Shell Chords the Power Chords for jazz guitar

Power chords are the simplest way to comp in a band setting, but regular power chords don’t work in jazz. There is a set of chord voicing’s known as shell chords that are used in jazz. Shell chords are the simplest type of chord used in jazz, and it is a foundation to be used to build your own guitar chords. In this lesson you will learn what makes a jazz power chord, how to finger them and how to use them to create your own new chord voicings.

Most jazz chords are built off of the shell chord. It is a 3 note chord that contains the root, third and seventh. This chord style originally came from a big band guitar player named Freddy Green. These shapes are typically played on lower strings with the root on the low E or A string. These chords are not extremely useful in non jazz music. So how to you play these?

Typically the lowest note is going to be the root note, and the 2 higher notes will switch depending on the chord shape. These are played with the index, middle and ring fingers. Most of the time shell chords have their root on the low E string or the A string. On rare occasions you will find a shell voicing on higher strings. This is just the typical. If you find that shell voicings in higher registers sound better to you then you should use them.


a Shell Chords shape for a major 7th chord.

A shell chord for the major 7th chord.

Shell chords shape for major 7th chord.

A shell chord for the major 7th chord.

Shell voicing shape for a dominant 7th chord.

Here is a shell chord for dominant 7th chords.

A shell chords voicing for dominant 7th chords.

A dominant 7 chord shell voicing

Shell voicing for minor 7 chords

A shell voicing for minor 7 chords.

Shell voicing for minor 7 chords

A jazz power chord for minor 7 chords.

These jazz power chords can be played by themselves, or you can use them to build more complex jazz chords. How do you build upon them? You can use your pinky or hold down one of your fingers to add-on notes. With this you can stretch with your pinky, or skip strings. To get the most benefit from these chords I suggest you memorize which notes are what scale degree. Here are some examples that use these chords and build upon them.

Extended shell voicings

An extended shell voicing.

Extended shell voicings

Another example of extended shell voicings

If you need to comp with a jazz band, or if you need to play a complicated jazz chord, shell chords are a great place to start. They consist of tones 1, 3 and 7. You can build upon these chords easily to make any chord you need. Memorize all the chord tones to get the most benefit from it. This will be a base for your jazz chords so you can rely on these whenever you need a new chord. Discuss this topic below.

What are power chords and how do you play them?


Such a simple chord, but it is extremely useful. The power chord is a chord that fits best in the rock or metal style of playing. They are useful for comping especially with a band. When you play with a band, there are other people there that you shouldn’t step on. If you play too many notes you will likely step on someone else. Power chords are created to avoid this.  How do you play a power chord?

A power chord is a 2 note chord. It is made of the root note and the fifth. Because of this, the chord has no tonality. It can be major or minor, but it cannot be diminished of augmented. Any time you see a minor chord or a major chord these power chords will fit perfectly over them.  Remember the third of the chord is what determines if it is a major or minor chord. Power chords omit the third so it can be easily played over both.

A power chord can be played on any 2 string set, low or high. Some work better for some styles than others, and some work better in a band situation than others. Learn power chords on all the strings, but what you decide to use comes down to personal style and experience. Remember, if you are playing with a band you will be playing with a bass. Power chords on low strings may clash with the bass player. Experiment and find what works with you and your style of playing.

Earlier we stated that power chords are made of tones 1 and 5. When you find voicing that you can use with the root and fifth note then experiment with voicing’s where the fifth is the lower note. This way you will be playing 5 and 1. They are the same notes, but this gives you more options to use when you are comping with a band. Also one other thing you can do with power chords is add the root on top on the power chord. This would be root, fifth, root. This will fill out your chord a little more.

Now you know what power chords are, and how they are used. They have no tonality, meaning they can be either major or minor chords. These chords are best used with a band, so use them and experiment to find your own style. Below are a couple of diagrams, but not all, of some power chords you can use. Find all of them and memorize them so that when the time comes you play with a band, you will be ready.

power chords shape 1

A power chord with the Root and fifth. The root is on the A string.

power chords

A power chord with the Root on the G string.

power chords adding the root on top

A typical power chord with the root on the D string, except we added the root again on the B string to fill out the chord a bit more.

power chords shape with the 5th on the bottom note

A power chord with the fifth as the lower note. The root is on the high E string.