• Expand your chordal vocabulary for playing jazz standards.
• Learn how to create rootless chords and imply harmony.
• Understand quartal harmony. Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.
It’s hard to dispute that in jazz circles, the piano is considered the preferred harmonic instrument. Because of this, it’s useful to learn how to adapt pianistic techniques to our six strings. In this lesson, we’ll explore essential voicings and chordal techniques developed by some of the most influential pianists of the post-bop era and bring them to the guitar. Ready for the challenge? Let’s go.
As we look to the chordal playing of such jazz piano legends as Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Dave Brubeck, McCoy Tyner, and Chick Corea for inspiration, it’s easy to notice that many of these voicings are quite different from our typical chord grips—and that’s the point. Of course, we’re limited to six strings and what four, or perhaps five, fingers can fret, but you may be surprised that many voicings presented here are either identical or very close to what these pianists played. Yes, it required painstaking research, but their secrets can be ours, as well.
One of the fathers of modern jazz piano, Bill Evans can be credited as among the first to wholeheartedly embrace the idea of rootless voicings. Ex. 1 is played over a progression similar to “What Is This Thing Called Love” and shows how some small shapes can get the job done in a clear and clever way. You’ll likely recognize some of these as being similar to certain common guitar shapes, but slimmed down.
Bill Evans is one of the most influential pianists in jazz. Filmed in Berlin in 1965, this video reveals his buoyant, propulsive style as he plays a classic standard, “Beautiful Love.”
Ex. 2 features much larger voicings, some of which involve difficult and unorthodox fingerings that use the fretting-hand thumb. If you find this impractical, these chords can be readily trimmed to more-than-satisfactory versions. It’s worth noting that these sophisticated harmonies are really just triads with a foreign note added and then placed over the bass line. For example, the first chord is an Eb major triad (Eb–G–Bb) with an added 9 (F), but when placed over the bass player’s C, the sound is a Cm11. The penultimate chord is a simple F minor triad (F–Ab–C) with an added Gb, but played over an Ab, it yields an Ab13. We get a similar result with the final chord: An E major triad with an added F played over a G bass note yields a G13b9.
The elegant playing of Dave Brubeck, known for hits like “Blue Rondo à la Turk” and “Take Five,” contains plenty of sophisticated harmonies, but at times he was keen to keep his chordal work simple and straightforward. Here’s an example (Ex. 3) in the spirit of his vamp playing, adapted to an Afro-Cuban groove.