Jazz Piano Chords – The Complete Guide

Instructor
Jonny May
Quick Tip
Level 2
22:26

Learning Focus
  • Chords
  • Practice Tips
Music Style
  • Jazz Ballads
  • Jazz Swing
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Are you eager to play jazz piano? If you’ve purchased any electronics in recent years, you’re probably familiar with the rise of “quick start” guides. They generally have lots of pictures and few explanations. Furthermore, the pictures often appear different than your actual device! Before long, you are left frustrated and in search of the complete guide. As a piano student in the internet age, you may have also had this experience in your quest to learn jazz piano chords. Fortunately, today’s Quick Tip is your Complete Guide to Jazz Piano Chords. You’ll learn a straightforward, step-by-step method to build rich-sounding jazz piano voicings for the most common chords you’ll encounter. Today’s lesson covers:

  • Colorful major chords
  • Beautiful minor chords
  • Bluesy dominant chords

Jonny’s 5 steps to instantly make any chord sound jazzy is so simple that you’ll find yourself using it again and again.

Let’s dive in.

Intro to Jazz Piano Chords

What gives jazz piano chords their unique sound? First of all, jazz chords contain added notes compared to those found in classical and pop styles. These can include the 7th, 9th, 11th, and 13th. Secondly, jazz piano voicings often have omitted notes, such as the root or 5th. Most importantly, jazz piano voicings played by pianists like Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly and Ahmad Jamal frequently contain clusters. These are notes that are arranged a ½ step or whole step apart within the voicing and create a distinct, jazzy flavor.

In the following sections, we’ll look at the most common piano chords you need to know—major, minor and dominant chords. For each chord type, you’ll learn exactly what notes to add or omit and how to get those clusters for that authentic jazz piano sound.

Let’s take a closer look.

Jazzy Piano Major Chords

To begin, we’ll look at how to create jazzy major chords for piano. There are five simple steps to take any major triad and jazz it up.

Step 1: Major Triad

Step 1 is to simply start with a major triad.

Step 1 Major Chord triad on C major 3rd
Jazzy Major Chords—Step 1: Begin with major triad

That was easy. However, if you need a refresher on triads, check out our Quick Tip on Piano Chords–The Definitive Guide.

Step 2: Add Major 7th

Instead of playing simple triads with three notes, jazz harmony uses chords containing at least four notes. The most common note added to major chords in jazz is a major 7th.

Step 2 Major - Add 7th
Jazzy Major Chords—Step 2: Add major 7th above root

How can you be sure you added the right note? You can use any or all the following quick methods to get the right note every time:

  • Add another 3rd above the triad
    • Using this method, always mentally place yourself in the key of the root of the chord. For example, even if your song is in a key with flats, if you need a C Major 7 chord, the added note should be a B♮, not a B♭.
  • Add the 7th degree of the major scale built on the root
    • If you know your scales fluently, this is likely the easiest method.
  • Go down a ½ step from the root
    • If you are still tentative on your major scales, you can use this method to always get the right note.

Step 3: Add Major 9th

While major 7th chords are common in jazz, you may often want to add even more color to your major chords. In step 3, we’ll add the 9th of the chord.

Jazz Piano Major Chords—Step 3: Add major 9th above root 9th=2nd C-E-G-B-D
Jazzy Major Chords—Step 3: Add major 9th above root

How do you find the 9th? Any of following methods will get you the right note:

  • Add another 3rd above the 7th
    • This method requires that you mentally place yourself in the key of the root of the chord, regardless of the key signature of the tune.
  • Add the 9th degree of the major scale built on the root
    • If you know your scales fluently, this is likely the easiest method.
  • Go up a whole step from the root
    • If you are still tentative on your major scales, you can use this method to get the right note every time. (A 9th interval is simply a 2nd + an octave.)

Step 4: Rootless A Voicing

Now that you’ve built a rich major chord with the 7th and 9th, you can easily adapt this chord to a rootless voicing. To do so, simply drop the root! Rootless voicings, as their name implies, omit the root of the chord from the voicing.

Jazzy Major Chords—Step 4: Rootless A Voicing (3-5-7-9)
Jazzy Major Chords—Step 4: Rootless A Voicing (3rd-5th-7th-9th)

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 (3-5-7-9). It is important to observe that a C Major 9 rootless A voicing (E-G-B-D) is equivalent to an E minor 7 chord (E-G-B-D).

Why use rootless voicings?

