Jazz guitar foundations

Note of preparatory courses of Cai Jian (蔡剑) jazz guitar lessons by Qihao Chen (陈启豪).

Course 1

Four stages of practice:

  1. Learn the thing from unknown to known
  2. Get familiar with it on the instrument
  3. Apply it to your playing like melodic sequence
  4. Internalization

The first step of learning jazz guitar

Know every note of strings and frets on the standard tuning guitar.

  • CAGED system
    • Think about the positions on fretboard corresponding to the note invervals
    • Playing a scale can reflect the sequence of intervals
  • 3NPS (3 Notes Per String)


Two important factors:

  • Root note
  • Type of chord

Think of the C major chord by harmonizing C note in C major scale, so the other notes in the scale with third intervals are E and G. Same thing to the other notes or scales, we have these common chords:

  • Triads: major (1, 3, 5), minor (1, b3, 5), augmented (1, 3, #5), diminished (1, b3, b5)
  • 7th chords: major (1, 3, 5, 7), dominant (1, 3, 5, b7), minor (1, b3, 5, b7), half diminished (1, b3, b5, b7), diminished (1, b3, b5, bb7), minor major (1, b3, 5, 7), augmented major (1, 3, #5, 7)

Figure out the root position of chords

  1. Know the members of chord due to its type
  2. Find the root notes on 4th to 6th strings
  3. Find the position of other notes due to the intervals

In this way we can infer 5 common patterns (R, 5, 7, 3 and R, 7, 3, 5) by CAGED system of each type of chords.

Chord-scale system

The chord is equal to the scale and vice versa. Think that a heptatonic scale (like diatonic scale) is consist of 4 notes of the 7th chord which the root note is harmonized with other 3 extensions. In the other hand, 4 notes determine the type of chord, and 3 extensions determine the type of scale. Like playing a maj7 could be Ionion or Lydian mode scales, plus a #4 extension makes it a Lydian.


  • Beat: the unit of time for music, BPM (Beats Per Minute)
  • Metre: the regularly recurring patterns and accents such as bars and beats
  • Rhythm: the combination of beat and metre over time


  1. C major scale on CAGED system:
    • Cover all notes of 5 positions
    • Start and end from other notes instead of the root note
    • Various scale patterns
  2. Find the note position due to interval
    • Imagine you have two pairs of cards, one pair are ascending and descending order cards, another one are interval cards like minor 2nd, major 2nd, minor 3rd, …, etc
    • Pick the root note and each one card from two pairs like F on 6th string, ascending and perfect 5th
    • Find the the ascending perfect 5th note of F on 6th string


  • Try to think faster before playing.
  • Inversion of interval of two notes, 9 = perfect 4th and perfect 5th = major 3rd and minor 6th
  • Maybe you can try this mini app Fingerboard mate

Course 2


Older than natural major/minor scales.

Tonic relative to major scale Name Interval sequence Tonic 7th chord
I Natural major scale, Ionian mode 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 △7
II Dorian mode 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6, b7 -7
III Phrygian mode 1, b2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7 -7
IV Lydian mode 1, 2, 3, #4, 5, 6, 7 △7
V Mixolydian mode 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, b7 dom7
VI Natural minor scale, Aeolian mode 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7 -7
VII Locrian mode 1, b2, b3, 4, b5, b6, b7 -7b5

C major scale we practiced before has same notes to the D dorian, E phrygian, F lydian, G mixolydian, A aeolian and B locrian.

Practice hints with fifth circle

  • Start from dorian and mixolydian modes which are ofren used for minor and dominant chords
  • Change root note and practice with corresponding interval sequence on C major scale on CAGED system
  • Modulation: play each key along with fifth circle on one position area of CAGED system
  • Write down the notes of major scale, modes name and corresponding tonic chords to help remembering
  • Play tonic chord before and after scale/mode
  • Practice root position for one kind of chords along with fifth circle on one position area of CAGED system, like play major chords in 12 keys on C position then go to other positions, then change to minor chords, dominant chords…


Dividing the beat into smaller units. Swing 8th are perfoming by one 1/3 triplets and another 2/3 triplets, counting triplets beats in mind.


Providing background like chords, timing, etc to make improvised solo or meldoy lines a complete work. It also has lots of possibilities as same as solo to create or renew the song. Recommend the guitarist Freddie Green to know more.


  1. Know well about the name and interval sequence of 7 modes
    • Random root note with random mode to practice
    • Play swing 8th
  2. Proficient in playing major II-V-I chords in each key
    • Random root note
    • Play swing 4th (mute the third beat in triplets)

Course 3

Minor II-V-I

In the natural minor scale (1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7), the tension can’t be resolved due to both V and I are minor chords. Thus leverage the harmonic minor scale (1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, 7) to make V to be dominant chord, but also keep the II and I chords in natural minor scale to construct the minor II-V-I.

