Jazz Piano Chord Voicings – The Complete Guide
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If you’ve listened to famous jazz pianists such as Bud Powell, Red Garland, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, George Shearing, or Herbie Hancock, then you’ve probably noticed that these pianists play jazz chords quite differently. In fact, the study of jazz piano chord voicings can seem overwhelming. In today’s Quick Tip, you’ll discover a sequential presentation of 6 essential jazz piano chord voicing techniques. This Jazz Piano Chord Voicings – The Complete Guide includes the following voicing techniques:
- Chord Shells
- Guide Tones
- Rootless Voicings
- Block Chords
- Drop 2 Voicings
- Quartal Voicings
Not only will you learn how to construct each voicing type. You’ll also apply them to Joseph Kosma’s “Autumn Leaves.” By studying each of these jazz piano chord voicing techniques, you’ll increase your capacity as a functional jazz pianist.
Intro to Jazz Piano Chord Voicings
It should be stated at the onset of today’s lesson that while the voicing techniques we’ll study today vary in terms of difficulty, they are all professional jazz piano chord voicings. In fact, you will want to play them all!
Also, it is important that we understand what we mean when we use the term voicing.
What is a chord voicing?
A chord voicing is specific selection and distribution of chord tones to achieve a desired sound for a particular musical style.
As such, there are several possible ways to voice any given chord. How you choose to voice a chord determines whether it sounds thick or thin, dark or bright, transparent or opaque. However, the study of chord voicings is not only limited to the tones within a four-note 7th chord. Chord voicing also refers to the application of any extensions and alterations. For example, each of the voicings below represent a different voicing approach to the chord symbol Am7.
As you can see from the examples above, knowing how to construct and play common jazz piano chord voicings can unlock worlds of sonic potential for the jazz piano student.
Lesson Context for Jazz Piano Chord Voicings
Before we dive into our first voicing category, let’s take a quick look at the chord progression for the A section of “Autumn Leaves” in E minor. We will apply each of the six voicing techniques to the following chord progression.
(Note: the analysis below indicates the key of G major—the relative major to E minor. Many jazz musicians consider the tune to be in the relative minor because it ends on an E minor chord. Both G major and E minor are valid interpretations. However, the chord relationships are most logical when analyzed according to the relative major.)
This progression is called a cycle of 5th progression. You can learn to master this chord progression in swing, bossa nova, and jazz ballad styles in our course Cycle of 5ths in 3 Jazz Styles (Level 2, Level 3).
Now, let’s dive into our first category of chord voicings. But, first, be sure to grab the lesson sheet and backing tracks for today’s Quick Tip. All 6 companion backing tracks appear at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. Due to copyright restrictions on the tune “Autumn Leaves” featured in today’s lesson, the lesson sheet is available for purchase via the MusicNotes external products link at the bottom of this page.
The first category of jazz piano chord voicings we’ll explore are chord shells. The term chord shell is broad and describes any 2 or 3 note voicing that provides the essential tones needed to imply a given chord. In most cases, chord shells contain any combination of root, 3rd and 7th. However, sometimes the 6th is used in a chord shell and occasionally the 5th is used as well, though less frequently.
In this section, we’ll focus on a specific type of chord shell that is commonly known as ‘Bud Powell voicings.’ These two-note voicings of R7 (Root + 7th) or R3 (Root + 3rd) were pioneered by early bebop pianists of the late 1940s including Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Duke Jordan and Tadd Dameron.
Chord Shells Application
When using Bud Powell voicings in a cycle of 5th progression, the R7 and R3 shells should alternate from chord-to-chord. This results in smooth voicing leading in the tenor register as in the following example.
Another common Bud Powell shell is R10 (Root + 10th). This, of course, is a variation of R3 since a 10th is a compound interval of a 3rd plus an octave. However, many pianists are unable to reach this interval, or can only able to reach particular 10ths, such as intervals from white-key to white-key as in measure 4 below. Sometimes, you can add the 10th in right hand to achieve this sound.
Bud Powell style chord shells are especially well suited for solo jazz piano because they incorporate the roots of each chord into a simple bass line. In addition, these voicings allow the jazz pianist to play a melody much lower in the right hand than other voicings we will cover later, such as rootless voicings, which may force a melody up the octave. Finally, many two-hand voicings are built upon these left hand shells.
If you want to take a deep dive on chord shells, check out our full-length course on Play Piano Lead Sheets with Shells & Guide Tones (Level 2).
Our next category of jazz piano chord voicings is the guide tones technique. The term guide tones refers to the 3rd and 7th of a 7th chord. These notes are especially important because they influence a chord’s quality (major 7, dominant 7, minor 7) and also guide its resolution.
This voicing falls into the broad category of chord shells because it only uses a portion of the chord. However, we present it as a separate technique because it has its own best practices. For example, the guide tones of Am7 are the 3rd and 7th, the notes C and G. However, when using the guide tones technique, there are two ways to voice these notes. We can arrange them in the order that they would appear in a root position chord—with the 3rd below the 7th. Or, we can play inverted guide tones with the 3rd voiced above the 7th. The following example shows both options.
