Jazz Articulation With Ghost Notes
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Sometimes, even the smallest change can make a huge difference (adding a little cream to coffee, anyone?). I remember wondering how professional pianists were able to get even the simplest sounding lines to feel so rich and…groovy! Upon close inspection, it turns out that it’s all about jazz articulation. Many times, they are adding tiny little ghost notes in their lines to spice things up! 🔥
So as the old saying goes, the details matter! Two musicians can play the exact same notes, but the one who understands and uses ghost notes in their jazz articulation is much more likely to give the listener the desired “stank face” 😆 with that same lick.
In this lesson, you’ll learn a few simple ghost note techniques and tricks to add to your right and left hand on the piano to achieve that authentic jazz feel and groove in your playing!
Here’s an outline of this lesson, feel free to click the links and skip ahead to a specific portion if you wish:
- Intro to Ghost Notes
- 3 Types of Ghost Notes Used in Jazz Piano Articulation
- How to Add Ghost Notes When Playing Jazz Piano
Excited to take your jazz feel to the next level? Let’s dive in!
Before we get into all the details about jazz articulation, ghost notes, and how to use them in different aspects of our playing, let’s just listen to how they actually sound in music! Below, you’ll find a comparison of the same lick played without any ghost notes, and then with some ghost notes added:
Ghost notes (sometimes called dead notes, muted notes, or false notes) are notes that add rhythm and texture to your music but don’t have a discernible pitch. They are usually played quickly and quietly and are often described as being felt in the music rather than heard.
Drummers are quite familiar with this and often will add small snare hits on off-beats to enhance a groove. Other musicians might relate it to grace notes or slip notes, which tend to be very brief and precede a melody’s main note.
Either way, most likely you have heard the use of ghost notes in many kinds of music. Before looking more into it though, you may not have even realized they were there!
There are different ways that ghost notes are displayed on sheet music notation. Some are more obvious than others.
The truth is with jazz piano ghost notes aren’t always notated very explicitly (as you’ll see in the examples below), so it requires a bit of familiarity with the style to interpret which notes on the paper would be best played as ghost notes. Fortunately though, by the end of this lesson you should have a pretty good idea of the most common types and placements of ghost notes!
However, there are various ways that ghost notes can be explicitly notated using certain symbols and noteheads if a composer or arranger wants to be specific. Below are various examples of ghost notes in sheet music notation, arranged from most common notation to least common:
Sounds great, right? But how do we actually incorporate each one of these techniques into our playing? Let’s break it down a bit more in the next section.
Let’s take a look at each type of ghost note and see various examples of how you can add your own in various contexts of jazz piano. Keep in mind all the following demonstrations are recorded at 90 BPM and feature a 1-measure count-in.
The first type of ghost note helps us to really emulate the jazz articulation and feel of a real walking bass in our left hand.
Check out what our starting bass pattern might be for a typical walking bassline below. We simply have a root on the C7 chord that later chromatically descends from the 5th above into the next chord’s root F:
Original Bass Line
Technique #1. Root Ghost Notes
The first technique for adding ghost notes in our left-hand walking bass is to play the root of the chord once again on a certain offbeat. This will take the form of a swung 8th note somewhere in the measure.
Check out our first example below of adding in the ghost note on the “and of beat 3” and notice how the swing groove is enhanced 🤩 compared to the original bassline above:
“And of Beat 3”
“And of Beat 2”
For the next one, we can actually add a note on beat 2, this makes it a “4-feel” walking bass line. To do this, we can move the 5th from beat 3 to beat 2 and now replace it with another root an octave above.
Doing so will now allow us to add a ghost note on the “and of beat 2”:
“And of Beat 4”
You can also try it on the “and of beat 4.” In this case, we are using the root from the higher octave. This works well in this context because it kind of echoes the root we just heard earlier on beat 3:
Mixed – “And of 2, And of 4”
We can also combine the last two examples fairly well. This creates a really nice & solid groove since we are consistently alternating between a full quarter note and then an 8th with a ghost note:
Note: As stated in the video, while it is possible to add a ghost note to the “and of beat 1,” Jonny doesn’t prefer that sound in his playing. However, feel free to try it out yourself and use it if you like it!
This one is the same as the last example, except that we start on the higher octave root and work our way down to the lower octave for variation. Play it yourself and notice how everything has been literally inverted 🙃:
Technique #2. 5th Ghost Notes
Hopefully, you’ll start to see how we can constantly experiment with different variations of a bassline and our choice of ghost notes may directly impact which options work the best.
