Instructor
Jonny May
Quick Tip
Intermediate
18:55

Learning Focus
  • Chords
Music Style
  • Jazz Ballads
  • Jazz Swing
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If you want to play hip jazz piano chords like Bill Evans, Red Garland or Wynton Kelly, then rootless voicings are the sound that you’re after. In today’s Quick Tip, Rootless Voicings for Piano—The Complete Guide, Jonny May shows you how to level-up your jazz piano chords. You’ll learn:

Intro to Rootless Voicings

I still remember the first time I was introduced to rootless voicings. I was a junior in high school, and I played in a jazz ensemble that was a feeder-program into the college of music at a local university. We were playing a blues in B♭ and I was playing B♭7 on the piano as B♭–D–F–A♭. One of the director’s assistants came over to the piano and told me that I should play it differently. He told me to play A♭–C–D–G instead. Then, he turned around and walked away before I could even say, “Wait, that’s not B♭7?”

That was my first exposure to the topic of today’s lesson. Not only had I never heard of rootless voicings, but when one was shown to me, I wasn’t given any rational or explanation as to why I should interpret a chord symbol like B♭7 as anything other than the Root, 3rd 5th and 7th.

Perhaps you’ve never heard of rootless voicings either. In fact, the term itself may sound a bit paradoxical or confusing. After all, how can a chord have no root? In this introductory section, we’ll answer some of the most common and logical questions that students have about this topic.

What is a rootless voicing on piano?

In jazz theory, the term rootless voicings describes a stylized chord sound popularized in the mid-to-late 1950s by jazz pianists like Bill Evans, Red Garland and Wynton Kelly. By omitting the root from their left-hand chord shapes, they freed up their fingers to include additional “color tones” or “pretty notes” in the middle register of the piano. Depending on the type of chord, the added color notes are either chord extensions such as the 9th, 11th and 13th or chord alterations such as the ♭9, ♯9, ♯11 or ♭13.

Bill Evans

“Waltz for Debby” (1956)
Red Garland

“Ahmad’s Blues” (1957)
Wynton Kelly

“On Green Dolphin Street” (1959)

Broadly speaking, there are several different voicing structures that are technically “rootless.” These voicing structures may range from as few as two notes to as many as seven notes. However, usually the term rootless voicings refers to a standardized system of 4-note voicings in which the total note span is less than an octave, allowing all of the notes to be played with a single hand. When playing rootless voicings with one hand, the ideal range is between C3–C5.

Why are rootless chord voicings important for jazz piano?

Rootless voicings are particularly useful for pianists who play with a bassist. Since the bassist is already playing the root of the chord, it is not necessary for a pianist to double the root. In addition, omitting the root from a piano voicing allows a pianist to introduce more expressive harmonic colors.

Another reason that rootless voicings are important is because they provide a systematic voicing approach that allows a pianist to smoothly connect chords together with good voice leading. In short, rootless voicings enable a pianist to play jazz chords that sound more sophisticated than ordinary 7th chords.

When should you play rootless voicings on piano?

Jazz pianists frequently play rootless voicings in either handdepending on the performance situation. First, let’s consider a trio setting, which typically includes piano, bass and drums. In this performance setting, the pianist will often play rootless voicings in the left hand while playing the melody or soloing with the right hand.

A second playing situation in which a jazz pianist uses rootless voicings is in a duo setting where the pianist is essentially accompanying a vocalist or other instrumental soloist. In this context, the pianist will often play rootless voicings in their right hand while supplying a bass line in the left hand. Consequently, the pianist does in fact play the root in the left hand. Nonetheless, the root is not part of the chord voicing. In essence, the pianist is imitating a larger ensemble.

Yet another situation in which pianists use rootless voicings is when they are playing solo jazz piano. In this setting, the pianist will often play the root of the chord with the left hand in the lower register. Then, the pianist quickly moves their left hand to the middle register and plays a rootless voicing. This left-hand lateral movement across the keyboard is often described as stride technique, shuttling or root-to-chord. This approach frees up the right hand to play the melody or improvise a solo.

How to Build Rootless Voicings on Piano

In this section, you’ll learn exactly which notes to play when constructing rootless voicings for the most common chord qualities in jazz music. For each chord quality, there are two primary ways to build a voicing. The first approach is to construct the voicing with the 3rd of the chord on bottom, which we call a Type A voicing. The second approach is to construct the voicing with the 7th of the chord on bottom, which we call a Type B voicing.

