I recently did a post about 12 beginning jazz guitar voicings. I’m following up that post with this article on beginning jazz piano voicings.
After ten years of teaching jazz combos and teaching private jazz lessons (mostly to jazz pianists and jazz guitarists), I’ve learned to keep things simple in the beginning stages so students can experience success right off the bat.
KISS-Keep It Simple, Stanley Turrentine!
I made things WAY too complicated for beginners when I first started teaching jazz piano lessons. Despite the fact that piano is my primary instrument and guitar is my secondary instrument, I’ve found that it is generally faster to get a student up and running on jazz guitar than it is for jazz piano. It seems to take longer for things to click for a beginning jazz pianist. I think it’s because the shapes are easier to see on the guitar, and so less music theory is required in the early stages.
Because jazz piano can be so theory intensive and it’s relatively hard to get going, I’ve boiled things down to only two voicings for jazz pianists. There are MANY more voicings you can use, but I try to basically only give two choices in the very beginning until that becomes pretty natural. We are going to learn only two voicings, and adjust them depending on the quality of the chord.
We are going to call the two voicings “A” and “B.” We are only learn two voicings, but you have to learn to adjust the voicing to fit the quality of the chord.
Also, you can turn the A or B voicing into a rootless Left-Hand voicing by moving the top note down an octave and playing with your left hand.
Technically an “A” voicing is a voicing where the 3rd is below the 7th. A “B” voicing is technically a voicing in which the 7th is below the 3rd. “A” and “B” voicings can be played in many different ways. However, for our beginning purposes, we are going to make “A” and “B” voicings more regimented. I’ve found that too many choices can tend to confuse people who are just starting out, so we are going to play all two-hand comp voicings through this more specific “A” and “B” lens.
Here are Our Two-Hand Comp Voicings and Left-Hand Voicings. We are adding the root at the bottom of the two-hand voicings, but that is completely optional! You actually don’t need the root to be in the chord.
Two-Hand Comp Voicings
(Optional root at the bottom) 3rd and 7th
9th and 5th (or the 6th/13th for dominant chords)
(6 is technically 13 if there is a 7th present)
7th and 3rd
5th (or the 6th/13th for dominant chords) and 9th
If you want to include the root at the bottom of our “B” voicing, you can but then it might look like:
Left Hand: Root + 7th
Right Hand: 3rd, 5th (or 6th/13th for dominant chord), 9th
Run these two voicings through the:
6 Basic Chord Qualities:
Major (1, 3, 5, 7, 9) (e.g. Cmaj7 or Cmaj9)
Dominant (1, 3, 5, b7, 9, 13) (e.g. C7, C9, or C13)
Minor (1, b3, 5, b7, 9, 11) (e.g. Cmin7
Half-Diminished (1, b3, b5, b7, 9, 11) (e.g. Cmin7(b5)
Fully-Diminished (1, b3, b5, bb7 (6), 9, 11 (e.g. Cdim7
Altered Dominant (1, 3, 5, b7, b9, #9, #11, b13) (e.g. C7(#9,b13) or C7alt)
Here is an example of the A and B voicings run through the 6 Basic Chord Qualities in the key of C. The root is added to each voicing at the bottom, but you can leave it out instead.
Exercise: take our “A” and “B” Voicings and run them through all 6 Basic Chord Qualities in All 12 Keys! It might be slow going at first to figure all of that out, but it’s part of learning your instrument, and internalizing it will help make learning tunes faster if you don’t have to think as much about what voicings you are playing! The more automatic your voicings are, the better off you will be.
Variations for Left-Hand Rootless Voicings
If you are soloing or playing the melody in your right-hand, you may want to try these rootless left-hand voicings so you can comp for yourself!
For a left-hand voicing, you can just take a two-hand A or B voicing, move the highest note down an octave, and play the whole voicing in your left hand!
3rd, 5th (or 6th/13th on dominant chords), 7th, 9th
7th, 9th (2nd), 3rd, 5th (or 6th/13th for dominant chords)