Instructor
Jonny May
Quick Tip
Beginner
Intermediate
20:29

Learning Focus
  • Chords
Music Style
  • Fundamentals
  • Jazz Swing
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If you are a beginner jazz piano student, then the topic of jazz chords can be overwhelming. That’s because there are so many different types of jazz chords, most of which are quite advanced. However, in today’s Quick Tip, Guide Tones: The Complete Guide, Jonny May will help you master the most important jazz piano chords that every beginner jazz student needs to know—guide tones! You’ll learn:

Once you master the guide tones techniques in today’s lesson, you’ll hear an immediate difference the quality of your jazz piano sound.

Intro to Guide Tones: Your Very First Jazz Chords

Jazz harmony is built on the foundation of 7th chords. However, a common problem that many beginner jazz piano students face is that after learning their 7th chords, they begin to apply them in their playing in a textbook manner…in root position. This is not how professional jazz pianists use 7th chords. In fact, if you play 7th chords in root position, your playing will sound generic and uninspired. For instance, consider the following example:

Piano Accompaniment with 7th Chords

Playing 7th chords in root position tends to sound generic and uninspired.

The key to getting better sounding jazz piano chords is to identify the most important chord tones within each 7th chord and then connect these tones smoothly when changing chords. In order to accomplish this, the jazz piano student must have a firm understanding of how to use guide tones—the 3rd and 7th of each chord. Consider the following example, which demonstrates how to properly use guide tones:

Piano Accompaniment with Guide Tones

The proper use of guide tones in the left hand enables a jazz pianist to play smoothly connected chord voicings.

What are guide tones in jazz music?

In jazz harmony, the term guide tones refers to the 3rd and the 7th of a seventh chord. For example, in the chord G7, which contains the notes G–B–D–F, the guide tones are the notes B and F because they are the 3rd and 7th of the chord. Guide tones are important because these notes determine a chord’s unique quality—whether major 7th, dominant 7th, minor 7th, etc.

What are Guide Tones in Jazz?

The 3rd and 7th are called guide tones because this term depicts the gravitational tendency that these tones exhibit in voice leading over chord progressions that involve root movement by descending 5ths, such as the ⅱ–Ⅴ–Ⅰ progression. For example, in a ⅱ–Ⅴ–Ⅰ progression, the 7th of the ⅱ chord resolves down by a half step to become the 3rd of the Ⅴ chord. At the same time, the 3rd of the ⅱ chord is a common tone to the Ⅴ chord and becomes its 7th. Next, the 7th of the Ⅴ chord resolves down by a half step to the 3rd of the Ⅰ chord while the 3rd of the Ⅴ chord becomes the 7th of the Ⅰ chord.

Guide Tones and Voice Leading

The 3rd and 7th are called guide tones because this term depicts the gravitational tendency that these tones exhibit in voice leading over chord progressions that involve root movement by descending 5ths, such as the ⅱ–Ⅴ–Ⅰ progression.

5 Reasons to Learn Guide Tones

In today’s lesson, Jonny shares 5 reasons why beginner jazz piano students should learn to use guide tones:

  1. Guide tones are easy to play (only 2 notes!)
  2. Guide tones capture the essential jazz notes.
  3. Guide tones give an even “spread out sound.”
  4. Pro jazz pianists actually use guide tones.
  5. Guide tones sound great!

In the next section, we’ll take a closer look at Jonny’s 8 Steps to Play Guide Tones. But first, take a moment now to download the lesson sheet PDF. The download link appears at the bottom of this page after logging in with your PWJ membership. PWJ members can also easily transpose this lesson to any key using our Smart Sheet Music.

8 Steps to Play Guide Tones on Piano

Beginner jazz piano students can master playing jazz chords with guide tones in just 8 steps. In this section, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know to put this essential skill to work in your playing!

1. Start with a 7th Chord

The first step to playing jazz piano with guide tones is to start with a 7th chord. If you are more familiar with triads, then you’ll first need to learn how to convert triads into 7th chords. The secret is to simply stack one more 3rd on top of your root position triad. For instance, the following example shows how to convert a C major triad (C–E–G) into a C major 7 chord (C–E–G–B) by adding the note B on top.

Step 1 - Start with a 7th Chord

Notice that the added note, which we call the 7th, is the seventh scale tone from the root. (Keep in mind that the root counts as the first scale tone). A good way to check if you have built a 7th chord correctly is to ensure that you have skipped one note letter between each chord tone. For example “C…(skip D)…E…(skip F)…G…(skip A)…B.”

