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3-Note Jazz Piano Voicings

3-note chord voicing are a great way to take your first steps learning to play jazz piano. Jazz is a topic of endless depth, creative differences, and stylistic nuances. With so many things to explore, it can be hard to know the best place to start. My suggestion is to begin with these most fundamental jazz chord voicings.

So, what are 3-note jazz piano voicings? 3 note jazz piano voicings are 7th chords represented by only 3 of their 4 notes: the root, the 3rd and the 7th. These voicings can be arranged in two common variations called “A” and “B” voicings for optimal voice leading.

If you are a beginner, these voicings are a great way to get started playing jazz standards. But, you'll never grow out of them. You'll hear these voicings all the times in famous recordings. Take the time to become fluent in these voicings -- they are simple and important.

What is a 3-Note jazz voicing? #

A 3-note jazz voicing is a simplification of a 7th chord. Although 7th chords contain 4 notes -- the root, 3rd, 5th and 7th -- only 3 of those are essential.

Most of our chords will be major, minor or dominant, which contain the same root note, and the same 5th. The root note is pretty essential to hearing the proper chord tonality. But, the 5th doesn't add anything unique. It shares common overtones with the root, and so we discard it.

Prerequisites to learning 3-note voicings #

3-note jazz voicings are an entry level jazz piano topic, but that doesn't mean they are easy. Learning these voicings will take you many hours of practice. It could take you weeks or months of study to become fluent. Do not feel discouraged.

Understanding these voicings requires some fundamental knowledge in music theory. This article requires that you know how to build major, minor, dominant, half-diminished and diminished 7th chords. Additionally, you should be able to play them in root position on the piano, and in all the keys.

How to construct 3-note voicings #

Here’s how to build a 3-note chord:

  • Start with the traditional 4-note 7th chord.
  • Remove the fifth.
A major 7 chord with and without the fifth

That’s it. A 3-note jazz voicing contains the root, the 3rd and the 7th, but not the 5th. This is true for major, minor, dominant, half-diminished and diminished 7th chords alike.

This 3-note voicing is the simplest way to build a 7th chord. If we remove anything else, we sacrifice sense of the key or the tonality.

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Constructing 3-note voicing for each type of chord #

The formula is the same for all types of chords, but let's break each type down. For demonstration purposes, I've listed each chord in the key of C. You should transpose and learn these in all 12 keys.

Here's how to play all 5 types of jazz chords with 3-note voicings. I've given you two versions of each, the "A voicing" and "B voicing" respectively. I explain those variations in more detail further down this article.

Major 7th Chord Voicings #

Major 7th chords contain the root, major 3rd and major 7th:

Similarly, the major 6th chord substitutes the 6 for the 7 in it's voicing:

Learn about more advanced major 7th chord voicings.

Minor 7th Chord Voicings #

Minor 7th chords have a flattened 3rd and 7th, plus the root:

Similarly to the major 6th chords, the minor 6th chord uses a 6 instead of the flattened 7:

Learn more ways to voice minor 7th chords

Dominant 7 #

Dominant 7th chords have a root, major 3rd and dominant 7th:

Half-Diminished 7 #

A half-diminished chord is otherwise known as a minor-7th chord with a flattened 5. But, since we removed the 5th from the voicing, it's identical to the minor 7th voicing:

Diminished 7 #

A diminished 7th chord has the root, the flattened 3rd, and the double-flattened 7th. (If you want to call it a 6 instead of a double-flat 7, we won't tell anyone.)

Each 3-note voicing has two variations #

3-note voicings are always played with the root note on the bottom. (well, unless playing rootless voicings, but we'll get to that in a minute.) We can invert the other two notes -- the 3 and the 7.

Up to this point we've been spelling our voicings using the "A voicing" -- that is root, 3rd, 7th. But by inverting those notes we can also create a "B voicing" -- root, 7th, 3rd.

Both of these chords are the same major 7th chord. These inversions are useful when moving from one chord to the next. Doing so creates smooth voice leading.

Playing 3-note voicings across both hands #

Now that you understand how to pick the 3 notes for each chord, lets practice them at the piano to get them under our fingers.

Ultimately we’ll use these 3 notes in many creative applications, but let’s start with one of the simplest and most versatile applications, playing with 2 hands. With this technique you can work your way through any standard in the Real Book with that authentic cocktail piano sound.

Your left hand plays just one note, the root. While your right hand covers both the 3 and the 7:

Playing 3-note voicings in just the left hand #

Once you've mastered the 3-note voicings with two hands, it's time to learn them with just one. Learning to play these voicings in your left hand alone will free your right hand to play the melody or solo.

Playing these voicings involves quite a stretch in the left hand, as you'll be playing a 10th interval for each of the B voicings. If you can't reach that far, don't fret. You can roll the notes from the bottom up, or play with a root-chord stride pattern.

In both A and B voicings for left hand, the notes are the same as we previously played with 2 hands. We just push the notes closer together so that they fit in one hand.

The "A voicing" is best played in the mid-range of the piano. The bottom two notes form an interval of a 3rd, which can be muddy when played too low.

The "B voicing" works better in the range just below the middle of the piano. It's a wider spread, and so it can tolerate starting lower on the keyboard.

Substituting dominant chords with 3-note voicings #

The 12 note octave is comprised of 6 whole steps from end to end. Therefore, half of an octave is 3 whole steps. That half-octave interval is also called a “tritone.”

Since that tritone is exactly half of an octave, the same pair of notes in each tritone belong to two different keys.

As an example, in the key of E, Bb would be the tritone thats at the midpoint. At the same time, in the key of Bb, E would be its midpoint. The same two notes belong in both keys.

This relates to our dominant 7th chord 3-note voicings. The interval between the 3 and 7 of a dominant chord is this tritone. As a result, those same two notes are the 3rd and 7th of two different keys.