All of the rootless voicing examples in this section will be demonstrated in the right hand while the left hand plays the root. This will help you hear the voicings in their intended harmonic context. However, you’ll want to be familiar with playing each 4-note A Voicing and B Voicing in either hand.

You can use the links below to quickly navigate to a specific chord quality. (See the appendix at the end of this lesson for additional chord types.)

Quick Navigation by Chord Type:

Note: It’s important to point out that a chord symbol need not specify the 9th, 11th or 13th in order for a jazz pianist to include these notes in their voicings. In fact, the most common chord symbols on lead sheets are basic 7th chords. This means that when you see a symbol like C▵7, it’s okay to play C▵9 as a rootless voicing. As a jazz pianist, you are in the driver’s seat when it comes to voicing your chords.

Rootless Voicings for Major Chords

The most common way to play major 7th chords with rootless voicings is to replace the root with the 9th. The chord that results is a major 9th chord. The A Voicing shape for major 9th chords is 3–5–7–9 (from the bottom up). Conversely, the B Voicing shape is 7–9–3–5.

Major 9th A Voicing: 3-5-7-9

Major 7th Rootless Voicings - Type A

Major 9th B Voicing: 7-9-3-5

Major 7th Rootless Voicings - Type B

In some harmonic situations, the sound of the major 6th is a better fit than that of the major 7th. When we play a major chord containing both the major 6th and the major 9th, it is called a major 6/9 chord. An A Voicing shape for major 6/9 chords is 3–5–6–9. Conversely, the B Voicing shape is 6–9–3–5.

Major 6/9 A Voicing: 3-5-6-9

Major 6th Rootless Voicings - Type A

Major 6/9 B Voicing: 6-9-3-5

Major 6th Rootless Voicings - Type B

Rootless Voicings for Minor Chords

The standard approach to playing minor 7th chords with rootless voicings is to replace the root with the 9th, which results in a minor 9th chord. The A Voicing shape for minor 9th chords is ♭3–5–♭7–9, whereas the B Voicing shape is ♭7–9–♭3–5.

Minor 9th A Voicing: ♭3-5-♭7-9

Minor 7th Rootless Voicings - Type A

Minor 9th B Voicing: ♭7-9-♭3-5

Minor 7th Rootless Voicings - Type B

Rootless Voicings for Dominant Chords

The standard approach to playing dominant 7th chords with rootless voicings is to replace the root with the 9th and the 5th with the 13th, which results in a dominant 13th chord. The A Voicing shape for dominant 13th chords is 3–13–♭7–9, whereas the B Voicing shape is ♭7–9–3–13. (Hint: the 13th is equivalent to the 6th.)

Dominant 13th A Voicing: 3-13-♭7-9

Dominant 7th Rootless Voicings - Type A

Dominant 13th B Voicing: ♭7-9-3-13

Dominant 7th Rootless Voicings - Type B

Rootless Voicings for Altered Dominant Chords

Harmonically speaking, dominant 7th chords are used to create tension which typically then resolves to a more consonant chord. Altered dominant chords are dominant chords with heightened harmonic tension resulting from the addition of chord alterations such as the ♭9, ♯9, ♯11 and♭13. (The ♯11 and♭13 can also be expressed enharmonically as the♭5, and ♯5). In fact, when you combine the available chord extensions and chord alterations, there are several possible altered dominant sounds. In this section, we’ll explore rootless voicings on piano for the most common altered dominant chords that you’re likely to encounter.

Dominant 7(♭9) Voicings

Dominant 7(♭9) chords are interesting in that their 3rd, 5th, 7th and ♭9 form a fully diminished chord shape. For example, the chord C7(♭9) contains the notes C–E–G–B♭–D♭. If you omit the root, you’re left with E–G–B♭–D♭, which is equivalent to a root position Eº7 chord. Therefore, pianists who already know how to play diminished 7th chords will find that dominant 7(♭9) chords are the most accessible altered dominant rootless voicings to learn. To play a dominant 7(♭9) A Voicing, simply build a diminished 7th chord on the 3rd. Similarly, to play a B Voicing, simply build a diminished 7th chord on the ♭7. Improv scales that are compatible with dominant 7(♭9) chords are the Phrygian Dominant Scale and the Dominant Diminished Scale (aka: Half-Whole Diminished Scale).

