How to Use Guide Tones for Jazz Piano

Instructor
Jonny May
Quick Tip
Level 2
15:10

Learning Focus
  • Accompanying
  • Chords
  • Groove
  • Lead Sheets
Music Style
  • Jazz Swing
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If you were lost in a place you weren’t familiar with, what would you do? Well, you would probably turn to some kind of guide, whether some kind of map, landmark, or another person. In the complex world of jazz harmony, it’s easy to get lost. But if you know how to use the guide tones on jazz piano, you’ll always know what you need to navigate the chord changes.

Guide tones give you all you need to play any chord progression and comp over jazz no matter how complex the chords seem. Today, we’ll be using the common cycle of 5ths progression. This will enable us to know how to use guide tones over songs like Fly Me To The Moon, Autumn Leaves, and All The Things You Are.

In today’s lesson you’ll learn:

  • What guide tones are for jazz piano
  • Where to find the guide tones for any chord
  • Why they are the most important chord tones
  • How they drive the direction of the chord progression and are considered tension tones
  • How to use guide tones over the Cycle of 5ths progression and to create good voice leading over it

Ready to understand jazz harmony on a deeper level?

Let’s dive in!

What Are Guide Tones for Jazz Piano?

Guide tones are the most important notes of any chord. They not only define the sound of the chord you’re playing but they also “pull” you from one chord to the next in a chord progression. You can think of them as the guides that take you through the jazz progression.

Which tones in the chord are the guide tones? They are usually the 3rd the 7th of any chord that you are playing. Check out the example below of how we can take a chord in root position and find it’s guide tones:

How to find the guide tones from a root position 7th chord for jazz piano
How to find the guide tones from a root position 7th chord for jazz piano

If you’re not familiar with all your root position chords and defining their chord tones, then check out the Intermediate Piano Foundations Learning Track.

The truth is, even if all you played on every chord was the root, 3rd, and 7th, you could still easily discern the chord progression and the tune you’re playing. You couldn’t say that about any of the other chord tones of the chords.

Guide tones, usually the 3rd and the 7th tell us the quality of the chord, they are the most important notes in jazz piano
Guide tones, usually the 3rd and the 7th tell us the quality of the chord, they are the most important notes in jazz piano

As you can see above on this C chord, the 3rd and 7ths tells us everything we need about the kind of C chord we’re playing, whether a major 7th, dominant 7th, or minor 7th chord. All the other notes we might add will simply fill in the chord or add color!

How Guide Tones Guide the Chord Progression

If you’re interested in how jazz harmony works and the music theory of guide tones and jazz piano, then this section is for you. If you’re more interested in just learning how to play and comp using guide tones feel free to head over to the next section.

All music is based on math and patterns, most of which are beyond the scope of this lesson. But because of the physics of sound in nature, our ear interprets sounds and associates an emotion to them.

In general, the reason guide tones work is because of a couple of fundamental patterns in music that we seem to like and have been using for at least a few hundred years now. This applies to jazz harmony and the voicings we use when comping.

What are the patterns? Here are two:

  1. All 7ths like to resolve down. 
  2. If we have common tones between chords, it’s nice to keep them there
2 fundamental patterns in music, 7th downward resolution and keeping common tones, correlates to the function of guide tones in jazz piano
2 fundamental patterns in music, 7th downward resolution and keeping common tones, correlates to the function of guide tones in jazz piano

When we look at a Cycle of 5ths progression in jazz, the 3rd and 7th are accomplishing exactly the above tendencies on each new chord, and in a specific pattern. That is why we get a continuous feeling of tension and resolution. It’s the combination of keeping common tones between each chord and the downward 7th resolutions:

Cycle of 5ths chord progression creates a constant musical pattern of 7ths resolving and the keeping of common tones in the chord's guide tones, creates beautiful emotions of tension and release
Cycle of 5ths chord progression creates a constant musical pattern of 7ths resolving and the keeping of common tones in the chord’s guide tones, creates beautiful emotions of tension and release

Since these 3rd’s and 7th’s are directly influencing the tension and resolution of the chord progression, it’s no wonder why they are called guide tones. They are in a way guiding us to what the next note or chord should be. Try playing it and let your ear confirm it for you!

If you want to know more about this guide tone music theory and the cycle of 5ths progression, then check out 5 Jazz Comping Approaches (Beginner/Intermediate, Intermediate/Advanced).

How to Comp Using Guide Tones

Now we will talk about actually playing jazz piano guide tones over a real chord progression. This lays the foundation of the chords we’re playing. We can always add more to it later.

Sometimes we call guide tones chord shells since from them we can later fill in more notes and color. But remember we need to make sure we first have those guide tones present if we want to hear clearly what chords we are playing.

Check out the Cycle of 5ths progression below that contains guide tones (3-7) in the right hand and roots in the left hand:

Comping using guide tones or chord shells for jazz piano over the cycle of 5ths chord progression
Comping using guide tones or chord shells for jazz piano over the cycle of 5ths chord progression

It’s a simple but beautiful sound, right?

Notice how in this chord progression we invert whether the 3rd or 7th is on top each new chord. This creates good voice leading since the notes aren’t jumping around a whole lot:

If we invert the 3rd and 7th or the guide tones each new chord, we only need to move 1 note each time, either top or bottom voice alternating
If we invert the 3rd and 7th or the guide tones every new chord, we only need to move 1 note each time, either top or bottom voice alternating

Notice how we keep any common tones. We only move by a single step where necessary when going from one set of guide tones to another.

If you really want to get a good handle on jazz piano and playing with chord shells (guide tones) on any progression, then check out Chord Shell & Guide Tone Exercises.

Summing It All Up

I hope you enjoyed today’s Quick Tip on guide tones and jazz piano. I encourage you to play the examples until you can use guide tones on any chord and chord progression.

If you’re a PWJ Member, you can access a backing track for this example and the smart sheet music to transpose it into any key. Be sure to also try using different grooves when playing these chords for good comping practice!

If you want to know more about jazz piano comping, grooves, style, and more then check out some of the following courses:

Thanks for checking out this Quick Tip, see you in the next one!

Blog by Daine Jordan/Quick Tip by Jonny May

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