Why would you use a rootless voicing? First of all, the chord in step 3 (C-E-G-B-D) requires two hands for many players, limiting its possible applications. And even if you can reach all of the notes for C Major 9, try transposing it to D Major 9 (D-F♯-A-C♯-E) and you’ll likely find yourself out of reach. Secondly, when playing with a bass player, it isn’t necessary for the pianist to play the root of the chord. By omitting the root, jazz pianists can instead add beautiful harmonic colors like the 9th and still have their right hand free to improvise. Rootless voicings are not only for use with a bass player though. In fact, jazz pianists use rootless voicings in solo playing too, frequently preceding the voicing with its root, as in the example above.

Why do you need A and B voicings?
Tenor range is ideal register for rootless voicings.
The tenor register is ideal range for rootless voicings.

Note that an A voicing (3-5-7-9) will not always work for every major chord and context. For example, an A voicing for G Major 9 yields the notes B-D-F♯-A. This voicing sounds too muddy beginning on B2. However, raising it to B3, it becomes less practical for left hand comping because it starts to interfere with the range in which you would play a tune’s melody. Instead, the B voicing arranges the same notes up from the 7th (F♯-A-B-D) and places the notes squarely in the tenor register (D3–G4), perfect for comping.

G Major 9 A & B Jazz Piano Chord Voicing Options
G Major 9 rootless A & B voicing options

Step 5: Rootless B Voicing

To convert an A voicing (3-5-7-9) from step 4 into a B voicing, simply bring the bottom two notes to the top. As a result, a B voicing for major chords is built 7-9-3-5. Our C Major 9 becomes B-D-E-G.

Step 5 Major - Rootless B Voicing
Jazzy Major Chords—Step 5: Rootless B Voicing (7th-9th-3rd-5th)

Notice that the B voicing contains a whole tone cluster in the middle between the 9th and the 3rd (B-DE-G). This gives the voicing a rich and full sound.

To get a feel for how these voicings sound with a bass player, be sure to download the backing tracks that accompany this lesson. The lesson sheet and backing tracks appear at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also quickly transpose this lesson to any key with our Smart Sheet Music.

Some chords, like C Major 9, work great for comping in both A and B voicings. You’ll find that other chords, like G Major 9, will lend themselves more naturally to one voicing or the other for left hand use. However, you’ll still want to learn all your rootless voicings in both hands. While that G Major 9 A voicing is not the best option for your left hand, it’s a great choice to harmonize a G Major 9 with your right hand when you have an A in the melody.

G Major 9 A Voicing in Right Hand Jazz Piano Chords
G Major 9 rootless A voicing used in melodic harmonization.

Alternate Jazz Piano Major Chord

In the previous section, we examined 5 steps to covert a C Major triad to a C Major 9 rootless voicing. Remember, a major 9 chord also contains the major 7th as well. However, there is a popular alternate voicing that jazz pianists use on major chords besides the Major 9 sound. It’s called a major 6/9 voicing. In a major 6/9 voicing, the major 6th substitutes for the major 7th. Otherwise, the steps for building a C 6/9 are very similar.

Step 1: Major Triad

Step 1 for building a C 6/9 is to start with a major triad.

Alternate Jazz Chord for Major—Step 1: Begin with major triad
Alternate Jazz Chord for Major—Step 1: Begin with major triad

Step 2: Add the Major 6th

The second step to build a C 6/9 is to add the major 6th.

Alternate Jazz Piano Voicing for Major chords—Step 2: Add major 6th above root
Alternate Jazz Chord for Major—Step 2: Add major 6th above root

To find the major 6th, you can use either of the following methods:

  • Add the 6th degree of the major scale built on the root
  • Go up a whole step from the 5th of the triad

Great job! This chord is called a C6. In the next step, you’ll add one more note to get a jazzy 6/9 sound.

Step 3: Add Major 9th

The third step to build a C 6/9 chord is to add the 9th.

Alternate Jazz Piano Chord for Major—Jazzy 6/9 sound cluster
Alternate Jazz Chord for Major—Step 3: Add major 9th above root

When building Major 6/9 jazz piano chords, either of the following methods will give you the 9th:

  • Add the 9th degree of the major scale built on the root
  • Go up a whole step from the root

Step 4: Rootless A Voicing

Now that you have a C 6/9 chord, you can easily convert it to a rootless A voicing by dropping the root. The result is a 6/9 construction built up from the 3rd of the chord as follows: 3-5-6-9.

Jazz Piano C Major 6/9 Chord A Voicing Rootless
Alternate Jazz Chord for Major—Step 4: Rootless A Voicing (3rd-5th-6th-9th)

This is a classic jazz piano voicing that sounds fantastic. Major 6/9 chords are especially appropriate when a song’s melody contains the root of the chord. Selecting a major 6/9 instead prevents dissonance between the root in the melody and the major 7th.

