Learning Jazz: Basic Swing Rhythm Guitar, Part 1

Originally published Friday, June 24, 2016

I’d like to share some of my discoveries and thoughts on the basics of playing rhythm guitar in a swing band.

My Background

I started listening to swing music in the late 1990s, right before I began learning to dance, courtesy of my friend Mike Thibault. I had begun playing guitar in high school. Like so many guitar learners, I had a bit of a lazy experience (basic tablature and chords, with no real theory or practice), and was always more interested in the results of "making music" over the accomplishment of technically mastering the instrument.

I found swing music to be fascinating and challenging. Early on, I got heavily into Benny Goodman and was very engaged with the sectional interplay (the call-and-response), particularly the smoothness with which the different sections blended internally. I didn't have the right vocabulary to articulate what it was I enjoyed, but I consumed the music ravenously on every opportunity.

Early on, my opinion was that swing music was simply impossibly challenging - that as a product of the modern era of "learn music in a garage," I could never have the deep understanding necessary to participate in the style. Despite having some music theory classes in college, I believed that only conservatory-trained virtuosos had any hope of even comprehending the music, let alone performing it.

My impression was mostly shaped by the experience that I had purchased some songbooks over the years (the kind for piano and vocals, with guitar chords above the music) and was flummoxed by the constant chords changes: "C to Aminor to Dminor7 to G7? In eight beats? At that tempo?!"

Figure 01: What not to play!
Figure 01:
What not to play!

My problem was that my existing knowledge of guitar chords was not really relevant to how to play swing. Not only was it difficult, it sounded wrong: too "chimey" and loud. Whenever I tried to play along to CDs, I drowned out anything that I was listening to, including all those beautiful saxophone harmonies.


At one point I discovered Freddie Green and my real path began. I shared my experience on this Facebook post:

"If my life were a movie, that moment would have been filmed with a dolly zoom. It was like my musical worlds totally collided. Suddenly I had perspective on swing music that I'd never had before. All my previous appreciation for music became applicable and swing it stopped being terrifying. And sitting right there was a guy embodying that perspective in a more literal way than any other guitar player I'd ever heard. He was understated but moving everything unceasingly forward. In about ten seconds he became my favorite musician of all time.

"So I started dreaming up this whole ridiculous scenario wherein *I* could actually play swing music. And as it turns out, there are chord shapes a person can play that sound reasonable and aren't too complicated. I started learning how to comp, leaving out the chords that seemed too complex at first (m7♭5? What the hell?) but slowly learning the ideas, and picking up on the patterns."

So what have I learned? Can my experience be useful to others? Hopefully. Let's take a look.

What To Think About

First off, it was important for me to focus in the basics of chords and how they work musically, rather than just how to mechanically produce them on the guitar. Secondly I had to think about the role of the guitar and how it works in the ensemble, rather than just how to play alone in my living room.

Chord Basics

Look at the last chord in that progression above: The G7 chord. This is a "Dominant" chord, and it is one of three basic types of 7th chords: Major 7th, Minor 7th, and Dominant. You could speak its name as either "G7", "G dominant 7", or "G dominant". Were you to write out a G7 chord in music notation, this would be a good way to do it:

Figure 02: G7 chord notesFigure 02: G7 chord notes

The notes of a G7 chord are (in ascending order) G, B, D and F. A dominant chord contains the root, a major third, a perfect fifth, and a minor seventh. So in the G major scale, those notes are G, B, D and F. The standard "open" voicing of the G7 chord from Figure 01 contains all those notes, some of which are repeated. Another way to play this chord would be using a barre chord at the third fret:

Figure 03: G7 chord notes Figure 04: G7 barre chord
Figure 03: Open G7 chord Figure 04: G7 barre chord

As most guitarists usually know, there is more than one way to voice a chord, and each will produce its own color and sound, while still containing the correct notes. Admittedly, the differences can be hard to distinguish without a bit of ear training, but it's going to be critical to understand when it comes to applying guitar to a swing band. Take a look at this page and click on each of the sound samples to hear an example.

Band basics

Playing in the rock world, the guitar is often at the forefront, providing the main licks and hooks that define the song. In the jazz and swing world, the guitar's primary function is as part of the rhythm section. That means giving more thought to the overall aggregate sound of the entire ensemble, and how the guitar tone contributes to that.

In a big band, there are typically four main sections: Trumpets, Trombones, Saxes, and Rhythm. Each section typically has four instruments nowadays, but earlier swing bands from the 1930's didn't necessarily have that many. The rhythm section usually includes bass, piano, guitar and drums - which, not coincidentally, is the basic core of a rock 'n' roll band as well.

The rhythm section is primary there to "comp", that is, to accompany the horn sections and soloists. Yes, there are opportunities for guitar to solo in swing too, but that's not the main job. The main job is to help keep time, and keep the basic chord changes going so that there is some solid structure to the song. But a swing band sounds good not just because the rhythm section is in time, but they also blend musically. In order to do that, each player has to give the others enough "room" to be heard, and that simply boils down to not playing too many notes at once.

Too Many Notes

Therein lies the core problem of learning swing when coming from the rock world: The rock rhythm guitar often has to carry the entire chord harmony, since the chords are often simpler and there are fewer instruments. So strumming open chords like in Figure 01 is very common, and appropriate. In swing, that's just too much noise. The sound of the guitar gets lost and interferes with the bass, piano, and horns when played that way. So we need something simpler.

