This is more of a general question about how jazz guitarists think about what they're doing. I'm a musician (guitarist mostly) coming from a background in both Irish traditional music and Blues / Rock. I consider myself an accomplished musician and have been researching jazz guitar as a whole recently.

looking at a lot of videos and online resources i can see most explanations are reliant around 7th, diminished and then more "colourful" chords like 6th, 9th, 13th and their variations. it's all well and good being able to play these chords but knowing where to do so is a whole other story. i know that understanding the different voicings is very important.

in some scenarios i find myself playing through some melodic lines using these different "jazz" chords I dont keep track of whether or not i'm playing a flat 5 or a sharp 9 etc - this can sound great, it can also sound horrible. in other scenarios i find myself thinking quite deeply into it and this can be more difficult for me to try and comprehend what i'm doing without being distracted by my fingering.

I would really appreciate some insight into how different people get over these different hurdles. I dont want to spend my life playing jazz as it's not my passion, but i do really enjoy it and i'm not quite at the level i want to be to call myself a "jazz guitarist". i only want to progress! :)

  • Sounds like you're having fun with some cool chords, that's great! Can you try clarifying the question a bit? I'm a little unsure with how best to approach an answer.
    – Richard
    Sep 2, 2016 at 18:52
  • When, say for instance, sitting in on a session and improvising with cord progressions etc. Is it something that comes out through knowing exactly what you're doing and saying to yourself "I'm about to play these exact chords with these exact steps" or is it more, "oh I think I'll just move a finger to get to a step up before changing chords because it sounds good" Sep 2, 2016 at 19:01
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    @FinbarMaginn You need more experience! It's sounds to be as though you haven't quite developed the ear for alterations. I know a few music 'freaks' (freakishly good musicians) and they do NOT think about what they are going to play. They have spent so much time playing that it becomes second nature. They'll hear what they'll play before they play it. All they have to do is think about voice leading and what type of sound they want out of the next chord or improv lick and their fingers automatically play it. It's like the worlds best superpower haha.
    – John
    Sep 2, 2016 at 21:38
  • @Qweevs Yea i understand i need more experience, partly because i believe no one ever has enough experience, there is no limit! I work quite a lot with improvisation within the styles of music that i am accustomed to and i think much in the same way you describe these music freaks. i dont plan to play 8, 7, flat 7, 6 within a group of chords but when i do play them its not like i think about it technically before hand. its more like "oh look what i just did, wasn't that nice!?!" Sep 7, 2016 at 12:22
  • @FinbarMaginn yes, and that is what I'm saying. You're up to the stage of discovery with saying things like "wasn't that nice?", however freaks can produce any chord without thinking about it anywhere on the neck and even if they have never played it before.
    – John
    Sep 7, 2016 at 20:13

2 Answers 2


I'm typing on a phone-screen, so the process is painfully slow and error-prone (whose bright idea was typing on a slab of glowing glass anyway? Yes, Steve, I see you. You can sit down now.) but I will attempt to add my 2 cents, although it will probably be worth less than one cent because actually, I haven't figured it out yet myself... Well, to be fair, I don't play Guitar (yet), but the concept in theory... I got this.

So let's approach this the same way we would approach anything difficult, from the generic process of becoming a master.

Let's actually start with chess, which has actually developed this whole hierarchy of awesomeness, that has chess masters, and even chess grandmasters. A chess master will actually have studied thousands of chess games that have already been played, and even have several hundred games memorized. This allows them to see different plays coming, and be able to have foresight into what moves the opponent will probably make.

So I propose: why can't musicians memorize games? Or rather, things that sound nice.

We know that you can figure the chords for a song out by finding the key signature, the root chord, and the 4th and the 5th. These are the simple chords in a simple song. They can be inverted as is easier, or diminished, minorified (totally a real word), or augmented or whatevered.

But how do you know when to do those things to the chord? And what about those songs that have a few oddball chords? So how can we figure those out? There, my friend, comes the memorization. If you listen to enough of the music genre that you're interested in, you start to hear patterns that you like. Then you figure out what chords made that pattern. Then you practice them. Then, when you're improvising, you hear a place where you feel that particular pattern would sound nice, you plug it in and it sounds awesome.

When my piano teacher wants me to play a D7 chord, she describes the song as "needing a lift." That's how her brain thinks about it. She got that opinion from listening to countless songs in that genre, and imitating them.

One last thing -- watch this lady go!


Having myself compared music and chess many times, let me just say that I think General Nuisance's chess analogy above was an excellent one. When preparing to make a move over the board, are they thinking of that precise game they have memorized? Well, possibly, but most likely not. Instead It AIDS their intuition in the moment. And that keen intuition, has been developed in MANY ways (e.g. playing, puzzles, etc.) NOT just by memorizing games.

I think the best jazz musicians have developed their ears AND their ability to speedily comprehend, to some extent, what they are playing. For guitar, that means being a fretboard whizz. That being said, I leave room for geniuses out there who apparently never knew music theory. Wes Montgomery not the least among them! Obviously, some have better ears than others.

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