Shell Voicings for Guitar - Part 1

Shell voicings are the ideal place to begin the process of building jazz voicings on guitar. They are relatively easy to play, are ideal for swing music, and contain only the necessary notes for each of the four basic chord types found in typical jazz tunes. 

As chords rarely happen in isolation, it is extremely useful to practice shell voicings in small progressions of three or four chords at a time. The most commonly used progression in standard jazz repertoire is the major II-V-I (2-5-1). (There are also minor II-V-I progressions which are covered in later lessons.) We will begin by memorizing two versions of the major II-V-I progression. This will allow you to begin playing chords along with jazz standards as well as provide a foundation for further harmonic and melodic learning. 

Major II-V-I Pattern #1

Play the chords from left to right, the root of each chord is indicated by the number 1 on the diagrams above. Notice that the roots of the chords alternate from the A string, to the E string, and back to the A string. The indications of the 3rd and 7th are relative to the chord itself. Each chord contains its root, 3rd, and 7th only. 

With knowledge of the note names on the low E and A strings, you can determine the names of the chords in your II-V-I patterns and begin mapping out the various II-V-I patterns on the fretboard, even if you aren’t clear on note names for other strings. 

A tool like the major II-V-I reference below can be a great way to organize your practice so that you cover all of the possibilities with this pattern. This sheet has all twelve major key II-V-I progressions in Circle of Fifths order. Rhythm is not important at this point. It may also be helpful to have a diagram showing all notes on the fretboard to help track the locations of the roots on the E and A strings.

Many of the great jazz standards become playable with just a handful of basic chord shapes. In the next lesson we will cover the second major II-V-I chord pattern. Using these two chord patterns will allow you to play through most jazz tunes.

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