Jazz Chord Symbols Explained (Chart Included)

Here's what every jazz chord symbol means and a complete jazz chord symbol chart. This guide is from the perspective of a saxophone, trumpet , or any single note player, as opposed to something like a guitar or piano which can play multiple notes at a time.

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

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

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

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

Let's dive right in.

Jazz Chord Symbols Explained (Chart Included)

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 the most important notes in a scale and use them to create a harmonic structure.

To demonstrate a chord, we are going to use the key of C. We're going to start 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 and their fingering charts on the saxophone for your reference.

And, we're gradually going to change that one note at a time as we go through 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 into whe 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. A triad means three notes. A major triad means the 1st, 3rd, and 5th degree of a major scale.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1
C D E F G A B C

Degrees is a way of indicating position.

So, in the C Major scale, the triad is C, E and G. If you look at this, 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 one octave above.

C Saxophone Fingering Chart

The C major scale, fingering chart The C major scale, fingering chart

E Saxophone Fingering Chart

The C major scale, fingering chart

G Saxophone Fingering Chart

The C major scale, fingering chart

C Saxophone Fingering Chart

The C major scale, fingering chart The C major scale, fingering chart

As single note players, that's how we outline a chord, we play the root, 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 are working on jazz improvization, we are going to take this to the next level because that is what you're going to see when looking at jazz charts.

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

Instead of just 1st, 3rd, and 5th we have the 1st, 3rd, 5th and the 7th degree of a major scale.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1
C D E F G A B C

B Saxophone Fingering Chart

The C major scale, fingering chart

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

The Chord Symbols

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

Chord symbols can be a little diffult to read because there is not necessarily a standard of how to write every chord.

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

How Chord Symbols Are Written

For the C Major 7th Chord, for instance, the two most common ways 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 on the 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.As we learn different suffixes, we will change the notes that we play based on the quality that the chord symbol is telling us.

I know that might sound confusing, but as we build up these chords, it will 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, and how it's written in chord symbols, we are going to take this specific chord 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.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1
C D E F G A B C

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

B Saxophone Fingering Chart

Main fingerings (3):

B flat fingering chart 1 B flat fingering chart 2 B flat fingering chart 3

Alternate fingerings (2):

B flat alternate fingering chart 1 B flat alternate fingering chart 2

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 think would mean to play the seventh degree of the major scale, but it actually means to play a flat seventh. Just to backtrack that would be C△7 without the flat.

#4 — Minor 7th Chord

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

Here is a comprehensive note-by-note guide to all the minor scales on the saxophone with fingering charts for your reference.

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

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1
C D E F G A B C

The minor 7th chord from this scale is, that is the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 7th degrees, are C, E, G, B.

E Saxophone Fingering Chart

The C minor scale, E flat fingering chart

So instead of the E natural in the major scale, we have an E and 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 going to 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. What is confusing about the diminished chord is that there are two different kinds:

Type #1 — Half Diminished Chord

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

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

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1
C D E F G A B C

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

G Saxophone Fingering chart

Main fingering (1):

G flat main fingering chart

Alternate fingering (1):

G flat alternate fingering chart

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 C with 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 diminished chord, which is similar to the half diminished chord, except it has a double flat 7th, on top of the flat 5th.

I know, a little crazy.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1
C D E F G A B♭♭ C

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 lower B, you get an A. The A is the 6th degree of the major scale but we still call it a double flat.

B♭♭ (A) Saxophone Fingering chart

B double flat fingering chart

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

Chord Symbol #1 (Long) Chord Symbol #2 Chord Symbol #3
C Major 7th Cmaj7 C△7 -
C Dominant 7th - C7 -
C Minor 7th Cmin7 C_7 -
C Half Diminished - Cø7 C_7♭5
C Fully Diminished - Co -

Chart Notes

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DuckingBeast

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I've played the alto and then the tenor saxophone for close to a decade now. I gig with several bands around the world for most months in a year. I created SqueakingSax to share with you some interesting tips and techniques I've picked up along the way.

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