Dominant 7(♭9) A Voicing: 3-5-♭7-♭9

Dominant 7(b9) Rootless Voicings - Type A

Dominant 7(♭9) B Voicing: ♭7-♭9-3-5

Dominant 7(b9) Rootless Voicings - Type B

Dominant 13(♭9) Voicings

Another beautiful altered dominant sound is that of dominant 13(♭9) chords. These chords have a sound that is a little bit bright and a little bit dark all at the same time. Dominant 13(♭9) chords are compatible with the Dominant Diminished Scale when improvising.

Dominant 13(♭9) A Voicing: 3-13-♭7-♭9

Dominant 13(b9) Rootless Voicings - Type A

Dominant 13(♭9) B Voicing: ♭7-♭9-3-13

Dominant 13(b9) Rootless Voicings - Type B

Dominant 7(♭9♭13) Voicings

Altered dominant chords can also contain two chord alterations, such as the dominant 7 (♭9♭13) sound. This chord type is especially common when the resolution chord is minor. This sound is compatible with the Phrygian Dominant Scale and the Altered Scale (aka: Fully Altered or Super Locrian).

Dom7(♭9♭13) A Voicing: 3-13-♭7-♭9

Dominant 7(b9b13) Rootless Voicings - Type A

Dom7(♭9♭13) B Voicing: ♭7-♭9-3-13

Dominant 7(b9b13) Rootless Voicings - Type B

Dominant 7(♯9♭13) Voicings

Perhaps the crunchiest of altered dominant sounds is that of the dominant 7(♯9♭13). These chords are compatible with the Altered Scale. (Note: When notating Dominant 7(♯9♭13) chords, it is common to spell the ♯9 enharmonically as the ♭3, especially for the A Voicing. This makes the chord it easier to read.)

Dom7(♯9♭13) A Voicing: 3-♭13-♭7-♯9

Dominant 7(#9b13) Rootless Voicings - Type A

Dom7(♯9♭13) B Voicing: ♭7-♯9-3-♭13

Dominant 7(#9b13) Rootless Voicings - Type B

Practice Exercises to Master Rootless Voicings

Now that you’ve learned two rootless voicing shapes for each major 7th, minor 7th and dominant 7th chord on piano, let’s place these voicings into a harmonic context. The following exercises will help you connect your chords smoothly by alternating between Type A and Type B rootless voicings on a major 2-5-1 progression. First, we’ll play an A-B-A format, in which the first chord uses a Type A voicing. Afterward, we’ll play a B-A-B format, in which the first chord starts on a Type B voicing.

Quick Navigation by Voicing Format:

If you are PWJ member, be sure to download the lesson sheet PDF and backing tracks that are included with today’s Quick Tip. You can also easily transpose the lesson sheet materials to any key using our Smart Sheet Music.

Incidentally, the key sequence is this exercise is arranged in descending whole steps. In other words, measure 1 is in C major, measure 2 is in B♭ major, measure 3 is in A♭ major, and so on. After six measures, the exercise would essentially return to C major, albeit an octave lower. Therefore, to play the other six keys, the exercise resets in measure 7 to a 2-5-1 progression in D♭ major. Then, the descending whole step sequence resumes.

A-B-A Voicing Format

Rootless Voicings Exercise for Piano (A-B-A Format)

B-A-B Voicing Format

Rootless Voicings Exercise for Piano (B-A-B Format)

Exercise Variation with Altered Dominants

A great way to explore and master altered dominant sounds is to substitute the regular dominant 7th voicings in this exercise with altered dominant voicings instead. For example, here is measure 1 in A-B-A format with all four altered dominant sounds that we’ve studied in this lesson.

Rootless Voicings Practice with Altered Dominants

🔎 Check out our Late Intermediate Piano Foundations—Level 6 Learning Track for a comprehensive learning plan to master all of your rootless voicings for all chord qualities.

Great job! In the next section, we’ll put these voicings to work in a familiar jazz standard.

Applying Rootless Voicings to a Jazz Standard

In this section, we’ll examine how to apply rootless voicings to a jazz standard like “Autumn Leaves” by Joseph Kosma. The example below demonstrates how to use rootless voicings in a solo piano setting with root-to-chord lateral movement in the left hand.

