How to Play Jazz Songs with Just a Guitar: The Basics

By Marc Andre | Guitar Techniques

Mar 13
How to Play Jazz Songs

Playing jazz songs with just a guitar can seem like a bit of a daunting task, but it is actually a bit easier than you might think. In order to achieve this, you will need a good understanding of the fretboard, a couple of basic arranging concepts, and some chord vocabulary. In this article, we will discuss these ideas and how you can put them together to make simple jazz guitar arrangements. This lesson assumes you know the notes on the fretboard, or can at least locate them with relative ease. If that’s not something you feel very comfortable with, I would recommend improving your overall fretboard awareness before tackling solo jazz guitar arrangements. Anyway, with that said, let’s go ahead and get started!


How to Play Jazz Songs with Just a Guitar

Arrangement Concepts

To begin, I feel that we should start with the general picture and then break it down into sub-sections. With a guitar, we are limited to what we can do with 6 strings. We don’t have the luxury of having 10 or more notes available to us at a time like piano or keyboard players do. Therefore, we are going to need to set some parameters and use a bit of ingenuity.


For melodic material, we are going to try to only use the top 2 strings, E and B. Melodic content is typically placed at the top of an arrangement and the ear usually perceives the highest line as the melody. Some jazz standards have melodies that have rather expansive ranges and you might need to make use of the 3rd string at times, but with the information provided here, you should be able to get by. Sometimes, changing the octave of the melody is necessary, but that’s more of a stylistic consideration than anything else.


For harmonic material - that is, chords and anything that would state or imply the harmony - we will try to limit ourselves to the middle four strings, from the 2nd(B) down to the 5th(A) string. This will leave room for the melodic material above and the bass notes on the two lower strings. Of course, as with any other “rule” in music, this can be bent or broken, but it’s always important to know what rules you are breaking. This is how you can really get the most out of taking those liberties.


The bass content, as mentioned, will be played on the two lowest strings. This seems obvious, but it’s important to establish these parameters beforehand so that you are working within a framework. Otherwise, things can get pretty hairy and confusing rather quickly. When you develop as a player and your vocabulary becomes a bit more sophisticated, you will want to make use of bass movement to create some night passages with inversions and what not. For now, it should be fine to just stick to root position stuff. I don’t want you getting overwhelmed here!

You probably noticed the strings overlap here. Once again, this is what happens when you are limited to 6 strings! This is why it is so important to have a good vocabulary of chords in your arsenal.

Chord Vocabulary

Here, I will provide you with a few shapes for chords in what are called “shell voicings”. They are given that name because they only use the important notes in the chord: root, 3rd, and 7th. They omit the 5th, because it is typically implied through overtones. These shapes are considered rudimentary stuff, but really, you will use them for as long as you play guitar. They are also great for leaving room for you to add melody notes on top.

Shell Voicings from the 6th string:

Shell Voicings from the 6th string

Shell Voicings from the 5th string:

Shell Voicings from the 5th string:

You may have noticed that the voicings for Cm7 / Cm7b5 and Cm6 / Cdim7 were the same. This is because if you leave out the 5, the remaining notes are the same.

Since this lesson is only covering the basics, I won’t go over drop 2 and 3 voicings with all their inversions. However, if you really want to take your vocabulary to the next level, I strongly recommend going into these in-depth as they give you lots to work with.

Putting It Together

Let’s discuss how you can put these ideas together and hopefully begin to make some fun arrangements for yourself. Remember how we discussed trying to leave melodic material for the top two strings? Let’s put that to work. Take a look at the voicings provided. They are either using the 2nd string or leaving them both open for you to use.

Let’s take a few notes and a chord progression and try to piece it all together.



Here it is in TAB form, in case you don’t read 😉

Next, let’s add a simple ii-V-I progression in C.

| Dm7 | G7 | Cmaj7 |

Now let’s come up with solutions and see how we can piece this together.

The first bar of Dm could look something like this:


Then, over the G7 it might look like this:


Lastly, the Cmaj7 has just the one melody note.


Now, most guys don’t play a chord over every single melody note. Some do, but I think it’s best to have a nice mix. I just wanted to give you each diagram to see some of the options you have available to you. Also, you might have noticed that I changed a note or two in the shape to give space to the melody. This is normal and it is actually an interesting way to learn how to make more out of your accompaniment, should you decide to play with other players at some point.

Eventually, when you do explore more chord voicings and their inversions, you will want to explore adding that to your arrangements, but the same principles apply. You will bend the rules, sure, but these parameters listed here are tried and true methods that the masters have used for decades and you will find that they are usually the best option.

About the Author

Marc-Andre Seguin is the webmaster, “brains behind” and teacher on, the #1 online resource for learning how to play jazz guitar. He draws from his experience both as a professional jazz guitarist and professional jazz teacher to help thousands of people from all around the world learn the craft of jazz guitar.