Jazz Chord Symbols Explained (Chart Included) (2024)

In this guide, we are going to talk about chords, specifically, how toread jazz chord symbols from the perspective of a saxophone player.

Most the chord symbols guides I've seen are from a guitar player, orpiano player perpectives. These instruments can play several notes atthe same time whereas a saxophone is a one note instrument.

Single note players such as saxophones or trumpets think about chordsa little differently.

If you are a saxophone player, you are most likely working on jazzimprovization. This is the guide you need to understand chord and chordsymbols in jazz.

Let's dive right in.

What is a Chord?

Let's start a beginning by defining what a chord actually is:

A chord is a condensed version of a scale. What we do is take out themost important notes in a scale and use them to create a harmonicstructure.

To demonstrate a chord, we are going to use the key of C. We're going tostart off with the c major scale. the notes of the C Major scale are C,D, E, F, G, A, B, and C.

Here's a comprehensive note-by-note guide of all major scales andtheir fingering charts on the saxophone foryour reference.

And, we're gradually going to change that one note at a time as we gothrough each of the chords that we are going to cover in this guide.

The Chords

In this section, we are going to talk about the chords that you run intowhe you start playing chord charts with lead sheets.

#1 — Major Triad

The first chord that we are going to talk about is a major triad. Atriad means three notes. A major triad means the 1st,3rd, and 5th degree of a major scale.


Degrees is a way of indicating position.

So, in the C Major scale, the triad is C, E and G. If you look atthis, you can see that you are skipping every other note.

On the saxophone, you will play the C, E, G and then go for the C oneoctave above.

C Saxophone Fingering Chart

Jazz Chord Symbols Explained (Chart Included) (1)Jazz Chord Symbols Explained (Chart Included) (2)

E Saxophone Fingering Chart

Jazz Chord Symbols Explained (Chart Included) (3)

G Saxophone Fingering Chart

Jazz Chord Symbols Explained (Chart Included) (4)

C Saxophone Fingering Chart

Jazz Chord Symbols Explained (Chart Included) (5)Jazz Chord Symbols Explained (Chart Included) (6)

As single note players, that's how we outline a chord, we play theroot, we go up to the root and then back down to the root.

The root, of course, is the scale that the major triad is based on.

And, that's pretty much what a major triad is.

#2 — Major 7th Chord

But since this is a saxophone player's guide and most likely they areworking on jazz improvization, we are going to take this to the nextlevel because that is what you're going to see when looking at jazzcharts.

A major 7th adds the 7th degree to a majortriad.

Instead of just 1st, 3rd, and 5th wehave the 1st, 3rd, 5th and the7th degree of a major scale.


B Saxophone Fingering Chart

Jazz Chord Symbols Explained (Chart Included) (7)

So in the case of the C Major scale, it would be C, E, G, B and C. Thisis now a C Major 7th Chord.

The Chord Symbols

Now that we have the chords, we need to know when we are supposed toplay them. And the way we know that is through chord symbols.

Chord symbols can be a little diffult to read because there is notnecessarily a standard of how to write every chord.

Most chord symbols will have a couple of different ways you can writethem that all mean the same thing.

How Chord Symbols Are Written

For the C Major 7th Chord, for instance, the two most commonways you're going to see it written.

Method #1 — Cmaj7

The first way is as Cmaj7.

In Cmaj7, C indicates the scale that you're going to play.maj7 tells you that it has a major 7th.

C denotes the root.

C means a chord is based on the C scale, G means the chord is based onthe G scale, and so on, and so forth. Whatever that large letter is,that's the scale you're working with.

maj7 denotes the quality of the chord.

So far, the only quality that we've covered is major 7th.Aswe learn different suffixes, we will change the notes that we play basedon the quality that the chord symbol is telling us.

I know that might sound confusing, but as we build up these chords, itwill make perfect sense.

Method #2 — C△7

The second, which is my favorite, way is as C△7.

When we see a triangle, that just means it a major 7th chord.

Now that we know exactly what our C Major 7th chord is, andhow it's written in chord symbols, we are going to take this specificchord and make small changes to turn it into other chords.