Step 1 - 7th is seventh note above root

In the next section, you’ll learn how to construct the three types of 7th chords that you’ll use most often.

2. Learn the 3 Primary 7th Chords

For beginner jazz piano students, a good place to start is by concentrating on the three 7th chord qualities that you’ll encounter most often—major 7th, dominant 7th and minor 7th chords. The following example shows each of these essential 7th chords built on the note C.

Notice that for a major 7th chord, the 7th is just a half step below the root (albeit up an octave). Similarly, for a dominant 7th chord, the 7th is a whole step below the root. To construct a minor 7th chord, use the 7th that is a whole step below the root and be sure to lower the 3rd.

Step 2 - Learn the 3 Primary 7th Chords

After you can comfortably construct major 7th, dominant 7th and minor 7th chords, you’re ready for Step 3.

3. Remove the Non-Essential Notes

In Step 3, we want to focus on removing the non-essential notes from our 7th chords. The non-essential notes are the root and the 5th. Once these notes are removed, you’re left with just the 3rd and 7th, which are the guide tones.

Guide Tones - Step 3

You’re probably wondering why we’d describe the root and 5th as “non-essential.” This is because for most 7th chords, the root and 5th do not influence the chord quality. For example, the chords Cmaj7, C7, and Cm7 all have the same root and 5th! On the other hand, the guide tones for each of these chords are unique.

Unique chord tones in primary 7th chords

Since major 7th, dominant 7th, and minor 7th chords each have their own unique guide tones, jazz pianists will often use guides tones only to voice these chord sounds.

4. Learn the 2 Guide Tone Voicings

The fourth step to playing jazz piano with guide tones is to learn the two guide tone voicings for each chord quality. Since guide tone voicings involve two notes, there are two ways to play them…either with the 3rd on the bottom, or with the 7th on the bottom. When the 3rd is on the bottom, we call this an “A Voicing.” Conversely, when the 7th is on the bottom, we call this a “B Voicing.”

If you’re playing with a bass player, these two-note guide tone voicings are really all you need to play in order to outline the harmony. However, if you’re playing solo jazz piano, then it is common to play the root as well. In this section, we’ll play the root in the left hand and the guide tones in the right hand. These voicings are also called chord shells. In fact, any 2-note or 3-note combination of the root, 3rd and 7th is considered a chord shell.

Let’s begin by playing guide tone voicings for a major 7th chord. Remember, the guide tones for a major 7th chord include the major 3rd and the major 7th. The example below shows how to play Cmaj7 as an A Voicing and then as a B Voicing.

Major 7th Guide Tone Voicings

Major 7th Guide Tone Voicings

Next, let’s play guide tone voicings for a dominant 7th chord. Remember, the guide tones for dominant 7th chords include the major 3rd and the minor 7th (aka: the ♭7). The example below shows how to play C7 as an A Voicing and then as a B Voicing.

Dominant 7th Guide Tone Voicings

Dominant 7th Guide Tone Voicings

Lastly, let’s play guide tone voicings for a minor 7th chord. Remember, the guide tones for minor 7th chords include the minor 3rd and the minor 7th. The example below shows how to play Cm7 as an A Voicing and then as a B Voicing.

Minor 7th Guide Tone Voicings

Minor 7th Guide Tone Voicings

Range Considerations for Guide Tones

Let’s take a moment to discuss the best range of the piano for playing guide tones. As a rule of thumb, guide tones sound best in the middle register, from approximately C3 to C5. (Note, middle C is considered C4).

Best Piano Range for Guide Tones

Now that you know two guide tone voicings for each of the essential 7th chord qualities, you’re ready to play a chord progression with guide tone voicings.

5. Apply Guide Tones to a Chord Progression

In Step 5, we’ll take everything we’ve learned so far about guide tones and apply it to a chord progression. The progression we’ll use here is a ⅱ–Ⅴ–Ⅰ in C major. Therefore the chords are Dm7→G7→Cmaj7. However, we’ll also include a C6 chord after the Cmaj7. This is because jazz pianists commonly use major 7th chords and major 6th chords interchangeably.

Let’s begin by playing Dm7→G7→Cmaj7→C6 with four-note root position chords.

Begin with 7th Chords

Step 5 - Chord Progression with Guide Tones - 1

Next, we’ll remove the non-essential chord tones, just like we did earlier in Step 3. Keep in mind, to play guide tone voicings for major 6th chords, we simply use the 6th as a guide tone in place the 7th.

