Jazz Piano Comping With Two Hand Voicings
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People will collect just about anything! Whether it’s sneakers or purses, hats or heels—we just can’t seem to get enough of the things we like. Certainly, some collecting habits can get out of hand, but that doesn’t mean every impulse to acquire is excessive or vain. For example, when it comes to jazz piano voicings, you need more than just one or two. In fact, finding the right comping voicing for a particular situation is a lot like searching for the right shoe to complement an outfit. Of course, you can only pull out of your closet those items that you’ve put in it. Today’s Quick Tip on Jazz Piano Comping With Two Hands is designed to build up your collection of jazz piano voicings so that you’ll have a closet-full of classy jazz voicings for any occasion. You’ll learn:
- Intro to Two-Hand Voicings for Jazz Piano
- Different Types of Two-Handed Voicings
- Two Hand Voicing Techniques With Roots
- Two Hand Voicing Techniques Without Roots
Whether you are a beginner, intermediate or advanced jazz piano student, you’ll find “the perfect fit” in this collection of two-handed comping voicings.
Intro to Two-Hand Voicings for Jazz Piano
Today’s lesson is all about jazz piano accompanying with voicings that require both hands. The term voicing refers to a specific arrangement of chord tones that results in a stylized harmonic sound for a particular genre.
Jazz musicians use the term “comping” to describe the role the rhythm section in both accompanying and complimenting a soloist. As a pianist, comping in a rhythm section or big band generally requires different voicing techniques than those used in solo playing. When these voicings require both hands, we naturally call them two-hand voicings (also called “2-hand voicings,” “two-handed voicings,” “2-handed voicings,” “open voicings” or “spread voicings”).
Solo jazz pianists also use two-hand voicings. However, these are generally not the same voicings that they would use in an ensemble. Therefore, we when speak of two-hand voicings, we are not describing a single technique. Rather, there are actually many approaches that jazz pianist use to voice jazz harmony across both hands.
In this lesson, you’ll be introduced to some of the most common two-hand voicing categories and concepts. We’ll apply these various voicing techniques on the chord progression from the tune “Happy Birthday” in a bossa nova style. If you are a PWJ member, be sure to download the lesson sheet PDF and backing track from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also easily transpose this lesson to any key using our Smart Sheet Music.
Lead Sheet for Practicing Two-Hand Voicings
Different Types of Two-Hand Voicings
Your playing situation, whether solo piano or ensemble, is the biggest factor in determining which voicing technique is most appropriate for you. Secondly, your current playing ability is also a practical consideration that determines which voicings are right for you. Lastly, the sub-genre of jazz you are playing (traditional, modern, combo or big band) should also affect your voicing approach.
Since there are many different kinds jazz piano voicings, we nearly always use adjectives to describe a particular voicing approach or category. For example, you might find a jazz textbook with chapters on shell voicings, closed voicings, open voicings, traditional voicings, contemporary voicings, rootless voicings, spread voicing and more. You are also likely to encounter certain voicings named after particular players, such as Red Garland voicings, Bill Evans voicings, Frank Mantooth voicings, Kenny Barron voicings, etc. In fact, all the data can be a pretty overwhelming!
It helps to keep in mind that there is a lot of overlap in these various naming conventions. For example, the rootless voicing system that evolved after the 1950s is often associated with Bill Evans’ sound. Similarly, spread voicings in which the right hand plays an octave-plus-one-note are often referred to as “Red Garland voicings.” As we go through today’s lesson, we’ll help you identify where some these overlaps often occur in education materials.
First, let’s identify some important broad categories that all voicings fall into.
Rooted Voicings vs. Rootless Voicings
When a voicing contains the root of the chord on bottom in the left hand, we consider it a “rooted voicing.” If you are a beginner or early intermediate student, you should get comfortable playing rooted voicings first. However, that doesn’t mean that advanced pianists don’t play rooted voicings. In fact, rooted voicings are essential to solo jazz piano playing. Instead, the reason to learn rooted voicings first is because they are foundational. The rooted voicings presented in today’s lesson are appropriate for students of all levels, and they are especially well suited for solo playing contexts.