Comparing to the V in major scale (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, b7), the V in harmonic minor scale (1, b2, 3, 4, 5, b6, 7) has b9 and b13 notes which is called altered. Typically, a dominant seventh chord is considered altered if either or both the 5th or 9th are chromatically raised or lowered (#9 or b9 and #11 or b13).

In result, the minor II-V-I is m7b5-dom7alt-min7. You can also change the I to minMaj7 if you prefer harmonic minor scale.

Phrygian dominant mode

There are also 7 modes based on harmonic minor scale, the most common one is the 5th mode phrygian dominant. When you see a G13 chord, it must comes from a major scale. And when you see a dom7b9, you can infer that it comes from the V in minor scale, then you can play phrygian dominant.

Moreover, the basic patterns to play minor II-V-I are locrian for minor II, phrygian dominant for minor V and aeolian or dorian for minor I.

Avoid note

Avoid note will change the functionality of chords.

  • For major and dominant chords, the avoid note is 4th diatonic scale step (11), the available extensions are 9, #11, 13.
  • For minors chords, the avoid note is 6th scale step (13), the available extensions are 9, 11. There is an exception, it can work if the minor chord acts as dominant function. For instance, replace V dominant by IV minor and the progression turns to be IV major, IV minor and I major, sounds great.

Avoid notes for modes of the C major scale:

Scale degree Chord Mode Avoid note Available tensions
1 Cmaj7 Ionian Fourth scale step, F 9, 13
2 Dm7 Dorian Sixth scale step, B 9, 11
3 Em7 Phrygian Second and sixth scale steps, F and C 11
4 Fmaj7 Lydian No avoid note 9, ♯11, 13
5 G7 Mixolydian Fourth scale step, C 9, 13
6 Am7 Aeolian Sixth scale step, F 9, 11
7 Bø7 Locrian Second scale step, C 11, ♭13

Steps to learn a standard

  1. Listen multiple versions of the song with lead sheet, figure out the form of the song.
  2. Practice the melody and chords of the song.
  3. Practice scales and arpeggios through the chords.
  4. Improvisation. This a really comprehensive topic, try to find the 3rd notes of every chords at first.


  1. Harmonic minor scales on CAGED system with 5th dominant 7th chord, for example A harmonic minor scale with E7 on 5 positions.
  2. II-V-I progression of relative keys. For C major and A minor keys, the progression is Dm7-G7-C-Bm7b5-E7Alt-Am7. Try chord progression in other keys as well as arpeggios.

Course 4

Melodic minor scale

  • The ascending melodic minor scale, aka jazz minor scale: 1, 2, ♭3, 4, 5, 6, 7
  • The descending melodic minor scale: 1, 2, ♭3, 4, 5, ♭6, ♭7

Modes of the ascending melodic minor scale:

Mode Name Associated chords
I Ascending melodic minor C minor major 7 (9, 11, 13) or C minor 6 chords (functions as i minor)
II Phrygian ♮6, Dorian ♭2, Assyrian, or Phrygidorian D7sus (♭9, ♯9, 13) chord, with ♭2 as a non-chord tone producing a minor ninth
III Lydian augmented or Lydian ♯5 E♭ major 7♯5 (9, #11) chord (functions as a III+)
IV Lydian dominant, Lydian ♭7, Acoustic scale, Mixolydian ♯4, Overtone, or Lydomyxian F7 (9, ♯11, 13) chord (functions as a dominant, secondary, or substitute dominant)
V Mixolydian ♭6, Melodic major, fifth mode of Melodic minor, Hindu, or Myxaeolian G7 (9, ♭13) chord (functions as a dominant with ♭13 as a non-chord tone or the fifth avoided in the chord voicing as they produce a minor ninth)
VI Locrian ♮2, Half-diminished, or Aeolocrian A minor 7♭5 (9, 11, ♭13) (functions as a ii chord in the fifth mode of melodic minor)
VII Super Locrian, Altered dominant scale, or altered scale B7 (♯ or ♭9, ♯11, ♭13) chord (functions as a dominant with the fifth of the chord replaced by ♯11 or ♭13, may also be used to harmonize a vii7♭5 chord in melodic minor)

Tritone substitution

If two chords share the same 3rd and 7th notes, they will have similar sound thus can replace each other. For example, we can play IIm7-bII7-I△7 instead of IIm7-V7-I△7 to make bassline changing smoothly.

Lydian dominant is the most important mode of melodic scale, the only difference with mixolydian mode is #4 note. One common scenario to apply this mode is with tritone substitution, an approach to help finding the positions on fretboard quickly. If you want to play the V dominant altered scale on V7 chord, it’s exactly the bII lydian dominant scale on bII7.


Melodic minor scales on CAGED system with related tonic chords.