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Cameron Allen - From Blues to Jazz Part 1: Chord Voicings

Lesson Notes

** As featured in issue 34 **

One of the most obvious features that sets Jazz guitarists apart from ordinary Blues guitarists is the rich array of guitar chords in the Jazz guitarist's vocabulary. If one listens to such great players as George Benson, Joe Pass, Pat Martino, and the like, it doesn't take long to hear that these players use chord voicings that are more colourful and interesting than the more standard voicings one commonly hears in ordinary Blues guitar contexts. While some of the less familiar sounds in Jazz stem from more advanced harmonic devices and formal modifications (chord substitutions, re harmonisations, etc.), the basic process of creating Jazzy chord voicings can be understood without resorting to any such tinkering. We can get a clear look at the process by using a simple 12-bar Blues chord progression in G as our template.

The chord progression for this Blues will be (in order): 1 bar of G7, 1 bar of C7, 2 bars of G7, 2 bars of C7, 2 bars of G7, 1 bar of D7, 1 bar of C7, 1 bar of G7, and 1 bar of D7. First, let's take a look at a typical non-Jazzy approach to playing these chords. While there are numerous common approaches, probably the most popular way (especially among beginning guitarists) to voice these chords is to use standard dominant 7 barre chords. For example, one might play G7 by using the first finger to barre at the 3rd fret across all 6 strings, placing the 3rd finger at the 5th fret on the A string, and placing the 2nd finger at the 4th fret on the G string. From lowest to highest, this gives us the notes G, D, F, B, D, G. For C7, one might use the first finger to barre at the 3rd fret from the A string to the high E string, placing the 3rd finger at the 5th fret on the D string, and placing the 4th finger at the 5th fret on the B string. From lowest to highest, this gives us the notes C, G, Bb, E, G. And for D7, one might use the same shape as was used for C7, only moved up by a whole step, giving us the notes D, A, C, F#, A.

While these voicings are sufficient to give us the sound of the chord in its entirety, they seem to lack something when we hear them compared to Jazzier voicings. They sound less "colourful", less interesting than the Jazzy voicings. So what's the difference? The difference is that these barre chord voicings are made up of essential chord tones only (i. e., the tones necessary to define the chord), whereas the Jazzy voicings tend to include upper extensions, which are sometimes referred to as "colour tones".

The formula for a dominant 7 chord is: 1-3-5-b7. If we apply this formula to the root note G, we get a G7 chord, which will contain the tones G, B, D, and F. Compare these tones to the ones yielded by the G7 barre chord shape described earlier. The barre chord gave us these and only these tones. Although a couple notes appear twice (the G and D notes), all the notes found in the barre chord voicing will be G, B, D, or F. If we do the same thing from the root notes C and D, then compare our results to the notes in the C7 and D7 barre chord voicings mentioned earlier, we will notice the same thing.

Now, if we want to add some Jazzy flavour to our dominant chord, we can begin adding colour tones. As I said before, "colour tones" is another way of describing upper extensions (i.e., 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths, which correspond to the 2nd, 4th, and 6th scale degrees, respectively). [NOTE: For our current purposes, we'll deal with the 9th and 13th only.] These tones aren't necessary to define the basic quality of the chord (major, minor, dominant, major 7, min7b5, etc.), but can be added to the chord to introduce a bit of "colour" to the sound.

To get started, we can replace the standard G7 chord with the Jazzier G13 chord. The colour tone in this chord is the 13th (which, in this case, is the note E). For the C7 chord, we can use a C9 chord, which contains the 9th of C (the note D). And for the D7 chord, we can use a D9 chord, which contains the 9th of D (the note E). For each of these chords, I demonstrated two voicings in the video.

One important thing to point out about the second versions of the C9 and D9 chords in the video is that they are rootless voicings. This simply means that the chord voicings lack the root note, and this is a common type of voicing in Jazz. For example, the second C9 voicing in the video contains the notes (from lowest to highest): E, Bb, D, G. These correspond to the scale degrees: 3, b7, 9 (or 2), 5. And the G13 chord lacked a fifth in both cases. Both voicings contained only the notes G, F, B, E, which translates to the 1, b7, 3, 13 (or 6). The lack of a root or fifth doesn't affect the function of the chord, and it can afford us greater freedom to find our own voicings and fingerings all over the fretboard when we have fewer notes to deal with.

Toward the end of the video, I demonstrated an example of an altered dominant chord (the D7#9#5 chord). This type of chord (altered dominant) is commonly used where a dominant chord is acting as a V7 chord. The various types of alterations one might use and the various ways in which one might utilise these chords are topics for future columns, so I won't go in depth here. But a good starting rule of thumb is to take a voicing of a dominant 7 chord that has a 9th and/or a 13th added, and either raise or lower the colour tone(s) by a half step.

More important than learning any exact voicings is that we understand the guiding principles behind formulating these kinds of voicings. Once we understand the way these chords are constructed, a whole new world of chordal possibilities opens up to us. I encourage you to try to find your own colourful dominant 7 voicings by starting with a formula that includes a colour tone (e.g., 1-3-b7-9), then finding the notes prescribed by that formula on the fretboard. Feel free to combine colour tones by including both a 9th and a 13th in your chords. Work out as many different arrangements of these chords as you can! The more you experiment with these colour tones, the more familiar you will become with the character of each colour tone and you will soon discover that some combinations and voicings sound better than others. Always let your ears be your ultimate guide!

With enough practice and experimentation, you will amass a formidable vocabulary of colourful chord voicings that are all based on a simple process. And when you use these basic concepts to guide your own experimentation and, thus, find your own voicings, you will have a greater sense of ownership of those voicings and they will be easier to retain! Best of luck, and join me next time when we take a look at some Jazz soloing concepts!


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