Step 5: Rootless B Voicing

We can convert the rootless A voicing for C Major 6/9 to a B voicing by moving the bottom two notes to the top. The resulting construction is a rootless voicing built on the 6th: 6-9-3-5.

Jazz Piano C Major 6/9 Chord B Voicing Rootless
Alternate Jazz Chord for Major—Step 5: Rootless B Voicing (6th-9th-3rd-5th)

Great job! You can learn even more about major chords for jazz piano in the following courses:

In the next section, we’ll dig into minor chords for jazz piano.

Jazzy Piano Minor Chords

We can also take any minor triad and make it sound jazzy in 5 simple steps.

Step 1: Minor Triad

Step 1 is to start with a minor triad.

Minor Jazzy Piano Chords Cm Cmin C-
Jazzy Minor Chords—Step 1: Begin with minor triad

Step 2: Add Minor 7th

The most common note added to minor chords in jazz is the minor 7th, frequently referred to as the ♭7. The designation ♭7 indicates a lowered 7th tone as compared to a major 7th.

Minor Jazz Piano 7th Chords Step 2 b7 flat 7 C-7 Cm7 Cmin7 Cmi7
Jazzy Minor Chords—Step 2: Add minor 7th above root

How can you find the minor 7th for any minor triad? Choose any of the following quick methods:

  • Go up three ½ steps from the 5th of the chord
    • In our example above, B♭ is three ½ steps above G.
  • Go down two ½ steps from the root
    • B♭ is two ½ steps below C.
  • Add the ♭7 of the major scale built on the root
    • The 7th of C Major is B♮. Therefore, the ♭7 is B♭.
    • Lowering a major 7th interval by a ½ step gives you a minor 7th.

Step 3: Add 9th

In step 3, we’ll add the 9th of the chord just like we did on our major chords.

Minor Jazz Piano 7th Chords Step 3
Jazzy Minor Chords—Step 3: Add 9th above root

Minor 7th chords use the same 9th as major 7th chords. This is interval is called a major 9th. Remember, a major 9th is a compound interval comprised of a major 2nd + an octave. Therefore, the quickest way to find the major 9th is to go up two ½ steps from the root.

Step 4: Rootless A Voicing

Now that you’ve have a C minor 9, you can convert it to a beautiful rootless A voicing by dropping the root. Consequently, the construction for a rootless A voicing for minor jazz piano chords is (♭3-5-♭7-9).

Minor Jazz Piano 7th Chords Step 4 Rootless voicing
Jazzy Minor Chords—Step 4: Rootless A Voicing (♭3rd-5th-♭7th-9th)

Did you notice that a rootless A voicing for a minor chord is the same as a major 7th chord built on the 3rd? For example, our C minor 9 voicing is an Eb Major 7. Initially, this can be very confusing, but it is important to make these associations. In time, you will come to view the notes E♭-G-B♭-D as both E Major 7 and C minor 9.

Step 5: Rootless B Voicing

We can also construct a B voicing for C minor 7 by building up from the 7th. The voicing formula is (♭7-9-♭3-5).

Jazzy Minor Chords—Step 5: Rootless B Voicing (♭7th-9th-♭3rd-5th) b7-9-b3-5
Jazzy Minor Chords—Step 5: Rootless B Voicing (♭7th-9th-♭3rd-5th)

Rootless B voicings sound great with their crunchy ½ step dissonance in middle between the 9th and the ♭3.

Try playing these C minor 7 rootless voicings along with backing track 2.

Alternate Jazz Piano Minor Chord

There is also a popular alternate sound jazz pianists sometimes use for minor chords called a minor 6/9. Minor 6/9 jazz piano chords substitute the major 6th for the major 7th. However, the steps for building a C minor 6/9 are very similar to a C minor 7.

Step 1: Minor Triad

Step 1  to build a C minor 6/9 starts with a C minor triad.

C minor 6/9 Step 1
Alternate Jazz Chord for Minor—Step 1: Begin with minor triad

Step 2: Add Major 6th

The second step to build a C minor 6/9 is to add the major 6th.

C minor 6/9 Step 2
Alternate Jazz Chord for Minor—Step 2: Add major 6th above root

Remember, to find the major 6th, you can use either of the following methods:

  • Add the 6th degree of the major scale built on the root
  • Go up a whole step from the 5th of the triad

Great job! This chord is called a C minor 6. The tritone between the 3rd (E♭) and 6th (A) give this chord a distinct sound. (This interval is called a “tritone” because it is made of three whole-steps.)

