Saturday, September 12, 2015

Chord Shapes - Getting the Most Bang For Your Harmonic Buck

Q: Hi Chris, I am having a really hard time remembering chords. I just got into college and am playing in the Jazz orchestra. I have never really played too much Jazz and I can't come up with the chords quick enough. I got myself one of those chord books but there are too many to remember. Should I just learn one or two of them and use those all the time? Even when I do know the chord, my classmates tell me that the voicing I use isn't really right. Do you have any advice for me?

A: Yes, I totally understand where you are coming from. Your question brings back memories of my college days where I struggled with the same things. This is what I can tell you:

The chord voicings you choose depend on several different factors:

1. Situation - Playing in a Big Band is a lot different than playing with a trio, especially if there is a pianist involved. There are two approaches here. First is play super simple. Don't worry about the tops and bottoms too much, the middle is fine. Look at the example below for a ii-V-I in C, I'm just playing two notes per chord and both the notes are only the 3rds and 7ths:

    D-7  G7  Cmaj7
E|----------------
B|----------------
G|--5----4----4--
D|--3----3----2--
A|----------------
E|----------------

I'm just playing the b3 and b7 for the D-7 chord, the b7 an 3rd for the G7 chord and the 3rd and 7th for the C chord. This kind of thing will totally keep you out of trouble and out of the pianists way. The improviser is happy too because you aren't dictating what he has to play as well. If I had played a G7(#5,#9) chord here, the soloist would be stuck playing altered and if the pianist played some different chord, it would cause all sorts of chaos and you would be getting stares from him. I'm not in the way of the bassist so he is free to do whatever bass players do. 
We can do the same thing in reverse. In the previous example, I started with the b3rd and b7th of the D-7 chord (in that specific order). Let's reverse those notes, playing the b7th and b3rd  (in that specific order) for the D-7 chord:

    D-7  G7  Cmaj7
E|----------------
B|----------------
G|--10--10---9--
D|--10---9---9--
A|----------------
E|----------------

Notice how in both examples, there is always a common tone. This is what we call good voice leading, one note moves in a step and one stays put. Take a standard song and use this technique as a part of your practice routine. You can't go wrong. More on voice leading here >>

You can take this to the next step. Add in another note on top if, and this is a big if, the next note is in the chord symbol or you have enough leeway to add it in. I simply took our last example and added the 9th to the top of the D-7 chord, the #5th to the G7 chord and the 9th to the top of the Cmaj7 chord. 

    D-9 G7#5 Cmaj9
E|-----------------
B|--5-----4-----3--
G|--5-----4-----4--
D|--3-----3-----2--
A|-----------------
E|-----------------

What I mean by leeway is, for example, you are playing without a pianist or you have enough space musically to do so. 

Going a step further:

    D-11   G7#5     Cmaj9
E|--3--------3---------3---
B|--5--------4---------3---
G|--5--------4---------4---
D|--3--------3---------2---
A|--------------------------
E|--------------------------

I've added the 11th to the top of the D-9 chord, the root to the G7#5 chord and finally the 5th to the Cmaj9 chord. Other common tone. More about ii-V-Is voicings here >>>
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2. Melody - melody notes are always OK to include in a chord. Usually the melody is played above the chord so it is safe to say that you can add the melody note to the top of the chord. In a lot of Jazz, they will notate the chord without including the interval of the melody note in the chord symbol. For example, the chord symbol may be Cmaj7, but the melody note is a F#. What does this tell you about the chord? Personally I would see Cmaj7 written on the paper but be thinking Cmaj7#11 (whether I play the #11 or not). In this case, I might play something like this:

    Cmaj7#11
E|-----2-----------
B|-----3----------
G|-----4----------
D|-----2----------
A|-----------------
E|-----------------

Taking our last example:

    D-9  G7#5   Cmaj7#11
E|--3--------3---------2--
B|--5--------4---------3--
G|--5--------4---------4--
D|--3--------3---------2--
A|-------------------------
E|-------------------------

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3. Space - If you have space, meaning a few bars to yourself you can obviously use some big hairy chords. For example, four bars of C-7 to yourself, you can really play anything you like. When I was younger, I tended to collect these chords one by one for situations like this. Using the C-7 as an example:

    Cmin9     C-11    C-11
E|--------------10------13---
B|-----4--------6-------11---
G|-----7--------8-------8----
D|-----8--------8-------12---
A|----------------------------
E|----------------------------

You have to be careful though, only use these when you have the space to do so. More on big chords here >>>

More on chords and chord symbols >>>

2 comments:

michael dibenedetto said...

Your V chord does not contain a #5.... I assume the graph is wrong, it is showing a 13...

-CJ said...

Good call Michael! Fixed it. That's what happens when I write everything without a guitar near me.