Notice on the lead sheet that the chord symbols only call for basic 7th chords. However, in this case, the pianist has interpreted the harmony by playing rootless voicings instead, which contain additional color notes. In fact, the final chord in this excerpt is E7, which isn’t even an altered dominant. However, this E7 resolves to Am7 when the melody repeats. Therefore, the pianist plays E7(♯9♭13), an altered dominant sound which is particularly fitting when resolving to a minor chord.

Conclusion

Congratulations, you’ve finished today’s lesson on Rootless Voicings for Piano—The Complete Guide. You’re on your way to playing jazz tunes with voicings that sound just like those used by some of your favorite jazz pianists!

If you enjoyed today’s lesson, then be sure to check out the following PWJ resources:

 

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

 

 

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Appendix: Additional Voicings

Today’s Quick Tip video and lesson sheet covered how to build rootless voicings for all the essential major 7th, minor 7th and dominant 7th chords that you’ll encounter constantly in jazz repertoire. In this appendix, we’ll cover rootless voicings for other chord qualities. You’ll even find a handy reference chart at the end of this section that includes the rootless voicing formulas for all chord qualities.

Voicings for Half Diminished Chords

Jazz pianists tend to treat half diminished 7th chords differently than other chords that we’ve already examined when it comes to rootless voicings. In fact, it’s common to play half diminished 7th chords without any chord extensions or alterations at all. There are a couple reasons for this. Firstly, half diminished 7th chords already have quite a bit of color and built-in tension. Secondly, replacing the root with the 9th can be problematic in certain contexts. Even though jazz pianists frequently do indeed play either the ♮9 or the ♭9 on half diminished chords, these color notes will not work in every context. Therefore, the most practical half diminished “rootless voicings” actually contain the root. For example, we typically play an A Voicing using ♭3–♭5–♭7–R. Similarly, we often play a B Voicing using ♭7–R–♭3–♭5.

Half Diminished A Voicing:3-5-♭7-R

Half Diminished Rootless Voicings - Type A

Half Diminished B Voicing: ♭7-R-♭3-♭5

Half Diminished Rootless Voicings - Type B

Voicings for Diminished 7th Chords

The most common way to play diminished 7th chords with one hand is to simply play the root, 3rd, 5th and 7th without any additional chord extensions. To construct a diminished 7th chord on any root, use the following formula: 1–♭3–♭5–𝄫7. In addition, diminished 7th chords can be inverted as needed to create smoother voicing leading.

Rootless Voicings for Minor 6th Chords

Jazz pianists sometimes substitute minor 6th chords for minor 7th chords, especially when a chord is functioning as a minor Ⅳ chord or a minor Ⅰ chord. The rootless voicings for minor 6th chords are comparable to those of minor 7th chords, except that the major 6th replaces the minor 7th. Since these voicings include the 9th, we call them minor 6/9 chords. Therefore, a Type A voicing for minor 6th chords is ♭3–5–6–9. Similarly, a Type B voicing is 6–9–♭3–5.

Minor 6/9 A Voicing:3-5-6-9

Minor 6th Rootless Voicings - Type A

Minor 6/9 B Voicing: 6-9-♭3-♭5

Minor 6th Rootless Voicings - Type B

Rootless Voicings for Minor-Major 7th Chords

Minor-major 7th chords can also be played with rootless voicings. These voicings have a similar construction to the Type A and Type B voicings that you learned for minor 7th and minor 6th chords. However, in this case the chord contains the ♮7 instead of the ♭7 or the 6th.

Minor-Major 7th A Voicing:3-5-7-9

Minor Major 7th Rootless Voicings - Type A

Min-Major 7th B Voicing: 7-9-♭3-5

Minor Major 7th Rootless Voicings - Type B

Rootless Voicing Formulas for All Chord Qualities

Need help keeping all these rootless voicing formulas straight? Here is a reference chart that contains all of the rootless voicing formulas covered in today’s lesson at a single glance.

Rootless Voicing Formulas Chart - All Chord Qualities
Reference chart containing all rootless voicing formulas by chord quality. Note that the second-to-lowest note in each voicing is sometimes omitted to form a 3-note voicing instead.

Writer
Michael LaDisa

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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