How to approach a chord chart?

How to approach a chord chart?


Have you ever found yourself in the situation where you are in front of a chord chart you need to work on, a piece of jazz or gypsy jazz you need to learn, and you’re not sure how to get started? Maybe you’ve heard of different techniques that exist for working with a chord chart, but you can’t get going because you don’t know which one to choose first?

There are many ways to work from a chord chart, but today I decided to tell you about the technique which for me is the easiest to start and which nevertheless constitutes an extremely important base which you can’t work around if you want to play jazz. It is an exercise that beginners in jazz can practice when they discovers their first standards, but it is also a means that an advanced level jazz musician can use to learn the chord changes of a new tune. Personally, it’s one of the first techniques I still use today when I have a new piece to learn.

First, a little recap: what is a “chart”? It is a chord progression that forms the basis of a jazz standard. As I said in my article on listening, a standard is made up of a melody and a sequence of chords that are repeated in a loop, and over which we try to improvise.

What is a chord? This is a layering of thirds. When we play, one by one, the notes of a chord starting from the bass, we will play the ARPEGGIO of the chord, which represents exactly the same notes as those of the chord. So, quite simply, if you want to be sure not to make a mistake and to play the notes within the chords correctly, the first thing to do is to play the notes of the arpeggio!


How to do it in 4 steps

1. Play each note of the arpeggio separately over each chord

Start with the bass (the fundamental) and play it over each chord; do the same with the third, the fifth, then the seventh. It’s best to practice with a backing track so you can hear how each note sounds relative to the chord, and incorporate the interval played versus the bass of the chord.


2. Playing the triad

In jazz, we have 4-note chords and more. But at first, I recommend to play only the triad of the chord, that is to say the bass, the third, and the fifth.


3. Add the 7th to play the tetrad

Only when the triad is well mastered, you can add the 7th. Thus, we have all the notes of the arpeggio with 4 sounds.


4. Play the arpeggio notes in all directions

Don’t limit yourself to playing the arpeggios in the order 1-3-5-7, but try to reverse the order of the notes using your imagination!


I really recommend that you go through this arpeggio work without trying to cut corners. I think we all tend to want to do more complicated things and directly play other notes than arpeggios or triads. But in my opinion, the great jazz masters all have this basic mastery, which is already a difficult exercise in itself. By limiting ourselves to stay “in the box” by playing only the notes of the arpeggios allows us to memorize the chord changes well and to hear it in our head as though the changes were a melody.

This is all the more important since we play a melodic instrument, and therefore we don’t have to make the effort to play the chord grid as an accompaniment, which is a shame since that would force us to memorize it… This is why it is very useful to learn to accompany on the violin, even if it is not the ideal instrument for this… Obviously, the use of a violin accompaniment can also be very welcome in certain contexts such as duet playing.


To go a little further…

Later, you can add other notes between those of the 4-note arpeggio, which will form the notes of the scale that you have chosen, consciously or not, by ear or by analyzing the modes. Indeed, on a chord, we often have the choice to play several different notes between the notes of the arpeggio, since the only imposed notes are in the end those of the chord, therefore of the arpeggio…

After the notes 1-3-5-7, we have the 9th-11th-13th, which we can choose freely, unless these notes are specified (see my article on the chord symbols used in jazz). The harmonic context sometimes urges us to choose one or the other note.

How do you choose which note to play? Here’s an example: on Am7, you can play a 13th (F#) or a 13th flat = b13 (F) If you play the 13th the mode will be Dorian; if you choose the b13 it will be Aeolian. If in the melody there is an F# on this chord, the context will dictate that F# be preferred, although this is not compulsory. I also advise you to consult your ear to know if one note will work better than the other… There are also other harmonic parameters which can encourage a player to favor one note more than the other, but I will not expound upon this in this article… But this is also where you can find a certain freedom in the choice of notes!

To conclude, here’s where I’m coming from: if you really master the basic arpeggio notes, your ear will guide you better to add other notes between those of the arpeggios, and they will be more naturally in tune with the harmonic context, without you necessarily having to always try to analyze which mode would be best, since you will hear the changes in your head. Nevertheless, it will still be useful to learn the different modes, and on which chord they can be played, in order to have both: the ear and the awareness of what is happening harmonically. …

To conclude, I remind you that playing the arpeggios of the chords is a technique that can be applied at any level when you want to approach a new piece! It’s a strict and difficult exercise that you have to work on in the same way that you worked on your scales and arpeggios outside of a harmonic context. Only here, in jazz, it is necessary to combine the technical work with the harmonic context to be able to ultimately improvise!

I hope this will help you in learning a chord chart… If you liked it, do not hesitate to share it on social networks or to send to your violinist or other instrumentalist friends! See you next week for a new video!

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