Jazz piano voicings that do not contain the root on the bottom are considered rootless voicings. Rootless voicings are classified as either Type A or Type B, depending on which guide tone is on bottom. When the 3rd of the chord is the lowest note in a particular voicing, we call it an A voicing. By contrast, when the 7th of the chord is the lowest note, we call it a B voicing. Keep in mind, when we describe a particular voicing as “rootless,” it is not meant in an absolute sense. For example, a quartal voicing that contains the root as the melody note is still considered “rootless.” Therefore, the term rootless merely indicates that the bottom note isn’t the root.
Intermediate and advanced students who already have a solid grasp of 7th chords and chord extensions will feel comfortable applying the various rootless voicing techniques contained in this lesson.
Closed Position vs. Open Position
A voicing is considered to be in close position or closed position when its chord tones are kept as close together as possible so that its total span is less than an octave. Therefore, closed position voicings can be played with one hand. In fact, many open position voicings that require both hands are formed by making specific modifications to a closed position voicing or by combining two closed position structures together.
A chord voicing is in open position when one or more of its notes are spread apart such that the total span is greater than an octave. This means that adjacent chord tones are not arranged in sequential order. Open position voicings often require two hands to play. Another name for open position voicings is spread voicings.
Now that you have some of the broad voicing categories organized in your mind, let’s begin by exploring rooted two-hand voicings.
Two-Hand Voicing Techniques With Roots
The examples in this section feature roots in the left hand and are perfect for playing situations in which you are the only instrumentalist providing the accompaniment. These exercises are also formative for solo piano playing.
#1: Chord Shells (1 + 2)
The first category we’ll explore in today’s lesson is chord shells, a voicing technique that provides just the essential chord tones. A bit longer description would be guide tones over root, which pretty much sums up this approach. For example, we’ll play the root of the chord in the left hand and the guide tones (the 3rd & 7th) in the right hand. However, in order to connect our chords smoothly, sometimes we’ll need to play inverted guide tones in which the 3rd of the chord is arranged above the 7th. We can describe this approach as a 1 + 2 texture because the left hand plays 1 note while the right hand plays 2 notes. Other names for this voicing approach include open shells or root + shell. The example below illustrates how to apply guide tones and inverted guide tones over our sample chord progression.
Guide Tones & Inverted Guide Tones
You may have noticed that this example uses Fmaj7 and B♭▵7 where the lead sheet indicates F6 and B♭6. Jazz pianists often use major 6th and major 7th chords interchangeably. We’ve included the guide tones for the major 6th option in grey. You may choose to use the major 6th sound instead if desired.
The voicings that result from this technique can be closed position or open position, depending on how low the root is played in the left hand. However, in the example above, all of the voicings are open position. For most chord progressions, as least some of your voicings will need to be in open position to obtain strong voice leading. For more examples on applying chord shells to jazz tunes, visit our Mid Intermediate Foundations Learning Track (Level 5).
Now let’s apply these chord shells to a bossa nova groove.
Two Hand Comping with Chord Shells
Great job! Are you ready for the next level?
#2: “Rootless Voicing” Over Root (1 + 4)
In you are a more experienced player, you can add additional notes in your right hand to obtain a fuller and more colorful jazz sound. The following example uses a technique in the right hand called rootless voicings to create a 1 + 4 texture. Overall, this is still a “rooted” comping approach because we’ll be playing the root of the chord in our left hand.
The example below is annotated with the voicing formula that has been applied to each chord and a label designating whether it is a A voicing or a B voicing. To learn all Type A and Type B rootless voicings for all chords, check out our Late Intermediate Foundations Learning Track (Level 6).
Rootless Voicings Formulas
Now let’s apply these rootless voicings to the same bossa nova groove we used earlier.
Two Hand Comping with Rootless Voicings Over Roots
Nice work! In the next section, you’ll learn additional 4-note, 5-note and 7-note open position voicing techniques without roots.
