Jonny May
Quick Tip

Learning Focus
  • Chords
Music Style
  • Jazz Ballads
  • Jazz Swing
  • Smooth Jazz
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Chances are the first chord you ever learned is the last chord you’ll ever need! That’s right—unless you are playing classical music—C-E-G just doesn’t cut it in popular piano styles. Why not? Because there is a big difference between playing a chord versus playing a voicing—similar to the difference between ingredients and entrées. Restaurants don’t serve ingredients, and neither should you. In this Quick Tip, you’ll learn how serve up your major chords in jazzy way that sounds especially savory in smooth jazz and R&B styles. You’ll learn:

    • 2 Chords
    • 6 Voicings
    • 1 Progression

Did you know that a pianist’s chord voicings are one of the big factors that distinguishes their playing level as beginner, intermediate or advanced? In fact, the quickest way to improve your sound is to learn new voicings.

Let’s find out why…

Chords vs. Voicings

You really need today’s lesson if you’ve ever been confused when hearing pianists talk about chord voicings using a bunch of numbers (ie: 9th, 11th, 13th). Admittedly, for beginner pianists, discussing chord voicings can be complex and confusing. But learning voicings is also the quickest way to sound better immediately. That’s because complex voicings are not harder to play than simple voicings—they’re just different. Think about it…what other ways are there to sound better? Learn to improvise? Play faster? Both of these take a long time. But you can learn a new voicing and play it in a matter of minutes!

What is a voicing?

A piano chord voicing refers to a specific distribution of chord tones to achieve a desired sound. Chord voicings are often described using adjectives such as closed, open, shell, altered, quartal, etc. In each case, the adjective is a general descriptor but does not indicate the exact arrangement of notes. The only way to precisely identify and reproduce a specific voicing is to analyze the chord tones using their numeric relationship to the root.

How are voicings different than chords?

Technically speaking, a voicing is a chord. However, not all chords are voicings. This is especially true in the case of triads. Remember, a triad is simply a 3 note chord built in 3rds (aka “skips”) like C-E-G, or F-A-C. The best way to differentiate the two terms is that voicings are contextualized whereas chord is general term and is often decontextualized.

Now let’s dig in to some jazzy voicings than you can apply to your major chords?

The 2-6-7 Trick

Fortunately, Jonny has developed a system to quickly make any major chord sound jazzy—it’s the 2-6-7 Trick! This name comes from the chord tones that are added to the voicing to make it more colorful. The image below shows the C Major Scale and identifies the 2nd, 6th, and 7th tones with a red circle.

C Major Scale with Color Tones circled

The notes of the 2-6-7 Trick can be applied to a C Major chord to make it more colorful. The 2nd and the 6th are also commonly referred to by their compound interval equivalents—the 9th and the 13th. (A compound interval has a distance larger than one octave. You can convert a compound interval to a simple interval by subtracting 7…for example: 9 – 7 = 2. You can learn more about 9ths and 13ths in our 2-5-1 Chord Extensions & Alterations Exercises course.)

The image below shows a C Major triad in the left hand with the 2nd, 6th, and 7th in the right hand.

C Major Chord with Jazzy 2nd 6th 7th (9th 13th)

2-6-7 Trick over C Major

While the chord above has the added tones generated by the 2-6-7 Trick, it is much more common to voice this chord so that the tones are closer together in clusters (see next section).

Let’s see how this concept is used.

3 Sweet C Voicings

Pianists playing contemporary styles like smooth jazz, R&B and modern gospel often describe the sound of their chords as “crunchy,” “fat” or even “phat with a PH.” Generally, one of the ways they achieve this desirable sound is by arranging the chord tones in clusters within the voicing.

What is a cluster?

A cluster is two or more adjacent tones in a chord voicing that are either a ½ step or a whole-step apart.

There are two clusters in the each of the C Major 13 voicings below (G and A, and D and E).

C Major 13 Sweet Jazzy Cluster Voicings

What a rich sound! You can download the entire lesson sheet for this Quick Tip from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also transpose the material from the lesson sheet to any key with a single click using our Smart Sheet Music.

Now let’s apply this sound to a musical setting.

Jazzy Major Chords in a Progression

You will most often use the voicings from the 2-6-7 Trick on a 1 chord (I) and a 4 chord (IV) in the context of a major key. While the 5 chord (V) can also be major chord, it generally calls for a dominant 7 or dominant sus4 chord quality. The image below shows a 1 to 4 progression in C Major.

I to IV Progressions C Major to F Major

Now, let’s use the 2-6-7 Trick to color the F Major chord.

The New F Major with 2-6-7 Trick Jazzy

2-6-7 Trick over F Major

We can transpose the exact voicings from earlier by using the same numeric construction. Here are those sweet jazzy major chords for F Major:

F Major 13 Sweet Jazzy Cluster Voicings

Putting It All Together

When playing a chord progression from C to F, you will achieve the smoothest sound by pairing voicings together that utilize the closest movement (excluding the bass voice).

Jazzy Major Chords Progression

Great job. Now that you have a few new flavors of your own, don’t be shy—why not join our Facebook group, Piano Challenges, where you can meet piano friends from all over the world and debut some of your own musical recipes?

If you enjoyed today’s lesson, you will love the following full courses from our library:

Thanks for learning with us today. See you next time!


Blog written by Michael LaDisa / Quick Tip by Jonny May

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