Learning how to play jazz guitar means learning a number of ways to play maj7 chords and the related extensions, maj6, maj9 and maj7#11, associated with these chords.
While these extended chords contain four, five and sometimes six notes, that doesn’t mean you have to learn big, hard-to-play fingerings that are difficult to grab and hard to insert into a playing situation.
Often, you can look at the inner-triads that are found within these larger chords in order to properly outline each sound, while playing an easy to grab and use shape at the same time.
In today’s lesson, we’ll be exploring different triads you can use in order to outline maj7, 6, maj9 and maj7#11 chords in order to properly bring these sounds into your playing, without having to learn anything new beyond basic triad shapes that you already know.
Maj7 Inner Triad
The first inner-triad we will look at can be used to outline a maj7 sound, Cmaj7 in the case of the example below.
If you look at the four notes that make up a Cmaj7 chord, you get C E G B, and within those four notes are two three-note triads, C (CEG) and Em (E G B). This gives us a rule that we can use to apply triads to maj7 chords in a practical situation.
“When playing maj7 chords, you can play a minor triad from the third of that chord to outline a maj7 sound with a three-note chord.”
So, when you are working on learning maj7 chords, you can learn the common four-note voicings, but you can also take triads you already know and use them to outline this common jazz guitar chord. Try putting on a Cmaj7 vamp backing track and then comping along using only the Em triad in various shapes across the neck.
If you are new to triads or are looking to expand your triad shape vocabulary, check out my article “Jazz Guitar Resources: Triads” for more info.
To see how this approach applied to a performance situation, here’s an example of how you would apply an Em triad to a Cmaj7 chord within the context of a ii V I progression in the key of C major.
After working this example in a number of keys across the neck, try coming up with other ways to apply the m7 chord to your maj7 voicings within a ii V I chord progression across the neck.
Maj6 Inner Triad
You also can use triads to outline a maj6 sound in your comping, as seen in the C6 example written out below. In this instance, you can use an Am triad to outline a C6 sound, which provides us with the following harmonic rule that you can use to apply this sound to any key across the neck.
“To produce a 6 chord sound, you can play a minor triad from the 6th note of that chord.”
When doing so, you are outlining the 6th, root and 3rd of the underlying 6th chord.
Here's an example of how an Am triad can be used to outline a C6 chord within the context of a ii V I chord progression in the key of C major. After you learn this fingering in C major, take it to other keys across the neck to get a feel for how it fits in different keys and in different sections of the fretboard.
Once you've worked out this progression in a number of keys, try coming up with your own voicings using Am over C6 within the context of a ii V I, using different fingerings, string sets and fingerings in the process.
Maj9 Inner Triad
Another popular maj7 extension is the maj9 chord, which also can be outlined by applying a major triad as in the example below, which is written over a Cmaj9 chord. Using this approach provides us with the following rule that you can use as a guide when taking this idea to other keys and positions across the fretboard.
“To produce a maj9 sound, you can play a major triad from the 5th of that chord to outline the important notes of the underlying harmony.”
You can see this approach in action with the Cmaj9 chord, and G triad used to outline this sound, in the example below. When doing so, you are outlining the 5th, major 7th and 9th intervals of the underlying maj9 chord.
Here's an example of a G triad being used to outline a Cmaj9 chord within the context of a ii V I in the key of C major. Again, after learning these shapes in the key of C, take them to other keys around the neck to see these shapes in a variety of contexts.
After working out these chords on this string set in a few keys, try taking them to other string sets, keys and with a variety of chord shapes to expand on this concept in your practice routine.
Maj7#11 Inner Triad
The last inner-triad we will look at will be used to outline a maj7#11 chord, which you can see in the example below written in the key of C major.
In this case, you can use a Bm triad to outline the extensions of the Cmaj7#11 chord, which provides you with the following rule in order to take this concept to other keys and areas of the neck.
“To produce a maj7#11 sound, you can play a minor triad from the 7th of the given chord.”
When doing this, the minor triad outlines the major 7th, 9th and #11 intervals of the underlying maj7#11 chord, three colorful and important intervals within that chord.
Here's an example of this approach used over a Cmaj7#11 chord within the context of a ii V I progression in the key of C major. Try working these shapes in all 12 keys across the neck in order to get a fuller concept of how the triad fits within this progression across the entire fretboard of the guitar.
As you can see, though they only contain three notes, triads can be used to outline much larger chords when comping them in a harmonic context on the guitar.
Try these triads out over maj7 chords and their related extensions this week in the practice room, it is a great way to expand your harmonic colors without learning anything new beyond triad shapes that you already know.
What do you think about using triads to outline larger chords? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Matt Warnock is the owner of mattwarnockguitar.com, a free website that provides hundreds of lessons and resources designed to help guitarists of all experience levels meet their practice and performance goals. Matt lives in the UK, where he is a senior lecturer at the Leeds College of Music and an examiner for the London College of Music (Registry of Guitar Tutors).