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Learning Weekly Jazz Voicings

Pianists and guitarists need to know a LOT of different voicings in order to function. I suggest working a new voicing into your bag of voicings every week. This will expand your palette of colors you can work with when comping or even when playing “chord melody.”

When you learn a new voicing, you’ll want to move the voicing through all 12 keys and be able to play it easily in any key without fumbling for the notes/fingering. Guitarists like to think of voicings as “shapes,” since the shape can move between different frets to change keys. Pianists may have a tougher time visualizing shapes due to the asymmetry of the piano keyboard and the placement of the black keys, though the concept of a “shape” is actually helpful for pianists also. It is particularly important for pianists to be able to visualize the notes in each key if they want to “see” the shapes that are more easily moved around on the guitar.

For example, considering moving the CMaj9 Voicing up a whole-step to DMaj9.  Pianists can ignore the guitar diagrams, while guitarists can look at both the chord diagrams and the standard notation of the same chords.

Figure 1A: Guitar Diagram of Guitar Shape in Two Keys

Guitar Voicings

Figure 1B: Standard Notation of Same Two Chords

Guitar Voicings 2

For Guitarists:  Moving Voicings Between String Sets

The first example gives an example of moving a shape up or down the neck on the same string set.  It’s also good for guitarists to understand how to move voicings between string sets instead of just moving the same shape up and down the neck of the same string. Moving voicings between strings can require a deeper understanding of theory.
Guitarists should understand where the chord tones are in each voicing (roots, 3rds, 5ths, 7ths, 9ths, etc.) instead of just learning the shapes and moving them around without really understanding what’s happening. While it may be easier for developing guitars to just learn how to move some shapes around in the beginning stages, a deeper theoretical understanding of each chord and how they connect should be developed when the student is ready.

Here’s an example of the same chord moved around to be on two different string sets:

Figure 2A: FMaj7 on Two Different String Sets (Guitar Chord Diagram)

Guitar Voicings different strings

Figure 2B: Standard Notation of Same Voicings

Guitar voicings different strings 2

Notice that these are exactly the same voicing in standard notation, though the voicings look look very different when played on different string sets! Guitarists should learn how to transfer voicings between string sets when it is possible. Sometimes the voicings will work better in certain places than others; the example shown is effective in both places.

For any comping instrument, a wide variety of voicings is extremely important. Whether you play guitar, piano, vibes, or organ, learning a new voicing per week in all 12 keys will help to expand your knowledge of chords at a manageable pace. Over time, consistently adding new a voicing every week will result in an expansive vocabulary of chord voicings!

Camden Hughes
Camden is a working jazz pianist, multi-instrumentalist, and music educator currently living near Boise, ID. He teaches music at the Idaho Arts Charter School, and is the jazz adjunct professor at Northwest Nazarene University. Check out his music at


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