those basic changes in a more colourful fashion by adding in chord extensions, tension notes and chord subs to the tune.

To get you started, here are the first 8 bars of Autumn Leaves:

  • In the first 8 bars of the audio, the exact chords as written in the lead sheet are played by the guitarist.
  • in the second 8 bars the chords are interpreted in a more real-world fashion with colors and tensions added.


This will give you an idea of how the two approaches sound before moving on to studying the various chord alterations in the rest of this lesson.


Listen & Play

Reading Jazz Chords 1


Now that you know how lead sheet changes are written, often in a very basic style with only a few specific chords here and there, you are ready to move on to applying chord colors, tensions and subs to these basic changes in your comping.


Adding Chord Colors to Lead Sheet Changes

One of the biggest misconceptions when first learning how to read jazz chord changes, especially from lead sheets out of the Real Book, is that the chords you see are the chords you play, which isn’t necessarily the case. When comping through lead sheet chords, you need to develop the ability to see a basic chord, such as Dm7, G7 or Cmaj7, and interpret them in a creative style by adding colors to each of these changes.

The first thing to know when adding chord colors to basic changes is the options you have for each of these chords when comping. To help you understand your options, here are the common chord colors applied to basic chord changes.


  • Major 7 = maj7, maj6, maj9, maj6/9
  • Dominant 7 = 7, 9, 13, 7#11(sometimes a color, sometimes a tension)
  • Minor 7 = m7, m6, m9, m6/9, m11, mMaj7 (if in place of a tonic m7 chord)
  • Half Diminished = m7b5, m11b5, m9b5 (natural 9 and only rarely)
  • Altered Chords (7alt) = 7b9, 7#9, 7b5, 7#5, 7b9b5, 7b9#5, 7#9b5, 7#9,#5


To give you an example of how to apply chord colors to a tune, here is an example over the first 8 bars of Autumn Leaves, where colors have been added to each lead sheet change in order to make the comping more musical than the basic written changes.


Listen & Play

Reading Jazz Chords 2


To get this technique under your fingers and build confidence with adding chord colors to lead sheet changes, try opening the Real Book, pick a random tune and then a specific chord color to add to all of the chords in that tune.

For example, you could add 9ths to every chord, such as reading m7, 7 and maj7 chords and playing them as m9, 9, and maj9 chords in your comping over that tune. From there you can pick other tunes, and other chord colors to apply to these changes as you explore this approach further in your studies.


Adding Chord Tensions to Lead Sheet Changes

Apart from adding extensions to lead sheet chord changes, you can also add in tensions to these chords, though you have to be more careful with tensions and make sure they resolve properly in your comping to avoid hanging these tensions out to dry over the tune.

And example of adding tensions to a lead sheet would be playing G7b9 when you see G7, or playing Cmaj6/9#11 when you see Cmaj7, in each case the b9 and #11 adding tension tones to the underlying changes.

Common tensions over Dominant chords would be the b9, #9, b5, and #5, or any combination of those intervals. Over maj7 chords, the #11 and #5 are both common tension tones that you can add to your comping ideas when reading lead sheet changes.

Here is an example of how you could add tension tones to the A section of Take the A Train, a common jazz standard and a great vehicle for testing out new approaches to comping.


Listen & Play

Reading Jazz Chords 3


As was mentioned earlier, adding tension tones to your lead sheet reading is an appropriate approach, but it needs to be handled carefully.

Because of this, it’s best to practice adding tensions to lead sheets over a backing track at home first before taking them to a jam or gig situation, allowing your ears to become accustomed to these new sounds, and give you practice resolving these tensions at home before taking them to a real-life situation.


The Melody is King

While you do have the freedom to add colors and tensions to any lead sheet chords you are playing through, the one thing that will dictate specific chords in your playing is the melody line. Behind a soloist, adding a 9th, 13th, or 7b9#11 chord can be inspiring for the soloist and other band members to play with, but behind a melody line those changes can cause unwanted clashes.

When working on reading chords during the melody section of a tune, whether being sung by a singer or played by an instrumentalist, the first place to look for specific chord colors and tensions is the intervals of the melody over the changes.

For example:

  • If you see a G7 chord and you decide to add a 13th, which is a common color for any dominant chord, that could cause a clash with a melody if the note being played is a b7.
  • If you put a 13th on the top of your chord (the note E) and the singer sings the b7 (F) for example, that half-step interval between you and them will cause an unwanted dissonance that might not sound good to the audience and make it hard for the melodist to tune at the same time.


Here is an example of how you would look at a melody line, featuring specific intervals, then interpret those melody notes in the chord colors and tensions you comp behind that melody.


Listen & Play

Reading Jazz Chords 4


To take this approach further, take any lead sheet out of the Real Book, look at the melody line and then work out chord colors and tensions based on any color tones or tension tones in the melody line.Doing this slowly with a lead sheet at first will then allow you to do this in real time during a jam or gig.


Adding Chord Subs to Lead Sheet Changes

Along with chord colors and tensions, you can also add chord substitutions to any lead sheet progression you are reading through, though this might be more suitable for intermediate and advanced players rather than those just beginning to work on reading jazz chords.

For example, if you see a ii-V-I chord progression in a lead sheet, you could use a ii-bII-I sub over those changes in a soloing situation, and melody situation if it doesn’t clash with the melody line.

You can also use other chord subs over common changes, such as playing iii-VI-ii-V over a I-vi-ii-V turnaround, or Countdown subs over ii-V-I chord changes in the style of John Coltrane.

Here is a sample of a tritone sub being applied to the first 8 bars of Autumn Leaves, over the V7 chord in bar 3 and bar 6 of the changes.


Listen & Play

Reading Jazz Chords 5


To take this chord sub technique further, try opening the Real Book to any given tune and adding in common jazz subs such as tritone subs, iii over I subs in turnarounds, and other chord substitutions that you know or are working on in the woodshed.


Sample Lead Sheet Comping Study

To finish your introduction to reading jazz guitar chord changes, here is a sample comping study over the standard tune Summertime. In this study you will see how the chord changes are written in a lead sheet style, but the chords have been colored and feature added tensions in a practical, comping style.

Each chord color or tension has been labelled so you can see how the lead sheet chords were interpreted in the real-life comping example.


Listen & Play

Reading Jazz Chords 6


After you have learned this chord study, try playing over Autumn Leaves on your own, adding chord colors and tensions in a similar style along the way in order to expand your ability to interpret chord changes in a practical, musical fashion.




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