How to play jazz piano chords using 4-Note Rootless Voicings

As a piano player you have surely come across chord symbols in jazz standards lead sheets. These chords are embedded with a huge amount of information and trying to interpret the actual meaning of these chords could sometimes be overwhelming.

What are rootless voicings?

A rootless voicing, as the name implies, is a voicing in which the root of the chord is not present. For example a Cmaj7 rootless voicing could just be the notes E G and B.

Note: There’s one exception in this course: The m7b5 chord which will always include the root and not tensions. This chord sounds best when the entire chord is played.

Why are rootless voicings useful?

As a piano player you are in charge of providing the harmony (or even when playing alone). Rootless voicings allow you to play the essence of a chord while giving the bass player the freedom to create interesting bass-lines without clashing with your notes. If you are playing alone you can provide the bass-line on your left hand and use rootless voicings on your right hand. Also, when played on the left hand, rootless voicings give you the ability to improvise on your right hand and still provide the harmonic progression or; create even more interesting chords by adding upper structures and/or short phrases on your right hand while comping.

What are closed voicings?

In a closed voicing notes appear in order without gaps and are usually contained within the octave which makes them easy to play with one hand. For example a Cmaj7 is C E G and B. If we played the notes in that order (or any inversion such as E G B C or G B C E) without leaving any gaps the voicing is said to be closed and it will fit within one octave. On the other hand if we play C G E B then the voicing will expand across two octaves. This type of voicings are called open and both hands are often needed to play them.

Why 4-note voicings?

There are many reasons why you should learn and play 4-note voicings. Although 2-note and 3-note voicings are also effective, 4-note voicings provide a well-rounded, interesting and coherent harmonic context, they are not too ambiguous while still allowing the bass-line to flow nicely even when the bass player introduces inversions or reharmonizations. Also, 4-note voicings are very easy to understand and play since, as we will see later, they are just an evolution of simple seventh chords.

How to turn a seventh chord into a rootless voicings?

The concept is very simple: 

Take a seventh chord and substitute the root with the 9th. And in the case of dominant chords also substitute the 5th with the 13th. Minor 7b5 chords do not require any substitutions.

Note: Substitutions on m7b5 chords either introduce too much tension or ambiguity. While it is possible to use substitutions on m7b5 chords we will not be exercising the option to do so in this course.

When we use substitutions and decide whether to use a 9 or a b9 or a #9 we need to consider the chord-scale that best fits the chord’s function. This is a vast topic and we will not look at chord / chord-scales pairings in detail, but know that the different substitutions are not random, they have a reason behind them.

If you want to dig deep into this concept you can visit https://mdecks.com/voicings-vol1.phtml and download the interactive PDF with video lessons, workouts and complete jazz standards demos using 4-note rootless voicings.

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