Two-Hand Voicing Techniques Without Roots
In most ensemble situations, you’ll want to take a different approach to voicing your chords than we demonstrated in the previous examples. In particular, it is no longer necessary or even desirable to play the roots with your left. This is not to say that professional pianists never use roots with a band. However, playing with a bass player allows you the wonderful opportunity to explore additional registers and voicing textures that sound incredible.
#1: Drop 2 Voicings (1 + 3)
Perhaps you have already learned the rootless voicings formulas that were demonstrated in the previous example. If you are familiar with those voicings, they you have probably noticed that the begin to lose their richness as the lowest note climbs above C4 (middle C). Drop 2 voicings are an open position structure that have a more balanced and pretty sound in the alto register of the piano (approximately F3 to D5). That’s because in most cases drop 2 voicings span a 10th interval from the bottom note to the top note. Drop 2 voicings are typically played as a 1 + 3 texture, with 1 note in the left hand and 3 notes in the right hand.
The Drop 2 Voicing Process
Drop 2 voicings are formed by dropping the 2nd note from the top of a 4-note closed position chord. Keep in mind, 7th chords and 6th chords can inverted up to three times for a total of four distinct closed position voicings. In a similar way, there are four distinct drop 2 voicings for every 7th chord and 6th chord. Therefore, we simply pick a specific closed position chord to get started. Then, we follow a process of smoothly connecting all of our chords in closed position. Lastly, we drop the 2nd note from the top of each closed position voicing.
The following example shows how to covert a closed position outline into a drop 2 outline for “Happy Birthday.”
You may notice that some of the chords in the outline contain roots, such as F6 and B♭6. However, other chords such as C9 and G9 do not contain roots. For C9 and G9, the root has been replaced by the 9th. This maintains a 10th interval between the top and bottom notes, which is characteristic of the drop 2 sound. Technically, any 4-note closed position voicing can be spread into a drop 2 voicing, whether rooted or rootless. In fact, many players play drop 2 voicings based on the rootless voicings we examined earlier in this lesson. Another application of drop 2 voicings is to harmonize each note of a melody.
For deep dive on drop 2 voicings, check out our Mid Advanced Foundations Learning Track (Level 8).
Now that we have our drop 2 voicings, the last step is to apply some bossa nova comping rhythms.
Two Hand Comping with Drop 2 Voicings
Alright, now let’s look at another two-hand voicing technique that you can use when comping in an ensemble
#2: Block Chords (1 + 4)
The sound of block chords was popularized by jazz pianist George Shearing (1919–2011). This technique is also referred to as blocked chords or locked hands. These 5-note voicings are essentially a closed position 4-note chord with the top note doubled an octave below in the left hand. Therefore, you may hear this 1 + 5 texture referred to as four-way close double melody. Block chords have a denser sound when compared to drop 2 voicings.
The Block Chord Voicing Process
Let’s work out some locked hands voicings for comping on “Happy Birthday.” We could use the same outline that we did for our drop 2 example. However, our block chords will have a nice “meaty” sound if we play them just a bit lower. Therefore, we’ll start with a 1st inversion shape F6 chord in the right hand in the tenor register. Since the top note of this inversion is the note F, we’ll also play an F in the left hand. From there, we’ll continue to connect our chord progression using smooth voice leading. This means we’ll predominantly opt for stepwise movement.
Once we have our voicings prepared, we can begin to apply comping rhythms. The following example also includes diminished 7th chords as passing chords, an additional technique that is commonly used in conjunction with block chords. To apply these passing chords, use the fully diminished chord built on the same root as the chord you wish to ornament.
Two Hand Comping with Block Chords
To learn even more about the block chords voicing technique, check out our Early Advanced Foundations Learning Track (Level 7).
Next, let’s examine another two-hand voicing technique that sound fantastic for comping.
