How to Make Any Major Chord Sound Jazzy
Do you want to know how to make any major chord sound jazzy on the piano? Most students think that they need to memorize a ton of complicated jazz chords to do this, but this couldn’t be further form the truth. In today’s piano lesson, you are going to learn:
- How to turn any major chord into a jazz chord instantly
- Which notes you can add using the Cut-4 Approach
- How to Combine the notes in the best way (called Chord Voicing)
- How to use chord clusters
- How to jazz up any chord inversion
Whether you are new to jazz piano or have experience playing jazz piano, this Cut-4 approach will reshape the way you think of jazz harmony so that you can transform your chords faster than ever before. Let’s dive in.
Step 1: Start With a Major Chord
The first step to make any major chord sound jazzy on the piano is to start with a simple major chord. Let’s start with a C Major chord in root position:
The notes here are C E and G. Now, before we move forward, I want you to think of this chord in two ways: we have a top note, which we can think of as our melody note, and we have the bottom two notes which complete the top note to create a chord, or harmony.
(If you don’t know all of your major chords, you can master them in our Level 1 Learning Track).
Now, it’s time to jazz up this major chord. How do we do it? With the Cut-4 Trick.
Step 2: The Cut-4 Trick
What is the Cut-4 Trick or the Cut-4 Method?
The Cut-4 trick is where you add any notes to a major chord from the corresponding major scale, except you do not play the 4th note of the scale.
For example, if you wanted to add jazzy notes to a C Major chord, you would add the notes from the C Major Scale (C D E F G A B), except you would not add the 4th note (F). Therefore, we call this “cut 4” because we are “cutting out” the 4th note from the scale. Here is the sheet music for the scale:
As you can see, the notes we can add to the C major chord are in green (C D E G A B). In other words, there are 6 notes from the scale you can add to a major chord, and they are in two groupings of three (C D E, and G A B respectively). The 4th note that we cutout is in red (the F).
Now, you can add any of these notes to your chord, in any combination to make it sound jazzy.
You might be thinking, “Really Jonny? Won’t some of the notes sound a little weird? Aren’t there certain combinations of notes that sound better than others”. The answer is that all of these notes will generally sound very good together. Later on in this lesson, you’ll learn that certain combinations of these notes will create different textures, but none of them will sound bad.
Now, to truly master the Cut-4 approach in jazz, it is essential to know all of your major scales. If you don’t already know them, you can master them in our Level 1 Foundations Learning Track.
So now that you understand which notes can be added to your chord, it’s time to add some jazzy colors, right?!? Well, first let’s go over 3 guidelines or rules that will help you build the best sounding chords.
Step 3: 3 Guidelines to Make Any Major Chord Sound Jazzy
Before you start adding jazz colors to your major chords, you need to first understand that there are some guidelines or rules that will help you find the most pleasing sounding chords. Here are the 3 guidelines that I follow every time I want to make my major chords sound more jazzy:
3 Guidelines to Make Major Chords Sound Jazzy
- Use chord clusters on the top
- Generally avoid the root in the right hand
- Use Root-5 or Root-5-10 in the left hand
What are chord clusters? Chord clusters are when we have 2 or more notes played either a whole step or half step apart. They sound very good when playing jazz because the notes create a little bit of “rub” with one another.
Why do we avoid the root in the right hand? We do this so that we can free up our right hand fingers to play other, more colorful notes from the Cut-4 step.
Why do we play a root-5 in the left hand? Because this provides a solid foundation for the right hand chords (root-5 is the notes C and G).
Following these 3 guidelines will help you create more interesting sounding chords and maximize the harmonic colors that you achieve.
(Want to better understand the principles of jazz harmony? You can in our Intermediate Foundations Learning Track.)
Now that you understand the 3 guidelines to making your major chords sound more jazzy on the piano, let’s apply this concept to our first chord, the C Major in root position.
Step 4: Apply Cut-4 Method & 3 Guidelines to a Chord
How exactly do you apply the concepts above to the C Major chord? Well, if we are going to add jazz harmony to the first chord, then we need to keep the top note, the melody note, the same. Therefore, we will leave the top note G in the chord.
Now, as we go down notes from G, let’s start adding in notes from the Cut-4 approach. Remember that the notes we can add are C D E G A B.
From the top note G, we can add E and D. We will leave out the root note C (remember the guideline to remove the root note of the chord). Next, let’s add in the B and the A. Now add the root-5 in the left hand (G and C from the top down). Now, here is what your chord looks like:
Doesn’t that sound amazing?!? What we have done is we have transformed a regular C major chord into what we call a C Major 13 chord. (Don’t know what 13 chords are? You can learn in our Coloring Dominant Chords With Extensions course.) If you are particularly curious which notes we have added to the C Major chord (C E G), we have added the notes B D and A. These are called the 7th, 9th, and 13th. (To learn more about Major 7th chords, checkout our Major 7 Chord Theory & Application Course here).
Adding chord “extensions” is a critical element of jazz harmony, and that is essentially what we have done here. However, we are not “thinking” of these colorful notes as “extensions”. Instead, we are thinking of the underlying major scale and which notes from the major scale we can add to the major chord to color it. This is by far the best way to think of jazz harmony, and it’s something I encourage you to do on every major chord!
Now, in a moment you’ll learn how to harmonize other inversions of a C Major chord, but before you do that, it is important to practice different combinations of notes in the position you just learned. For this, I recommend playing with the included backing track (you can download it at the bottom of this page after logging into your membership. You can also download the lesson sheet music on the bottom of these page after logging into your membership).
Practice using different cluster combinations. Maybe remove the B, and add the G on the bottom. There are many combinations of notes that are possible in this position.
Now that you can play this position, let’s practice other inversions of a C Major chord.
Step 5: Practice Jazzing Up Major Chords Using Inversions
Now that you understand the basic principles of making any major chord sound jazzy on the piano, let’s practice harmonize other inversions of a C Major Chord.
The sheet music below contains an example of how I might harmonize a first inversion C Major chord and a second inversion C Major chord:
You can also harmonize other notes of the C scale using the concepts you’ve already learned. For example, you could harmonize the D, A, and B melody notes like this:
I encourage you to come up with your own combinations of notes. Have fun with it!
Step 6: Practice Jazzing Up Major Chords in Other Keys
The final step is to practice jazzing up your major chords in other keys. An excellent resource for this is our Smart Sheet Music, which allows you to change the key with the click of one button for this entire lesson. However, I’ve included 3 examples here for you to use in our own playing.
Here is how I would make an Eb Major chord in root position sound jazzy:
Here is how I would make a G Major chord in 2nd inversion sound jazzy:
Here is how I would make a Bb Major chord in 1st inversion sound jazzy:
I highly encourage you to practice jazzing up your chords in all 12 keys. Pick different inversions of chords, make sure you know the related major scale, and then follow the guidelines I’ve listed above.
Now, if you want to do an even deeper dive of jazz harmony, I’ve put together some of my top recommended courses for you below:
- 6 Jazz Ballad Harmonic Approaches (Level 2, Level 3)
- Passing Chords & Reharmonization (Level 2, Level 3)
- Master Your Major 7th Chords (Theory & Application, Exercises)
- Jazz Standard Analysis
Thanks for learning with me, and see you in the next Quick Tip!
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