Step 3: Add Major 9th

The third step to build a C 6/9 chord is to add the 9th.

C minor 6/9 Step 3 Cm6/9
Alternate Jazz Chord for Minor—Step 3: Add major 9th above root

When building minor 6/9 jazz piano chords, either of the following methods will give you the 9th:

  • Add the 9th degree of the major scale built on the root
  • Go up a whole step from the root

Step 4: Rootless A Voicing

Now that you’ve have a C minor 6/9, you can convert it to a rootless A voicing by simply dropping the root. Consequently, the voicing formula is (♭3-5-6-9).

C minor 6/9 Step 4 Cm6/9 tritone
Alternate Jazz Chord for Minor—Step 4: Rootless A Voicing (♭3rd-5th-6th-9th)

Step 5: Rootless B Voicing

The rootless B voicing for C minor 6/9 follows the construction (6-9-♭3-5).

Cm69 Step 5 C minor 6/9 rootless B voicing jazz piano chords
Alternate Jazz Chord for Minor—Step 5: Rootless B Voicing (6th-9th-♭3rd-5th)

Next, try playing these C minor 6/9 voicings along with backing track 2.

The following courses are great resources for learning even more about minor jazz piano chords:

Jazzy Piano Dominant Chords

In this section, you’ll learn some cool jazz piano chords you can play whenever you want a bluesy dominant sound. These chords are called Dominant 13 chords. There are 8 steps to build a C Dominant 13 (commonly referred to more simply as “C13”).

Step 1: Major Triad

The first step to build a C13 is to start with a C major triad.

C13 Step 1 c major triad
Jazzy Dominant Chords—Step 1: Begin with major triad

Step 2: Add Minor 7th

Next, add a minor 7th above root. Remember, this is also called the lowered 7th or♭7th.

C13 Step 2 = C7
Jazzy Dominant Chords—Step 2: Add minor 7th above root

Step 3: Add Major 9th

The third step to get a jazzy dominant sound is to add the 9th. This chord is called a C9.

C13 Step 3 = C9
Jazzy Dominant Chords—Step 3: Add 9th above root

Note that the chord symbol C9 always implies♭7th is present. This is a dominant quality chord. By contrast, if you see a C(add9) or even CMaj9, these are a different quality altogether. They are not dominant chords and do not contain a ♭7. (The notes in a C(add9) are C-D-E-G. The notes of CMaj9 are C-E-G-B-D.)

Step 4: Add 13th

The fourth step to get a jazzy dominant sound is to add the 13th. This chord is called a C13, or C Dominant 13.

C13 Step 4 Dominant jazz piano chord
Jazzy Dominant Chords—Step 4: Add 13th above root

How do you find the 13th? This is an example of a compound interval—an interval larger than one octave. Therefore, it is helpful to realize that the 13th the same note as the major 6th. To find this note, you can either:

  • Add the 6th degree of the major scale built on the root
  • Go up a whole step from the 5th of the triad

Step 5: Remove the 5th

Next, we’ll omit the 5th of the chord from our voicing. This does not affect the chord quality or the chord symbol. It’s simply a common voicing practice in jazz harmony.

C Dominant 13 Step 5 omit 5th remove 5th
Jazzy Dominant Chords—Step 5: Remove 5th

Step 6: Bring the 13th Down

Next, we’ll bring the 13th down an octave. This places the 13th a ½ step below the ♭7.

C13 Jazz Piano Voicing
Jazzy Dominant Chords—Step 6: Bring the 13th down an octave

Step 7: Rootless A Voicing

Now, by dropping the root, we’re left with a dominant rootless A voicing. The voicing formula is 3-13-♭7-9.

C Dominant 13 Rootless A Voicing
Jazzy Dominant Chords—Step 7: Rootless A Voicing (3rd-13th-♭7th-9th)

Step 8: Rootless B Voicing

To play a rootless B voicing for dominant jazz piano chords, use the construction ♭7-9-3-13.

C Dominant 13 Rootless B Voicing Jazz piano chords
Jazzy Dominant Chords—Step 8: Rootless B Voicing (♭7th-9th-3rd-13th)

Lastly, try playing these C13 rootless voicings with backing track 3.

For further study and Dominant chords, check out our course on Dominant 7th Theory and Application.

Congratulations! You’ve completed this lesson on Jazz Piano Chords—The Complete Guide. You’ll love the follow resources which present further topics of study and practice for jazz piano chords:

Thanks for learning with us today. We’ll see you next time!

 

Blog written by Michael LaDisa / Quick Tip by Jonny May

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