#3: Quartal Voicings (2 + 3)
The quartal voicing sound was popularized by McCoy Tyner (1938–2020) in the early 1960s. Other players associated with this sound are Chick Corea (1941–2021) and Herbie Hancock. These voicings are constructed primarily by stacking perfect 4th intervals. However, dominant quartal voicings will contain at least one tritone. A quartal voicing can have as few as 3 notes or as many as 6 notes. When more notes are included, it is not always possible to use 4th intervals exclusively. For example, the classic “So What” voicing that Bill Evans used on Miles Davis’ tune by the same name is a 5-note quartal voicing that contains a major 3rd on top (i.e.: Dm11 “So What” voicing = D–G–C–F–A).
For today’s lesson, will be playing 5-note quartal voicings using a 2 +3 texture. Each voicing in the example below is annotated with the specific formula that has been applied. To learn more about these quartal voicings and others, check out our Late Advanced Piano Foundations Learning Track (Level 9).
Quartal Voicings Formulas
Now, let’s apply some comping rhythms and take a listen.
Two Hand Comping with Quartal Voicings
By now, you can see the purpose of “collecting” different voicing structures for solo verses ensemble playing situations. Now, let’s look at one more voicing structure that you’ll absolutely want to own.
#4: Red Garland Spread Voicings (4 + 3)
Jazz pianist Red Garland (1923–1984) often used a voicing technique that combines rootless voicings in the left hand with octaves + 1 note in the right hand. These large 7-note voicings, sometimes describes as spread voicings or octave voicings, are often used by jazz pianists in big band settings.
Even though these Red Garland voicings sound impressive, they’re not necessarily difficult, particularly if you already know your rootless voicings. We’re simply adding an octave +1 structure in the right hand above the rootless voicings you’ve already learned.
For starters, you can use Root–5th–Root or 5th–Root–5th for the octave +1 structure on major, minor and dominant chords. For more color on major and dominant chords, you can also use one or more chord extensions, such as 9th–13th-9th or 13th-9th-13th. However, for minor chords, use 5th–9th–5th or 9th–5th-9th instead of the 13th. In the voicing diagram below, the 13ths are represented as “6” for simplicity (the 6th and 13th are the same note).
Red Garland Voicings Formulas
When comping with Red Garland voicings, you can play rhythmic figures just like we did with our quartal voicings. However, another cool effect is to apply tremolo, a technique in which you rock the notes of the chord using a rotary wrist motion. Check it out:
Two Hand Comping with Red Garland Voicings
Pretty cool, huh? Which two-hand voicing is your favorite? Let us know in the comments on YouTube.
Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s lesson on Jazz Piano Comping with Two Hand Voicings. In the process, you built up a collection of piano voicings that will enable you to play professional jazz chords in any setting!
If you enjoyed this lesson, be sure to check out the following PWJ resources:
- Chord Shell & Guide Tone Exercises (Int)
- Play Piano Lead Sheets With Shells & Guide Tones (Int)
- Major 2-5-1 Rootless Voicings (Int)
- Play Piano Lead Sheets with Rootless Voicings (Int)
- 4 Note Comp Voicings Over Cycle of 5ths (Adv)
- Drop 2 Voicings Smartsheet (Adv)
- Play Piano Lead Sheets with Block Chords (Adv)
- Quartal Voicings Essentials Smartsheet (Adv)
- 5 Jazz Comping Approaches (Int, Adv)
- The Ultimate Beginner Jazz Chord Exercise (Beg/Int)
- Play Rootless Voicings On a Jazz Piano Ballad (Adv)
- Jazz Piano Block Chord and Drop 2 Voicings (Adv)
- Block Chords—The Complete Guide (Int)
- Quartal Voicings for Blues Band Accompaniment (Int/Adv)
- 2-5-1 Progression—5 Levels from Beginner to Pro
- Upper Structure Triads—The Ultimate Piano Chord Hack
- Lift 2 Chords—The Gold Chord Voicing (Int)
Jazz Swing Learning Tracks
Jazz Ballad Learning Tracks
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.
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Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...
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