Rootless voicings

I use rootless voicings in my left hand when I'm playing with a bass player. The bass player will be playing the roots of the chords, so I don't need to. Also, I don't want to make a lot of noise in the lower part of the piano because it will interfere with what the bass player is doing, and will muddy the sound.

So I play the chord near the middle of the piano. My right hand is free to play the tune or improvise.

On another occasion, while accompanying a singer, I might again use rootless voicings, but with my right hand. My left hand playing roots, taking on the role of the bass player. I'd play the chords in the same middle part of the piano.

4 note rootless voicings

Rootless voicings could be of 2, 3 or 4 notes, but an important style is the 4 note rootless voicing developed by Bill Evans and other pianists in the late 50s, which omit the root, but add extensions.

The voicings for minor 7th, dominant and tonic chords are very standardised and explained in multiple places on the web, e.g. www.thejazzpianosite.com.

They are also covered in Mehegan, which was probably the first jazz 'text book' to document them, in Mark Levine, chapter 7, and in Halberstadt chapter 34.

In brief summary, the major and minor 7 ths are played without the root but with a 9th, and the dominant is played without the root and 5th, with an added 9th and 13th. Most pianists use two inversions are, either the 3rd or 7th is in the bass. The other 2 inversions aren't used, which means you don't have to learn and practice all 4 of them! Having 2 inversions means you can choose the position of the chord with a resolution of half an octave to get the best sound and voice leading.

The above sounds very prescriptive, but that formula seems to be agreed by every source of jazz education I've come across. The only variation is that a 6th is sometimes used in the major 7th chord instead of the major 7th.

So with those chords it's possible to play a ii-V-I sequence in a major key with excellent voice leading. That covers a fair proportion of most standards. Here are the chords for a ii-V-I in C, and one in G, which are in the opposite inversion. 251 in C and G

the minor ii-V-i

There's not the same level of agreement as to how to treat a ii-V-i in a minor key. And the web writers don't seem to want to cover this (it's a bit more complex). The chords needed are a half-diminished ii chord, a dominant with some alteration and a minor tonic.

The half diminished can't (usually) have the 9th added, because the flattened 9th sounds bad and the natural 9th sounds odd (as it is out of the key). But instead you can add the 4th , double the root or use only 3 notes.

The dominant chord with 9th and 13th used in a major ii-V-I can't be used because although the 3rd and 7th are OK, the 9th and 13th clash with the key. The 13th is the same out-of-key note as the 9th of the ii, and the 9th is better played as a flat 9th , which is the same note as the 5th of the ii. So a b9b13 alteration could be used, or possibly #9b13 (the usual 'altered' dominant). Or instead of the 13th, the 5th,, giving a diminished shape.

The minor i chord is more straightforward, as the 9th is fine. You have the choice of minor or major 7th, or the 6th instead.

These chords are covered in Levine chapter 8 or Halberstadt chapter 34.

3 and 2 note rootless voicings

These are just the 4 note voicings with one note omitted. I omit the next-to-bottom note.

If you're playing something quick, you don't want the density of 4 note chords, and the 3 note chord gives that lighter texture.

2 note voicings just go one stage further, and pare the chord down to the minimum the 3rd and 7th or the 3rd and 6th. These can also be considered as the 'guide tones'.

Another advantage of a smaller voicing is that you're not risking a clash with the tune or the soloist. For example if you see G7 in a chart and play a standard 4 note dominant chord voicing you'll be adding a 9th (A) and 13th (E) giving a G13, and it's possible these extensions will clash with a flat 9th or flat 13th from the soloist or in the tune. Charts will often say 'G7b9' to warn you of this, in which case you can adapt your voicing accordingly, possibly by just leaving the extensions out and playing a 2 note voicing. There's a bit more on this topic at extensions .

<= back to resources index.