Jonny May
Quick Tip

Learning Focus
  • Analysis
  • Chords
Music Style
  • Funk
  • Gospel
  • Smooth Jazz
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The unique style of neo soul often presents a mystery to aspiring pianists. The beautiful and mellow sound of neo soul chords are paradoxically familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. That’s because although neo soul chords originate from traditional 7th chords, they frequently include additional notes and are combined in innovative ways. In today’s Quick Tip, you’ll learn:

  • The 2 Most Common Neo Soul Chords
  • 2 Chord Thickeners
  • Connecting Neo Soul Chords with Common Tones
  • Neo Soul Chord Progressions

If you like the playing styles of pianists such as Cory Henry, Jacob Collier and Robert Glasper, then you’ll love today’s lesson.

Intro to Playing Neo Soul Chords

The first thing to consider when playing in the neo soul style is selecting an appropriate keyboard sound. While you can play neo soul chords with a grand piano sound, you’ll get the most authentic neo soul sound from an electric piano. Specifically, the Fender Rhodes provides the perfect sonic spectrum for playing mellow chords with a classic neo soul vibe. Most modern digital pianos, stage pianos, and keyboard workstations have one or more Fender Rhodes sounds. However, the sound bank on your keyboard most likely will not refer to the Fender Rhodes by its proper name due to trademark considerations. Instead, you may see any one of the following names depending on your manufacturer:

  • Classic EP
  • Dynamic EP (Dyno EP)
  • Early 70’s
  • Electric Piano
  • Mark I, II, III, IV or IV (MK1, MK2, etc)
  • Pure EP
  • Soft Case
  • Stage EP
  • Suitcase EP
  • Tine EP
  • Vintage EP
  • Woody EP

As you can see, there is a wide variety of naming conventions when it come to identifying a Fender Rhodes sound on modern synthesizers. Some of these names describe the sound character while others are pointing toward Rhodes models of a particular era. Many players also use external sound libraries accessed from a laptop via MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) cables or a USB connection. Examples of popular software synth collections include Keyscape and Neo-Soul Keys Studio. In addition, you can even access external libraries through the following iOS Apps:

Now that you’ve found a good Rhodes sound, let’s get to playings some luscious neo soul chords!

Step 1: Most Common Neo Soul Chords

There are two types of chord structures that occur most frequently in neo soul music—major 7th chords and minor 7th chords. In this section, we’ll provide an overview and example of each chord type. Then, then in Step 2 we’ll show you how to add additional notes to get an even more characteristic sound for neo soul music.

Major 7th Chords

You can construct a major 7th chord in two simple steps. First, start with a major triad such a F major (F-A-C).  Secondly, you’ll need to add a major 7th above the root (F-A-C-E). If you are unsure of how to find the major 7th, the easiest way is to think of the note that is a ½ step below the root. Then, simply transpose it up an octave. The example below shows an F Major 7 in root position.

F Major 7
Major 7th chords such as this F Major 7 are one of the most common chord types used in neo soul music.

If you are a beginner piano student and need to learn the 4 types of triads before moving on to 7th chords, check out our reference lesson on Piano Triads—Major, Minor, Diminished, Augmented Chords.

Minor 7th Chords

You can also construct a minor 7th chord in two simple steps. First, start with a minor triad such a F minor (F-A♭-C).  Secondly, add the minor 7th above the root (F-A♭-C-E♭). An easy way to find the minor 7th it to think of the note that is a whole-step below the root. Then, transpose it up an octave. The example below shows an F minor 7 in root position.

F minor 7 neo soul chords
Minor 7th chords like this F Minor 7 are among the most common chord structures in neo soul music.

In the next step, we’ll build upon these structures and “fatten-up” the sound with additional notes.

Step 2: Neo Soul Chord Thickeners

If you really want your chords to have that authentic neo soul vibe, you’ll want to add some additional notes. Jonny likes to refer to these notes as “chord thickeners.” Let’s look at Jonny’s chord thickener formulas for each chord type.

Major 7th Chord Thickeners

To thicken up the sound of your major 7th chords, you’ll want to add the 9th and the 13th. However, many players think of these compound intervals in their simplest form—the 2nd and the 6th above the root. The image below shows the F Major 7 from Step 1 in the left hand with the 2nd and the 6th in the right hand. Keep in mind that this image serves to illustrate the major 7th chord combined with its respective thickeners. You would not actually finger the chord in this manner when performing. We’ll cover that in the next step.

Major Chord Thickener for Neo Soul Chords
Major Chord Thickener: add the 2nd and 6th to your major 7th chords for a fat neo-soul texture.

Minor 7th Chord Thickeners

Next, let’s thicken up that F minor 7 from the previous section. The chord thickener formula for minor 7th chords is to add the 9th and the 11th. More simply, you can think of these notes as the 2nd and 4th above the root.The image below shows an F minor 7 in the left hand with the 2nd and the 4th in the right hand.

Minor Chord Thickener
Minor Chord Thickener: add the 2nd and 4th to your minor 7th chords for a warm and full neo-soul sound.

The proper name in jazz theory for these “thickeners” is chord extensions. You can learn about this topic in depth in our Piano Chord Extensions course.

In the next section, you’ll learn how to spread-out the notes of these chords and voice them with a characteristic neo soul sound.

Step 3: Neo Soul Common Tones

The most import step to getting an authentic neo soul sound is to voice your chords with a common tone on top. A common tone is a note that is shared between two or more chords. For example, C major (C-E-G) and F major (F-A-C) share a common tone of C. In neo soul music, songwriters frequently draw on borrowed chords which come from “outside” of the key center. However, songwriters specifically use borrowed chords containing at least one common tone within the primary key. Then, they voice the chords with the common tone on top, allowing them to shift through diatonic chords and borrowed chords with a sense of harmonic continuity. The excerpt below from today’s lesson sheet shows how to voice 4 completely different chords in a neo soul style. Each of the chords contains the common tone F as the top note of the voicing.

Step 3 Common Tones for Neo Soul Chords
Voicing chords with a common tone on top allows neo soul songwriters to seamlessly connect diatonic chords and borrowed chords.

Wow, what an incredible chord sound! Be sure to download the complete lesson sheet for these neo soul chords and more. The lesson sheet appear at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also transpose this lesson to any key with one click using our Smart Sheet Music.

Step 4: Mix and Match Neo Soul Chords

The final step is to play a chord progression using the neo soul voicings from step 3 on today’s lesson sheet. In order to create a neo soul chord progression, you can simply mix-and-match chords that share a common tone on top. In the example below, each of the chords contains the note F on top. As a general rule, it often works best to select chords that are relatively close together. For example, you’ll notice that the majority of the chords in the following progression are no more than a minor 3rd apart. Try playing the progression below along with the backing track that is included with this lesson. You can download the backing track from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership.

Mix and Match Neo Soul Chords
Sample neo soul chord progression using mix-and-match technique of chords sharing a common tone on top.

Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s lesson and have learned foundations of neo soul keyboard playing and songwriting. If you enjoyed this lesson, be sure to check out the following resources:

Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you back here again soon.


Blog written by Michael LaDisa / Quick Tip by Jonny May

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