How to Play Two and Three-Note Lenny Breau Guitar Chords
By: Matt Warnock
When learning how to play jazz guitar, many of us learn 4 and 5 note chords in order to expand our comping and chord soloing vocabulary.
But, some of the best players in jazz guitar history were able to derive countless sounds from their instruments by using two and three note chords as the basis for their harmonic lines and phrases.
One of the players that comes immediately to mind when one thinks of two-note chords is Lenny Breau.
Lenny was a master at using the 3rd and the 7th of each chord, often coupled with a color note or two on top of those notes, to create flowing and colorful chord lines that sound like no other player.
In today’s lesson we’ll be exploring a few fun and easy exercises that you can to in order to bring some of these Lenny Breau guitar chords and harmonic approach to your comping and chord soloing.
Lenny Breau Guitar Chords Video Lesson
ii V I’s With 3rds and 7ths
The first part of this exercise is learning how to play the 3rd and 7th for each chord in a Major Key ii V I Chord Progression.
In this lesson we’ll explore two different position for these chords on the fretboard, one using the 5th and 4th strings and one using the 4th and 3rd strings.
There are other places that you can play these chords once you get these two positions under your fingers, but this is a good place to start as they are easy to grab and sound good right away when you apply them to your practice routine or a jam session.
Check out the following two-note chords over a ii V I in C Major, and then practice taking it to different keys around the neck.
From a right-hand standpoint, it is better to pluck these chords than to strum them. So, if you use your fingers to play, just play the lowest note with your thumb and the highest note with your index finger. If you play with a pick, then use the pick on the lowest note and your middle finger on the highest note.
Once you have these chords down, try practicing them with a steady, quarter-note pulse in the same way that Lenny often did when using these chords in his playing.
Here is an example of that rhythm applied to the lower of the two fingerings, but make sure to practice this same rhythm with both of the fingerings for 3rd and 7th chords that we’ve covered in this lesson.
Adding the Root on Top
Now that you have worked out playing the 3rd and 7th on their own, which you can use in when comping in a combo, especially when there is a piano player, you can begin to add notes on top of these chords to bring new colors into the mix.
The first note that we’ll add on top of each chord is the root, and we’ll do so by placing it on the first beat of each bar. Later on you can experiment with different rhythms, but for now this is a great place to start.
When you are working on these fingerings, try practicing them in different keys and in both positions across the neck. As well, try and make the melody note a bit louder than the lower chords to help separate each three-note chord into a melodic and harmonic component.
This is something that Lenny was a genius at, and it is an easy way to get your chord playing to sound like two guitarists rather than one.
You can now begin to spice up these chord exercises by playing around with the rhythm of the upper note.
One of the rhythms that I like to use, and that Lenny liked to use, with these chords is the Charleston rhythm.
This is where you place the first melody note on beat one followed by a second melody note on the & of 2, while keeping the quarter note pulse in the 3rds and 7ths below.
Again, I’ve written it out in one key and in one position, so make sure to apply this concept to both positions and to different keys around the neck.
To take these exercises further, you can practice adding different notes besides the root on top of each chord.
Here is an example of how you could add the 9th of each chord on top of the 3rd and 7th being played on the lower strings.
Once you’ve explored this option, try the 5th, 11th and 13th intervals as well to allow yourself to add any color that you want on top of the 3rd and 7th when comping or chord soloing over a tune.
Lenny Breau was a master player, and his use of 3rds and 7ths was both technically advanced, yet simple in it’s method at the same time.
While there’s no one exercise that will make you sound like Lenny Breau right away, playing 3rds and 7ths, and adding color notes on top, is a big step in the right direction when looking to bring Lenny’s chordal sound to your playing.
Check these exercises out in the practice room this week, and then share your thoughts on these chords, or on Lenny’s playing, in the comments section below.
About the Author
Matt Warnock is the owner of www.mattwarnockguitar.com , a free website that provides hundreds of lessons and resources designed to help guitarists of all experience levels meet their practice and performance goals. Matt currently lives in the UK where he is a Senior Lecturer at the Leeds College of Music and an examiner for the London College of Music (Registry of Guitar Tutors).