It can be really intimidating to take your first steps learning to play jazz piano. Jazz is a topic of endless depth, creative differences, and stylistic nuances. It can be hard to even see the destination when you take your first steps. And although mastery is a lifetime away, there are initial steps you can take to get results quickly and simply.

In my opinion, your first steps should be in learning the fundamental vocabulary of the jazz language. When you learn a new spoken language, you start by learning individual words and then ultimately work to string together sentences, paragraphs, and ultimately even learn to intuitively think in that language. The same is true in your study of jazz.

If musical pitches are the nouns of this jazz language, 3-note jazz piano voicings are the words. We must learn our first words, if we are to tell anyone a story.

So, what are 3-note jazz piano voicings? 3 note jazz piano voicings are 7th chords which are 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.

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, and could take you weeks or months of study to become fluent. Don't be discouraged, this was true for all of us.

Understanding these voicings requires some fundamental knowledge in music theory. This article presumes you know how to build major, minor, dominant, half-diminished and diminished 7th chords in all keys, and can play them in root position on the piano. For example, I am assuming that you know a minor 7th chord has a flat-3 and flat-7 as compared to the major 7th chord with the same root.

The 3 Essential Notes Inside All Jazz Chords

Although 7th chords contain 4 notes -- the root, 3rd, 5th and 7th -- only 3 of those are essential. Here’s how to build a 3-note chord:

  • Start with the traditional 4-note 7th chord.
  • Remove the fifth.

That’s it, really. A 3-note jazz voicing contains the root, the 3rd and the 7th, but not the 5th. This is equally 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.

Start by Learning Voicings with 2 Hands

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.

Here’s how to play 3-note voicings with 2 hands:

  • Right hand, play 3 & 7
  • Left hand, play the root.

There are 2 variations of these 2 hand voicings, and it’s critical you can play both fluently.

Both variations have the root in the left hand, but we will switch the order of the notes in the right hand.

As an example, here’s how to play a C Major 7 chord (C, E and B) in both voicings:

A Voicing

We play this A voicing with the root in our left hand, and the 3 & 7 in our right.

B Voicing

The B voicing works the same way, but we invert the notes in our right hand to put the 7 on the bottom and the 3 on top.

3-Note Voicings in 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.

A Voicings

The A voicing is built by stacking root, 3rd and 7th:

This 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.

B Voicings

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.

The B voicing is built by stacking the root, 7th and 3rd:

All Types of Chords

Here's how to play all 5 types of jazz chords with 3-note voicings in your left hand. Our example below demonstrates chords with C as the root, but you should learn them in all 12 keys.

Major 7

Minor 7

Dominant 7

Half-Diminished 7

Diminished 7

The Tritone and the Dominant Chord

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.

Rootless 3-Note Chords

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.

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 Chords:

Swap the 7 for the 6 and 9.

Minor Chords

Add the 5th or the 9th

Dominant Chords

Add the 9th or 13th

Half-Diminished Chords

Add the flat-5

Diminished Chords

Add any note a whole step above a chord tone.

Big-Band Comping Chords

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.

Modern 3-Note Chord Voicings

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

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

Major:

Dominant:

Diminished:

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.

Minor 7 and Half-Diminished

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

Minor:

Half-Diminished:

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

Exercises for Each Key

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.

Practice 2-5-1 Progressions

Practice ii-V-I and ii7b5-V-i progressions in each key, working your way through all the keys. Practice good voice leading, alternating A-B-A and B-A-B voicings.

Don't be in a rush to get through them fluently and quickly. Take care to practice them perfectly. Jazz standards are chocked full of ii-V-I progressions, and practicing these will directly translate as you learn those tunes.

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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