Guide Tones Application 1
There are two different ways to apply the guide tones technique. Let’s start with the simplest application. To do so, simply play the guide tones as a stand-alone shell voicing. Keep in mind, this approach does not include any roots in the chord progression. Consequently, this application is most appropriate for a combo settings in which you have a bass player. In a cycle of 5th progression like “Autumn Leaves,” you will need to alternate between guide tones and inverted guide tones to achieve proper voicing leading.
Guide Tones Application 2
A second application for using guide tones is to play them with the root of each chord or immediately after. In either case, this is certainly an intermediate level skill as it involves a larger hand reach or quick lateral movements in the left hand. However, this approach is particularly relevant for solo piano settings in which there is no bass player holding down the roots.
A common practice for solo piano situations is play the root on beat 1 and the guide tones (or inverted guide tones) on the “and of 2.” The following example demonstrates this technique.
More experienced players will expand this approach to include chord voicings with three or four notes on the “and of 2.” By the way, did you notice that the final measure of the example above applies a chord substitution? The Em6 replaces the Em7 for variety. As a result, the guide tones are the 6th (C♯) and the 3rd (G).
If you want to learn to master chord shells and guide tones in all 12 keys, check out our course on Chord Shell & Guide Tone Exercises (Level 2).
Rootless Jazz Piano Chord Voicings
In the mid to late 1950s, pianists Bill Evans, Red Garland and Wynton Kelly popularized the sound of rootless jazz piano chord voicings. By omitting the root from the left hand chord construction, they freed their fingers to include additional “color tones” or “pretty notes” as they are often called. Therefore, rootless voicings may contain three, four, or even five of the following chord tones—3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, 11th, 13th.
“Waltz for Debby” (1956)
“Ahmad’s Blues” (1957)
“On Green Dolphin Street” (1959)
What are rootless voicings?
Most commonly, the term rootless voicings refers to a fairly standardized set of four-note jazz piano voicing constructions for left hand that omit the root while adding colorful chord extensions. However, three-note variations are also popular and can be formed by simply removing the 2nd tone from the bottom of the four-note constructions. Rootless voicings are generally played between the range of C3 to A4.
In small group settings that include a bass player, rootless voicings enable the jazz pianist to generate wide array of beautiful and arresting chord colors. However, rootless voicings are also common in solo jazz piano performance.
Rootless Voicings: Category A & Category B
In his classic text, The Jazz Language: A Theory Text for Jazz Composition and Improvisation, jazz pianist and educator Dan Haerle categorizes the most useful rootless voicings into two varieties: A voicings and B voicings. Haerle’s ‘A voicings’ are built up from the 3rd while ‘B voicings’ are built up from the 7th. Here are two Am9 rootless voicings that jazz pianists frequently play whenever they see an Am7 chord symbol.
The minor 9 voicings above work especially well on IIm7 chords and VIm7 chords in a major key.
Rootless Voicings Application
Just like we discovered with chord shells and guide tones earlier, careful attention is required to ensure proper voice leading when connecting rootless voicings together in a chord progression. For example, on a cycle of 5ths progression like “Autumn Leaves,” you must alternate between ‘A voicings’ and ‘B voicings’ (or vice versa) to obtain smooth voice leading. The example below demonstrates this concept.
How to Learn Rootless Jazz Piano Chord Voicings
Piano students exploring rootless voicings for the first time often struggle initially to wrap their heads around the notes. For example, consider the CMaj7 rootless voicing in measure 4 above. The notes of this voicing are E–G–B–D. Looking at these notes in isolation, we find that this voicing is identical to an Em7 chord. That’s right—the rootless voicing for a major 7th chord is like building a minor 7th chord from the 3rd tone. While this type of shortcut can be helpful, it also requires a mental process to compute before the voicing can be played.
“Aim for that state of grace when you no longer have to think about theory. In order to reach that point of mastery, however, you’ll have to think about theory a great deal.” —Mark Levine
Pianist and author Mark Levine eloquently states, “When McCoy Tyner is playing a million notes a minute, he’s not thinking ‘left hand voicings, 3-5-7-9’…He’s done that already, many years ago. He knows what the chord looks and feels like when he plays it. Aim for that state of grace, when you no longer have to think about theory. In order to reach that point of mastery, however, you’ll have to think about theory a great deal.”
Practicing Rootless Shapes and Sounds
Most jazz piano texts introduce rootless voicings over the major 2-5-1 progression. This is an excellent point of entry as it familiarizes students with the three most commonly occurring chord types in jazz repertoire. The chart below demonstrates how to build A voicings and B voicings for each of these three chord types.
Notice that the visual shape of these voicings in notation form varies depending on whether the stem points upward or downward. Familiarizing yourself with these shapes can help you recognize rootless voicings more quickly.
