Tim Richards

Sample jazz piano lesson

Two-handed chord voicings

Accompanying or 'comping' with both hands together is an important skill for any jazz pianist. Rather than playing the same thing in each hand, successful compers usually spread the notes of a chord between the hands. The ability to do this effectively is also important when creating a piano arrangement. The same principles can be applied to harmonising melodies at the keyboard, or arranging them for larger combinations of instruments such as a saxophone or brass section in a big band.

Here are three 'rules' to bear in mind:

1. The LH and RH should be in consecutive octaves, ie: without a big gap in between the hands. Best positioning is the LH notes in the octave below middle C, RH notes just above.

2. Double check that the 3rd and 7th of the chord are BOTH present. These are more important than the Root and 5th, either of which is sometimes omitted, especially if a bassist is also present.

3. If playing only four or five notes, avoid doubling any notes. The exception to this is the melody note, which may appear at the top of the chord AND lower down if desired. This exception only applies if the pianist is playing the melody, not in general comping.

Below are some typical two-handed voicing configurations, which have SHELLS in the LH - either R7 or R3.
Shells are so-called because they consist of the outside notes of the chord (eg: R7, leaving out 35, the middle notes of a root position chord):

Configuration A: R7 / 359
Configuration B: R3 / 795

R = root of chord.
9 = same note as 2.
Notes are given from the bottom up.
Notes to the right of the slash are played in the RH.

These configurations can be adapted for the three most commonly found chord-types (major, dominant and minor sevenths). In cycle of fifth chord sequences (eg: II ­ V ­ I) the configurations will alternate, giving a minimum of movement between chords. Try working out the voicings for Dm7 ­ G7 ­ Cmaj7 both ways (A­B­A and B­A­B).

The above are FIVE-PART voicings. When you've become familiar with them, you might try leaving off the root (bottom note) of both configurations, forming a new set of voicings in which TWO notes are played in each hand. The new voicings will be ROOTLESS, the left hand either playing 73 or 37:

Configuration A: 73 / 59
Configuration B: 37 / 95

These FOUR-PART ROOTLESS voicings are extremely useful when playing with a bassist, and also in very fast tempo pieces when there may not be time to find and play the five-note shapes given earlier. Work out the shapes for Dm7 ­ G7 ­ Cmaj7 both ways as above, and try II ­ V ­ I in other keys too. Remember not to jump around when changing chord ­ sometimes just one or two notes will change.

Here's a few extra chord voicing 'rules' you may find useful:

1. In dominant seventh chords, 5 is often replaced by 6, giving a THIRTEENTH chord.
2. In dominant seventh chords, 5 and 9 are sometimes raised or lowered, giving b5, #5, b9 or #9 (or an ALTERED chord - any combination of b5, #5, b9 and #9).
3. In major or minor 6/9 chords, 7 is replaced by 6.
4. In sus 4 chords, 3 is replaced by 4.
5. In half-diminished (m7b5) chords, the 9th is not always appropriate. If it sounds funny, replace it with the root.

These last five rules are not specific to two-handed voicings, they apply also to single-handed 'close' position voicings (ones in which the notes are all within the compass of an octave).

The configurations shown above are just two examples of successful two-handed voicing styles. More details, examples and further configurations (eg: block chords, polychords, etc) can be found in EXPLORING JAZZ PIANO Vols 1 and 2!


© 2006 Tim Richards

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