A while ago I found and bought this book which started me on the learning path. Looking at it today, there are a lot of problems with it, but it was useful. (I wouldn't recommend buying it today since it's not the greatest resource - and that price is ridiculous!) Still it got me thinking about the right voicings to use and gave me my first solid visual reference.

In a nutshell, swing guitar needs to boil the chords down to their essence to work properly. That means reducing the notes in the chord, as well as the strings being played.

Easiest option: Lose the fifth

One of the easiest ways to simplify a chord is to drop the 5th. In the case of a G7 chord, that means D. Why the 5th? This post explains it well, but basically it can be omitted as redundant since the 3rd and 7th will remain to define the chord. That leaves us with this:

Figure 05: Simpler G7 chord
Figure 05: Simpler G7 chord notes*

Dropping the 5th is something that is surprising to a lot of rock guitarists, especially to me when I first started with swing. Why? In a lot of rock, and hard rock or grunge, the rhythm guitar will often play "power chords", which consist only of the root (G) and 5th (D). Strummed hard, with crunchy distortion, the power chord is part of the backbone of the rock sound. Adding in 3rds or 7ths in distorted rock can lead to a muddy sound, but sticking to roots and 5ths gives a good enough approximation of the song's progression. Not so in jazz, which is acoustic.

*Note that this chord, taken out of context, is ambiguous. It could be a G7, but it could be many different chords. The notes G, B and F on their own don't define a chord. But that's OK... the goal here is not to play the entire harmony, because...

The rest of the section helps

There is still a bass, and probably a piano, in the rhythm section. There's a reasonably good likelihood that one of them will be playing the 5th at some point during a measure of music. In general, because of the way the instruments support one another, no single instrument in the rhythm section needs to play all of the notes of the chord at once.

This applies to other chords as well, and in later forms of jazz it is common to see 9th, 11th, and 13th chords (and beyond) in addition to 7th chords. These types of chords require the rhythm section to voice them as a team.

Lose the redundant strings

Guitar chords can be simplified further by reducing the number of strings played. Looking at Figures 03 and 04 above, we can see that in both voicings, some notes are repeated: In Figure 03 the root (G) and major 3rd (B) appear twice. But we don't need them; part of the problem with the aggressive guitar sound is the redundant notes.

What if we retried the standard voicing from Figure 03, but with no 5ths (D) and no repeated notes? We'd have this:

Figure 06: Simpler G7 chordFigure 06: Simple G7 chord

It technically would work, but that upper string sounds too distant, and will probably get lost against the piano. What about trying Figure 04 again, and applying the same concept?

Figure 07: Better simple G7 chord
Figure 07: Better simple G7 chord

That sounds much better. It's also much easier to play since the notes are all in a tight group. It might be a little muddy sounding, but that's OK for now. In reality I don't often use this voicing for a G7, but it's a good first step for what I'll present next.

It's About Patterns

When I was learning to play different chords as a rock player, I had to learn lots of different ways to play the same type of chord just to play anything. To give an example, let's continue with other dominant chords. G7 is one, but A7, D7 and E7 are others, and this is how I was introduced to them all:

Figure 08: Some open 7th chordsFigure 08: Some open 7th chords

Each one is unique and has its own shape, and I had to learn the finger positions for each one of them independently. Nothing I learned from one chord was useful in learning the next one, and switching between them takes a lot of effort, as some of them use all my fingers in very different places. The upside was that they each are near the nut, and I don't have to move my hand from the same basic spot on the neck.

Now I at dominant chords another way. Using the G7 voicing from Figure 07, remember that it has the root, major 3rd and minor 7th. But an important difference between it and those in Figure 08 is that there are no open strings. That's because it's based on the barre chord voicing from Figure 04. Open voicings like Figure 08 are not moveable... but barre chords are. So that means those same dominant chords could be played this way:

Figure 09: Some simple 7th chords
Figure 09: Some simple 7th chords

Notice anything? The only thing different about them is which fret they start on. Because of the scalar nature of the guitar, once you've established a chord "shape", you can move it anywhere you want provided you know where the root note is. You learn the pattern of how a chord is voiced and then apply it as necessary... and that pattern is a lot easier to learn since it only contains three notes!

This is the fundamental concept of understanding rhythm guitar, but I didn't figure it out after fifteen years or so of jangling through rock songs. Playing swing has forced me to think about the guitar moving up and down the neck instead of just moving up and down the strings.

So here's the basic pattern for a dominant chord, with the root on the sixth string:

Figure 10: 7th chord on 6th string
Figure 10: 7th chord on 6th string

We can also apply the same reduction process above to the standard C7 voicing, to produce a basic pattern for a dominant chord with the root on the fifth string:

Figure 11: Open C7 chord

Figure 12: Basic pattern 7th chord on 5th string
Figure 11: Open C7 chord Figure 12: 7th chord on 5th string

We now have two basic shapes to start with for dominant chords (Figure 10, Figure 12). They are incredibly useful on their own, but there is also a relationship between them that will be almost infinitely useful as we play chord progressions through swing tunes (particularly blues progressions). I'll be getting more into that later.

To Be Continued

Hopefully this blog was useful to illustrate some of the transitions and learning curves when transitioning from rock guitar into swing. In the future I will expand on the relationship between these two voicings of dominant chords, explore some additional chord shapes (particularly minor 7th and added 6th chords), and describe how I approach moving through a chord progression during a song.