Most pianists, however, think of rootless voicings in terms of their hand shape on the piano. For example, a ‘B voicing’ for G7 looks and feels similar from to B voicing for A7, even though the arrangement of back and white keys is different. Dan Haerle suggests, “it is good to take advantage of the nature of rote learning. That is, though it’s important to learn what notes are in a voicing, it is also important to learn what a voicing ‘feels’ like. The hand assumes a certain spacing of the fingers or shape when playing any voicing.”
The following PWJ resources will help you master rootless voicings for 2-5-1 chord progressions in major and minor keys:
- Rootless Voicings – Chord Types & 2-5-1 Application (Level 3)
- Rootless Voicings – Chord Types on Minor 2-5-1 (Level 3)
Additional Rootless Voicings for All Chord Types
The following chart includes rootless voicing formulas for all chord types you will encounter. (Notes are shown in relation to the major scale for a given root.)
Now, let’s explore additional jazz piano voicing techniques.
Playing Melodies with Jazz Piano Chord Voicings
You may have noticed that we didn’t particularly reference the melody of “Autumn Leaves” in the previous examples. That’s because the voicings we played will support any melody or improved solo over the cycle of 5th progression.
But don’t jazz pianists play chords in their right hand to? Yes, they do. Our remaining three categories of jazz piano chord voicings address melodic treatment using the following harmonization techniques:
- Block Chords
- Drop 2 Voicings
- Quartal Voicings
The complete 7-page MusicNotes lesson sheet for today’s Quick Tip includes the entire A section for “Autumn Leaves” harmonized in each of the 3 melodic treatments described above.
The next sections examine how to construct each of these jazz piano chord voicings.
Block Chord Piano Voicings
The first melodic treatment we’ll explore was made popular by pianist George Shearing (1919–2011) in the 1940s and 50s. His classy, 5-note harmonizations are known by a several different names including block chords, locked hands, or Shearing-style voicings.
To play with the block chords sound, follow these steps:
- Play the melody in the 4th or 5th finger of the right hand
- Double the melody a octave below in the left hand
- Add inner harmonies in right hand
- Add ornaments in left hand melody
The diagram below shows the first three steps for an Am7 chord with a melody note of C.
Block Chords Application
Here is an excerpt of the melody for “Autumn Leaves” in the style of George Shearing.
The fourth step, ornamentation, adds additional stylization in the left hand. Jazz pianists love to add ghost notes and chromatic scoops and slides in the left hand melody. This is particularly common at the beginning of a phrase, after a rest, or on longer tones. The example below adds a ghost note to the pick-up notes and a chromatic slide up to the C whole note.
You can take a deep dive on the block chords sound in all twelve keys in our Block Chords (Level 3) course.
The Drop 2 technique uses 4-note jazz piano chord voicings. This sound is constructed similar to the 5-note Shearing style voicings, but is generally played higher on the instrument has and a more tender and modern sound.
To play with the Drop 2 sound, follow these steps:
- Start with the right hand portion of the Shearing-style block chord voicing
- Isolate the 2nd-note from the top—this is the ‘drop 2’ note
- Remove the drop 2 note from the right hand
- Place the drop 2 note an octave lower in the left hand
- Add ornaments in left hand melodic line
This technique harmonizes the melody in 9th and 10th intervals in the left hand and contains two inner harmony notes in the right hand.
Let’s look at an example of a drop 2 voicing for the melody note of C over an Am7 chord.
Drop 2 Application
Here is the opening to “Autumn Leaves” using Drop 2 jazz piano chord voicings.
If you want to gain proficiency with the drop 2 jazz piano voicing technique, dig into out our course on Drop 2 Voicings (Level 3) that is included with your membership.
Let’s examine one final melodic treatment.
A quartal voicing is any jazz piano chord voicing that uses stacks of two or more 4th intervals. Quartal voicings can be played in one hand with three notes or in two hands with four, five or even six notes. Ideally, quartal voicings seek to maximize perfect 4th intervals. However, it is common for some of the intervals to be a 3rd or augmented 4th depending on the chord type and melody note.
In today’s lesson, we’ll examine melodic treatment with five-notes. Let’s look at a quartal voicing for our Am7 with a C in the melody.
Note that this quartal voicing contains the minor 11th, the note D. Therefore, the specific name for this chord is Am11. Another interesting thing about quartal voicings is that they are ambiguous. In fact, the same voicing can often be used from more than one chord! For example, the voicing above also works for the following chord symbols:
- C Major 6/9
- F Major 7
- B♭ Major 9(♯11)
Quartal Voicing Application
Let’s take a look at the opening line to “Autumn Leaves” with quartal jazz piano chord voicings.
If you are ready to master the quartal sound, check out our Quartal Voicings Essentials (Level 3) course.
Congratulations! You have gained important history, theory and application with the six most important jazz piano chord voicings. In fact, you can continue to play jazz piano chord voicings in one of the following courses or learning tracks based on your level:
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you again soon.
Blog written by Michael LaDisa / Quick Tip by Jonny May
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