To demonstrate this, in the key of C, our 3rd and 7th are E and Bb respectively. Not only that, but in the key of Gb, the 3rd and 7th are Bb and E. So, only the left hand root note needs to change. That means, if you know half of your chords, you actually know them all. Slick.

How to practice 3-note voicings #

Perhaps the best way to practice any new voicing is by learning your ii-V-I progressions (major and minor).

ii-V-I chord progressions] are one of the most common progressions in all of music, especially jazz. And, since that progression uses 3 different types of chords, minor, dominant and major, it's a great way to practice our voicing.

Breaking down how the ii-V-I progression works would be a bit of a distraction here. We talk about the 2-5-1 progression and others elsewhere..

I would encourage you to breakdown this progression in each key, and practice them until you are fluid.

Here's a 2-5-1 starting with 3-note "A" voicings:

Notation of 2-5-1 starting with 3-note A voicings

And similarly, here's a 2-5-1 starting with 3-note "B" voicings:

Notation of 2-5-1 starting with 3-note B voicings

Notice I said starting with A/B voicings. When you look closely, you'll see that this progression actually alternates an A voicing, then B, then A again. Likewise, when you start with the B voicing they alternate B, A, B.

This kind of voice leading is so important to consider. We want to keep movement between the chords as minimal as we can. In this specific case, we only have to move 1 note in our right hand at a time.

Take notice of which notes move as you practice. It will help you learn these intuitively in all 12 keys.

Playing rootless 3-note voicings #

When you play with an ensemble, or even with a backing track, you'll have a bass player covering the root for you. As such, you won't need to worry about that note at all -- in fact it's rude to step on your bass player and play his notes.

In those situations (and heck, even when playing solo), its useful to adjust those 3-note voicings to avoid the root.

The most basic way to do that is to just remove the root from your 3-note left hand voicing. This leaves you with only 2 notes, the 3rd and 7th, with your friend on bass playing the 3rd note.

Major 7 chord with a rootless shell

To take things to the next level, you can fill up those 3 note voicings by adding an additional, non-root note to the chord. Here are some examples of 3-note voicings in the key of C:

Major 7th chord extension #

Swap the 7 for the 6 and 9.

Minor 7th chord extension #

Add the 5th or the 9th

Dominant chord extension options #

Add the 9th or 13th

For a more dissonant (read as "hip sounding") voicing, try some alterations on those extensions:

Half-diminished chords #

Add the flat-5 back in to the chord:

Diminished Chords #

Add any note a whole step above a chord tone.

Comping with a big band using 3-note voicings #

When playing with a big-band, these 3 note voicings are used all the time to "comp" as part of the rhythm section. In these situations, the mid-range of the piano often competes with the horn section, especially saxophones. To adjust for that, big-band pianists play their voicings in the high register of the instrument.

These voicings are based on the same 3-note left hand voicings we've already learned. Since there's a bass player in the band, we'll pick from the rootless options and play it with our left hand.

In our right hand, we'll play a "power chord." That term comes from rock & roll guitar players, who play their chords with only 2 notes, the root and the 5th. We'll do the same thing, playing 1-5-1 or 5-1-5 in our right hand.

When you put the hands together, you end up with voicings like these for C7.

Modernizing the classic 3-note voicing #

Fourth voicings, which are voicings created by stacking fourth intervals, is a common way you'll hear today's jazz performers voice their chords. These voicings are more colorful than the standard 3-note voicings we've learned so far.

These voicings confused me for a long time. They don't use the same notes as the traditional 3-note voicings, or even the 4-note root position chords I learned while I was growing up. As we discussed earlier, chords need both a 3 and 7 to properly define the chord structure, but none of these voicings have both of those notes!

As a result, these voicings can also sound a bit more ambiguous. You'll even find some voicings that are the same for different chords. To compensate for that, the modern jazz player will solo over the chord in his right hand melody or solo lines to make sure the harmonic structure is clear.

Take note that the major, dominant and diminished voicings are all spelled using the same formula. The same is true for the minor and half-diminished voicings.

Just remember to flatten notes as necessary to fit the type of chord. (Technically, these formulas relate to the chord's mode, but that's a topic for another day.)

Here are examples of modern 3-note fourth voicing in the key of C:

Major 7, dominant 7 and diminished 7 modern voicings #

The A and B voicings follow the formula 3-6-9 or 7-3-6, respectively.

For major chords:

For dominant chords:

For diminished chords:

Take note that the major and dominant "A voicings" are the same. That's not a mistake. Make sure your solo lines in your right hand add the necessary clarity.

Modern voicings for minor 7 and half-diminished #

These chord types use 1-4-7 and 5-1-4 for their A and B voicings.

For minor chords:

For half-diminished

Like the last voicings, the A voicings here are the same. Make sure to emphasize the tonality in your right hand.

Additional exercises for mastering 3-note voicings #

It will take you dedicated practice, at some length, to master these voicing techniques. To learn them, I suggest taking one style of voicing to focus on -- 2-hand, left hand, modern, etc -- and work through the following exercises.

Practice Chords In Isolation #

Pick one key and practice each of the voicings. Practice building the chords one note at a time, then at once. Practice alternating between A & B versions. Finally, use an app like iRealPro to play along with a backing track for each of the chords.

Circle of Fifths #

Take each chord quality -- major, minor, dominant, half-diminished and diminished. Practice those around the circle of fifths in both directions (fourths are important too!)

Practice Standards #

Open your Real Book or the Great Gig Book and play some of the great jazz standards. Don't worry at all about the melody, soloing or doing anything fancy. Just play through the chord voicings using the techniques outlined throughout this post.

Most of all, remember to have fun!

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