Monday, 28 September 2009

Learn Jazz Piano Voicings - The Key to Making Jazz Interesting For All Instrumentalists

Voicings are no doubt what have given all famous jazz pianists their identity. Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, and Brad Mehldau all use unique, interesting voicings when making music. However, even though the idea of playing jazz is to create something unique and spontaneous, jazz is also a language, and in order to be effective at playing jazz piano, one must understand the standard set of jazz voicings, because there sure as heck is one!

Before we cut to the chase, I want to first identify the difference between a VOICING and a CHORD. A CHORD refers to a set of given CHORD TONES to be used. So a C chord contains the chord tones C, E, and G. BUT, I might VOICE the chord with E under C and G above C. Or E under G under C. So to VOICE the chord is to actively place the chord tones wherever you like.

1) SHELL VOICINGS: The name "shell voicing" speaks for itself. It is the basic framework of the given chord. Shell voicings are useful because they give off the color and characteristic of the chord with the least amount of notes. SO, if I wanted to play a Cmaj7 shell voicing, I might play, from bottom to top, C, B, and E. Try it for yourself. Sit down at the piano, and hold down these notes. It will sound the strongest if you play the C under middle C, B under middle C, and E above middle C.

The concept is that you are playing the ROOT, 3rd, and 7th of the CHORD. However, I VOICED the chord with the ROOT, 7th, THEN 3rd. This concept works with ALL chords. So if I wanted to play a Cmin7 shell instead, I would probably voice it with C, Bb, and Eb.

2) FOUR NOTE VOICINGS: I use these voicings all the time, especially with my left hand when I am taking a solo! So, with a Cmaj7 chord, the chord tones are C, E, G, and B. However, the D ABOVE B also sounds GREAT. So, in this case we have two options. We can either voice the chord using C, E, G, and B, OR we can voice it using E, G, B, and D. If we use the second option, we will stay out of the way of a bass player if we have one, because most likely HE'LL be playing C.

The great thing about four note voicings is that we can invert them! What this means is, if I were to use the second option, I could play it the way it is, or play G, B, D, E, or B, D, E, G, etc. That's a LOT of options! And once again this works with all minor chords and flat seventh chords, too!

Frankly, you ALREADY know enough to get on the bandstand and play voicings that fit behind the soloists and yourself! But, I'll give you one more, which is the bread and butter of modern jazz.

3) FOURTH VOICINGS: Sometimes people call this a "Quartal" voicing. McCoy Tyner and Chick Corea use these voicings ALL the time! The idea behind this is you can take any old scale, say Cmajor which is C, D, E, F, G, A, and B, and play a chord where each note is a fourth away from the next one, but ONLY using notes from that scale.

A fourth away from C is F, a fourth from D is G, etc. So if I have a Cmaj7 chord, one fourth voicing I can play is E, A, and D. I am only using notes in the C major scale, and they're all a fourth apart! But, I can completely do this randomly, with any group of notes, just as long as they're IN THE SCALE, and are each a FOURTH apart! This is the secret to achieving that "hip and modern" sound!

At this point I have given you enough information for you to REALLY start exploring jazz piano voicings over tunes. BUT, mastering jazz piano voicings is a process that takes time, energy, love for the music, and most importantly, the proper guidance. If you visit my blog at, I will tell you about my journey, and hopefully help you along with yours! Also, if you would like to hear my music, visit my brand new MySpace page at

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