That being said, instead of using the root as the ghost note we can also use the 5th of the chord. In this case, it usually feels best to have it leading back into another root. To illustrate, let’s look at some examples.
Mixed – “And of 2, And of 4”
Below we show a possibility of actually delaying the appearance of the 5th so it acts as a ghost note on the “and of 2” and the “and of 4.” This type of pattern creates an interesting 2-feel bass groove:
“And of Beat 3”
Another option is to use the 5th as a quick rhythmic passing note along the way down (or up) from one octave to another. In the example below, this is demonstrated on the “and of 3”:
Be sure to mix and match all the techniques above. When you explore new possibilities, you’re likely to find unique patterns that identify your own personal sound.
If you want to learn more about walking bassline techniques check out our course on Jazz Walking Bass Lines.
Another awesome place to add ghost notes is in your right-hand melodies! This is sure to add rhythmic texture and style to all your lines.
Technique #1. 5th Ghost Notes
You can use the 5th of your overall key’s scale (in the case below in C major, this would be G) as a ghost note.
Note: It’s important to play these ghost notes very quietly and short. This type of jazz articulation is what really enhances the groove in the style. Also, these are generally played on offbeats.
While you can just pick any offbeat and plug in a ghost note for rhythmic texture, it works especially well as a soft pickup note that pulls us into our main note above or below. Here’s an example that shows off both of those techniques:
Technique #2. Root Ghost Notes
Here’s another example of melodic ghost notes, this time using the root instead of the 5th:
TIP: Notice how we changed the melody to be a bit higher so we still have that interesting leap of a 6th between the ghost note and the main melodic note. This is common to the style and helps it sound more like a true ghost note or dead note. If we chose another tone closer by, the pitch may be more discernible. Once again, the point of the ghost note is not to hear the pitch, but rather that the rhythmic effect is felt.
Last but certainly not least, we can play ghost notes in the form of chords! An easy way to do this is to do what we call chord pops in between our melodies.
These “chord pops” are usually very short and brief. So while we aren’t going to hear the chord’s exact notes very clearly, a common technique that works fairly well is to use the chord’s Guide Tones (the 3rd and 7th of the chord).
Technique #1. 7/3 Chord Pops
The most typical way to accomplish this on the piano is to play and hold the melody with your pinky while you play the chord pops with your lower fingers.
In this case, the melody will be the half notes on top of the right hand (notes G and A) and the ghost notes/chord pops will be below on the 7th and 3rd of each chord:
Technique #2. 3/7 Chord Pops
This is similar to the above example except that we raised the melody a bit higher to a C and D in the pinky. This will better fit an inversion of the guide tones that contain the 7th on top and the 3rd below it.
Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s lesson on Jazz Articulation With Ghost Notes. With the skills you’ve gained from today’s lesson, you’re on your way to playing jazz standards with a more intuitive sense of swing. You’re also ready to test drive these techniques on specific tunes. The following PWJ song-specific courses make for the perfect next step:
For more skills-focused jazz swing content related to today’s lesson, be sure to check out the following PWJ resources:
- 5 Jazz Comping Approaches (Int, Adv)
- Breaking Down a Jazz Solo (Int, Adv)
- Jazz Swing Accompaniment (Int, Adv)
- Jazz Walking Bass Lines (Int, Adv)
- Jazzy Blues Comping (Int, Adv)
- Play Piano Lead Sheets with Shells & Guide Tones (Int)
- Play Piano Lead Sheets with Rootless Voicings (Int)
- Play Piano Lead Sheets with Extensions & Alterations (Int/Adv)
- Play Piano Lead Sheets with Block Chords (Adv)
- 3 Essential Techniques for Jazz Piano Walking Bass (Int/Adv)
- 7 Techniques to Spice Up a Jazz Melody (Int)
- Playing Solo Jazz Piano With Jeremy Siskind (Int, Adv)
- Block Chord Piano Riff for Intros and Outros (Adv)
- Jazz Piano Accompaniment—The Definitive Guide (Int)
- Jazz Piano Comping with Two Hand Voicings (Int)
- Jazz Piano Chord Voicings–The Complete Guide (Int)
- Jazz Piano 10 Steps from Beginner to Pro (Beg-Adv)
- Turn Classical Music Into Jazz Piano—4 Steps (Int)
Thanks so much for checking out this Quick Tip. See you in the next one!
Blog written by Daine Jordan & Michael LaDisa
Quick Tip by Jonny May
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