Jazz Piano Block Chord and Drop 2 Voicings
Are you looking for a way to harmonize jazz ballads to get that classic cocktail piano sound? In today’s Quick Tip, you will learn how sound like Bill Evans, Hank Jones, George Shearing, and many other great solo pianists by using block chord and drop 2 voicings to harmonize melodies. First, we will learn how to harmonize with block chords, then use our new knowledge to learn all about drop 2 voicings. Let’s dig in!
Step 1: Block Chords
What is a block chord? A block chord is a type of voicing where each of the notes are close together, within an octave. The great George Shearing popularized the sound of block chords on piano by doubling the highest note of his voicings an octave below, reinforcing the the chord to emphasize his melodies. A great example of how this sounds is this performance of Lullaby of Birdland by Shearing himself. What a great sound!
Let’s take a look at what block chord voicings look like using the chord changes for “Misty”:
Here, we can see each note in the left hand is doubling the top note of the right hand. This is key for the block chord sound! You’ve probably also noticed that there are no Maj7 chords in this example. They’ve been replaced with 6 chords. That is okay; the pianist is free to use either Maj7 or 6 chords in this style of jazz piano playing. It’s up to you to decide which sound or “flavor” of Major chords you like, and switch between them if you want! There is one caveat to this however: avoid half steps at the top of the voicing because it will obscure the melody. Whole steps are fine, and you can see there are many voicings here with a whole step at the top.
Once you can play through the block chord voicings above, experiment with moving the top note around to create little melodies. As long as the chord stays the same, you can move the top and bottom notes while keeping everything else the same to be more melodic, like this:
To master this technique, practice playing up and down scales using block chords. The top and bottom note of each chord will be an octave apart while you fill in the rest of the chord using chord tones:
Great job! Next, let’s take a look at drop 2 chords.
Step 2: Drop 2 Chords
A drop 2 chord is a chord where the second from highest note is dropped down an octave. It’s easiest to think of these as block chords with the second from highest note dropped down:
These are a little trickier to get down than block chords! Your left hand is going to play the “dropped” note, and the important thing to remember about drop 2 chords is the bottom and top note form an interval of a 10th. This interval is what gives drop 2 chords their wonderfully melodic and harmonic quality.
Pay attention to how the left hand moves while playing drop 2 chords. Often, and especially while playing ii-Vs, the left hand is the only voice that moves. Play through the voicings above slowly and look at how the structure of the voicings changes as you go through the progression.
BLOCK CHORD AND DROP 2 VOICINGS: THE IMPORTANCE OF INTERVALS
If you decide to use Maj7 chords instead of 6 chords, make sure the interval between your bottom and top notes is not a minor 9th (a half step separated by an octave). This is a hugely dissonant sound and is almost impossible to sound good. However, if you use Maj7 chords and your top and bottom notes are separated by a 10th or a Major 9th (whole step separated by an octave), it will sound great!
You have probably also noticed that each drop 2 chord uses four notes, while our block chords use five notes. The reason for this change is simple: clarity! The purpose in using each of these chord types is to make the melody (your top note) clear while still providing harmony and musical color. Block chords achieve this by doubling the melody on the bottom. This doubling creates a strong, reinforced sound. This strengthening can hold up to lots of other notes and colors between them. On the other hand, drop 2 chords do not double the melody on the bottom, instead creating a harmonic interval of a 9th or 10th. By removing the doubled note, the melody is still clear while the voicing provides plenty of color and harmonic interest.
If you want to dig in to even more detail about harmonizing a melody, check out our 6 Jazz Ballad Harmonic Approaches 1 and 6 Jazz Ballad Harmonic Approaches 2 courses. Check out our Chord Shell & Guide Tone Exercises and Diatonic 7th Chord Exercises courses for more practice techniques to master what you’ve learned here.
Thanks for learning, and see you in the next Quick Tip.
Blog written by Austin Byrd / Quick Tip by Jonny May
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