Instructor
Jonny May
Quick Tip
Advanced
16:34

Learning Focus
  • Accompanying
  • Chords
  • Groove
  • Lead Sheets
Music Style
  • Jazz Swing
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Are you tired of using the same old tired voicings on the piano when playing jazz? Do you want to be able to comp with richer, fuller voicings using cool notes in both hands? In this lesson on jazz piano, you’ll learn how to comp with upper structure triads. This technique will open up your jazz piano voicings and take your comping to the next level.

We’ll be using the cycle of 5ths chord progression to comp over during this lesson. This is a very common jazz chord progression used in countless tunes such as Fly Me To the Moon, Autumn Leaves, and All the Things You Are. So the next time your jazz combo band pulls up one of these or similar tunes, you’ll be more than ready!

In this lesson, you’ll learn:

  • What upper structure triads are and how to construct them
  • How they exist already in every chords extensions
  • How to use them over major, minor and dominant 7th chords
  • Introduction to dominant 7th altered chords and how it allows for beautiful upper structures
  • Exercises and how to practice comping with upper structure triads

Ready? Let’s dive in.

What Are Upper Structure Triads?

When comping and playing chords, our goal is to make them sound as interesting as possible while staying within the boundaries of the notes of each chord. Of all the ways to do this,  many jazz musicians say one of the coolest ways is to use upper structure triads.

What is an upper structure triad? We can think of it as a major or minor chord that we play above the main chord of the moment. The upper structure can be a root position or an inverted triad.

Does this mean we can use any major or minor triad above our chords? Certainly not! They have to contain only notes of the chord and its extensions. Check out the example below:

Upper structure triad voicing construction for an A minor 7 chord for jazz piano, a G major chord over an A minor chord
Upper structure triad voicing construction for an A minor 7 chord for jazz piano, a G major chord over an A minor chord

As you can see we are on an A minor chord. The left hand contains the root and 3rd, the shell of the chord. The right hand plays what looks like a G major chord, over our A minor! As we’ll discuss, this G major upper structure triad outlines certain chord extensions of the A minor chord. But it’s fact that it takes the form of a triad chord that it stands out to our ear in a beautiful way.

If you haven’t yet learned all your extended 7th chords, be sure to first check out Piano Chord Extensions.

Now that we know what upper structure triads are, the next step for jazz piano is learning how to comp with upper structure triads on the different types of chords.

Jazz Piano: How to Comp With Upper Structure Triads – Major Chords

Let’s start with learning upper structures on major chords. Check out our first example:

Major chord upper structure voicing construction for jazz piano, G major over C major
Major chord upper structure voicing construction for jazz piano, G major over C major

So over the C chord, we have a G major chord in first inversion which becomes our upper structure triad. Check out the chord tones that this upper structure contains in our C major chord, from bottom to top: the 7th, 9th, and 5th

Major chord upper structure voicing construction for jazz piano, C major over F major
Major chord upper structure voicing construction for jazz piano, C major over F major

Now over our F major, we have what looks like a C major chord. This covers also the same chord tones as our C major example: the 5th, 7th, and 9th. This is because these upper structure triads are both built with their “roots” starting on the 5th of actual major chords (C is the 5th of F, and G is the 5th of C).

Minor Chords

Next here in our jazz piano lesson, let’s learn how to comp with upper structure triads on minor chords:

Minor 7 upper structure voicing construction, a G major over A minor, outlining the 11th, 7th, and 9th chord tones for jazz piano
Minor 7 upper structure voicing construction, a G major over A minor, outlining the 11th, 7th, and 9th chord tones for jazz piano

This is the example we discussed earlier, the G major over the A minor chord. But now let’s analyze the chord tones it outlines: the 11th, 7th, and 9th.

Minor 7th upper structure voicing construction for jazz piano, F major over D minor 7
Minor 7th upper structure voicing construction for jazz piano, F major over D minor 7

This D minor has an F major chord imposed above it, which covers the 7th, 3rd, and 5th. For more color, we added a G in the left hand. This is the 11th and an absolutely gorgeous sound on minor chords.

Dominant 7th Chords

Dominant 7th chords are practically made to be used with upper structure triads. This is because of the many chord alterations that are possible with dominant 7th chords and its extensions. Check out an example:

Dominant 7th upper structure voicing construction for jazz piano, E major over G7
Dominant 7th upper structure    voicing construction for jazz piano, E major over G7

Sounds beautiful right? This appears as an E major chord above the G dominant 7th chord. It covers the 3rd, 13th, and the flat 9 chord tones of G7.

If you’re not familiar with all your dominant chords and their possible alterations, check out Dominant 7th Chord Theory and Application, and Coloring Dominant Chords With Extensions.

Complete Example of Comping Using Upper Structure Triads

Now we’re going to put it together and see how we might comp over a real jazz chord progression using upper structure triads. As stated earlier, we will be using the cycle of 5ths chord progression. Try playing and listening to it:

Exercise for jazz piano, how to comp with upper structure triads over cycle of 5ths progression
Exercise for jazz piano, how to comp with upper structure triads over cycle of 5ths progression

Try to analyze what major or minor triads are being played over what chords as well as the chord tones they cover. Take notice of how we use inversions in the upper structure chords as well to smoothly connect the voicings from one chord to another.

This lesson sheet music is available for download in the Lesson Resources section at the bottom of this page. Try playing it using different rhythms. The rhythms you use are arguably even more important than the notes you use. If you want a deeper dive on different rhythms and grooves to use during comping, then check out 5 Jazz Comping Approaches (Beginner/Intermediate, Intermediate/Advanced)

Summing It All Up

That’s it for our lesson in jazz piano and how to comp using upper structure triads. It’s a more advanced comping technique but well worth the effort to learn.

The key is realizing that because all our chords are built in 3rds, these upper structure triads already exist in the chord when we add chord extensions. We just have to find them and treat them as their own thing. Take note of what chord tone the upper structure chord takes as its “root” over a certain chord, and use the ones you like.

I’d also recommend practicing comping these types of chords over different chord progressions and keys. As well as using a backing track as done in the video. This helps us get to know how these beautiful chords sound with a band.

If you want a deeper dive into the different kinds of upper structure triads, as well as other ways to enhance your jazz piano comping skills, check out the following:

Thanks for checking out this quick tip, and happy piano practice!

Blog by Daine Jordan/Quick Tip by Jonny May

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