Digging Deeper: Jazz Piano Chords for Guitar
Take inspiration from Herbie, Chick, McCoy, and more by copping a few finger-stretching voicings.
• 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.
As part of Miles Davis’ second great quartet in the mid ’60s, Herbie Hancock became one of the most influential and important jazz pianists of all time. Ex. 4 is played over changes similar to “Autumn Leaves” and is inspired by the big two-handed comping Hancock would occasionally employ to create a powerful sound. The majority of the chords comprise upper extensions, and you’ll find very few roots. This passage starts with mostly wide voicings, and then shifts to closer, Evans-style voicings in the second half.
At 77, Herbie Hancock isn’t pulling any punches—even when it comes to performing one of his most well-known tunes, “Cantaloupe Island.” Check out the telepathic interplay between Hancock and bassist James Genus during a recent appearance on Austin City Limits.
Hancock explored the soulful and funky side of jazz as well. Ex. 5 shows how he might vamp on bluesy F Dorian (F–G–Ab–Bb–C–D–Eb) figures. Guitarists play similar patterns, but often neglect the high note, which of course is the note to omit if you are already at the brink of tendonitis!
Another tremendously influential pianist to emerge in the ’60s was McCoy Tyner, and he was integral to the sound of many classic albums of the era, both as a leader and sideman. He played with a host of greats, including Joe Henderson, Art Blakey, Grant Green, and Freddie Hubbard, and recorded more than a dozen albums with John Coltrane. In the spirit of Tyner’s playing on Coltrane’s epic A Love Supreme, Ex. 6 shows how he might perform a Bb minor blues. The rootless and tightly spaced voicings are quite playable on piano, but require a considerable stretch on the guitar. Stack the deck in your favor: Bring the guitar neck up high, so that there’s at least a 45-degree angle, keep your fretting-hand’s thumb low on the back of the neck so your fingers can open as wide as possible. If these voicings are too uncomfortable to execute, a reasonable workaround is to edit out the lowest note.
Tyner’s playing is indelibly connected to the music of John Coltrane. Hang in for the whole 14-plus minutes to hear some of Tyner’s trademark modal work ... oh, and of course, Coltrane’s bigger-than-life tone.
When people discuss Tyner’s playing, they often mention his use of quartal chords. These harmonies are simply stacked fourths, rather than thirds. So, instead of rendering a C chord as a triad consisting of C–E–G, the quartal version would be C–F–B (or Bb). In practical terms, Tyner would explore the options of stacking fourths within a mode, much like a harmonized scale, though at times he would add passing chords and side-slipping as transitions and approaches. Ex. 7 is a simple passage he might use in an F minor setting. Notice the familiar F5 power chord that sets the stage.
Chick Corea’s playing incorporates elements of Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner combined with an uncanny rhythmic precision. Ex. 8 shows how he’d approach a C minor blues using a host of quartal chords and a harmonically dense final phrase.