#3 — Dominant 7th Chord

The first change we are going to make is flatten the 7th.


Our notes now become C, E, G, and B.

B Saxophone Fingering Chart

Main fingerings (3):

Jazz Chord Symbols Explained (Chart Included) (8)Jazz Chord Symbols Explained (Chart Included) (9)Jazz Chord Symbols Explained (Chart Included) (10)

Alternate fingerings (2):

Jazz Chord Symbols Explained (Chart Included) (11)Jazz Chord Symbols Explained (Chart Included) (12)

That is a C dominant 7th chord.

The Dominant 7th Chord Symbol

You'll see it written as C7 chord. That means flat 7.

What is confusing here is the symbol C7 which you thinkwould mean to play the seventh degree of the major scale, but itactually means to play a flat seventh. Just to backtrack that would beC△7 without the flat.

#4 — Minor 7th Chord

The next thing we are going to do is turn this major chord into a minorchord. You've probably heard of major and minor before, you may not knowthe difference between them.

Here is a comprehensive note-by-note guide to all the minor scales onthe saxophone with fingering charts for yourreference.

A minor just means that the 3rd, 6th and7th degree of the scale is lower — so you have a flat3rd, 6th and 7th.


The minor 7th chord from this scale is, that is the1st, 3rd, 5th, and 7thdegrees, are C, E, G, B.

E Saxophone Fingering Chart

Jazz Chord Symbols Explained (Chart Included) (13)

So instead of the E natural in the major scale, we have an Eand instead of a B natural we have a B we had earlier.

The Minor 7th Chord Symbol

This is written as C_7.

The "_" tells you that we are working with a minor scale,and we already know that seven means that it's a 7th chord.

What we've covered so far are the most common chords that you're goingto run into.

We are going to go over two more but the main chords you'll come across,especially when you first start reading chord charts, are those ones.

#5 — Diminished Chord

The next chord we are going to talk about is the diminished chord. Whatis confusing about the diminished chord is that there are two differentkinds:

Type #1 — Half Diminished Chord

We are going to start with the half diminished chord because it onlymakes one change from our minor 7th chord. And then afterthat we'll do fully diminished.

With the half diminished chord, we have a flat 3rd, flat5th and a flat 7th. Its's a minor 7thchord with a flat 5th.


So the notes for the C half diminished chord become C, E,G, B, and C.

G Saxophone Fingering chart

Main fingering (1):

Jazz Chord Symbols Explained (Chart Included) (14)

Alternate fingering (1):

Jazz Chord Symbols Explained (Chart Included) (15)

The Half Diminished Chord Symbols

There are two ways of writing half diminished chord.

Method #1 — Cø7

The first chord symbol for a C half diminished is Cø7 — a Cwith a circle and line through the circle.

Method #2 — C_7♭5

The second chord symbol for a C half diminished is C_7♭5.This is the way you'll see it written very often in lead sheets.

Same idea here, the ♭5 tells you it's a flat 5th.

Type #2 — Fully Diminished Chord

The last chord that we are going to talk about is the fully diminishedchord, which is similar to the half diminished chord, except it has adouble flat 7th, on top of the flat 5th.

I know, a little crazy.


So the notes of a C fully diminished are C, E,G, B♭♭.

If you lower a B you get a B, and if you again lowerB, you get an A. The A is the 6th degree ofthe major scale but we still call it a double flat.

B♭♭ (A) Saxophone Fingering chart

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The Fully Diminished Chord Symbol

The chord symbol for C fully diminished is Co.

Let's put these chords in a chart and include some other variations.

The Complete Jazz Chord Symbols Chart

ChordSymbol #1 (Long)Chord Symbol #2Chord Symbol #3
C Major 7thCmaj7C△7-
C Dominant 7th-C7-
C Minor 7thCmin7C_7-
C Half Diminished-Cø7C_7♭5
C Fully Diminished-Co-

Chart Notes

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Jazz Chord Symbols Explained (Chart Included) (2024)
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