Remove Non-Essential Notes

Step 5 - Chord Progression with Guide Tones - 2

If you examine the previous example, you’ll notice that there are some unnecessary leaps in our voice leading. Therefore, the next step is to smooth out the voicing leading in our chord progression. Remember, in a ⅱ–Ⅴ–Ⅰ progression, we should be able to resolve the 7th of each chord downward by a half step. In addition, the 3rd of each chord should be kept as a common tone when the chords change. The following example demonstrates how we can accomplish all of this by simply inverting our G7 voicing to a B Voicing.

Use Inverted Guided Tones As Needed

Step 5 - Chord Progression with Guide Tones - 3

Finally, let’s add some bass by playing the roots in the left hand.

Add Bass Notes

Step 5 - Chord Progression with Guide Tones - 4

Now that you know how to play a chord progression with guide tone voicings, you’re ready for the next step in which we’ll explore various accompaniment formats.

🔎 Check out our Mid Intermediate Piano Foundations—Level 5 Learning Track for a deep dive on how to play jazz piano with chord shells and guide tones.

6. Learn the 3 Formats for Guide Tones

The sixth step to playing jazz piano with guide tones is to explore different accompaniment textures. In this step, we’ll consider 3 different formats: 2-hand accompaniment, stationary shells, and stride technique. We’ll model each format over the first four bars of “Fly Me to the Moon.” However, due to publisher’s restrictions, you’ll notice that the melody has been modified.

Let’s say you want to accompany a jazz vocalist. In this case, a common approach is to play guide tones in your right hand while playing some sort of bass line in your left hand. The following example demonstrates this 2-hand accompaniment approach.

2-Hand Accompaniment

2-Hand Piano Accompaniment with Guide Tones

If you are playing solo jazz piano, then you have the additional role of including the melody in the right hand. In this case, one option is to play stationary chord shells beneath the melody. The following example illustrates a “shared-hand voicing” approach in which the guide tones are split between the left hand and the right hand. Alternatively, if you can reach the interval of a 10th, then you could play the root, 3rd and 7th entirely with the left hand as stationary shells.

Stationary Shells

Stationary Chord Shells with Guide Tones

A third approach is to use lateral movement in the left hand to travel from playing the root in the lower register to playing the guide tones in the middle register. This is called stride technique. The following example demonstrates playing a dotted-quarter/eighth note “Charleston rhythm” in the left hand using the stride technique while the right hand plays a jazz melody.

Stride Technique

Stride Technique with Guide Tones

Next, we’ll learn an essential exercise that will enable you to master guide tone voicings in every key!

7. Practice Essential Guide Tone Exercise

Step 7 to playing jazz piano with guide tones is to practice your guide tone voicings in every key. Therefore, this section features an Essential Guide Tone Exercise that is designed to help you gain proficiency in this task.

This exercise features consecutive ⅱ–Ⅴ–Ⅰ chord progressions arranged in descending whole steps. In other words, the first two bars are in C major, the second two bars are in B♭ major, the third two bars are in A♭ major, etc. By the time you get to the end of the second system, you are in D major. If you were to go down another whole step, you would be back in C major where you started. However, there are still six additional keys to cover. Therefore, the third system begins in the key of D♭ major and descending by whole steps through the remaining five keys.

Consider making this exercise part of your daily warm-up routine at the piano.

Step 7 - Guide Tones Exercise

If you are more of an intermediate level student, then another recommended approach would be to practice playing this exercise entirely with the left hand using the stride technique that we modeled in Step 6.

Once you can play ⅱ–Ⅴ–Ⅰ progressions in every key with guide tones, you’re ready to start playing tunes!

8. Apply Guide Tones to a Tune

The final step in today’s lesson is to apply all of the guide tone techniques from Steps 1 through 7 toward playing a jazz standard. The following example demonstrates how to play a jazz melody reminiscent of “Fly Me to the Moon” with the guide tone techniques we’ve explored in today’s lesson.

Step 8 - Apply Guide Tones to a Tune

🔎 Check out our Autumn Leaves – Jazz Swing 1 course for our most comprehensive tutorial on how to play a representative tune in the jazz swing style.

Conclusion

Congratulations, you’ve finished today’s lesson on Guide Tones: The Complete Guide. With the skills that you’ve developed in this lesson, you’re well on your way to playing jazz tunes with an authentic jazz piano sound!

If you enjoyed today’s lesson, then be sure to check out the following PWJ resources:

 

Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.

 

 

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Writer
Michael LaDisa

Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...

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