Close this search box.

June 1984 Generic Voicings for Jazz Piano, By Frank Mantooth

When piano charts omit suggested voicings or arrangers present textbook-like tertiary harmonies for student musicians, jazz band directors end up asking the familiar question: “How can I help my pianist find tastier voicings?” By following a few simple rules and being able to recognize the interval of a perfect fourth, student pianists can use simple-to-construct generic voicings that avoid tertiality, yet sound good, and accommodate the desired harmony.

The Rule of Thumb
   In order to produce the strongest, most resonant sonorities, the beginning requirement for your pianist is to follow the rule of thumb: always keep the right hand thumb in the octave between C4 and C5. The rule helps players avoid muddy sonorities that can result when the right hand thumb moves below C4, as well as a texture too thin for comping when the thumb goes above C5.
   To construct generic voicings of five-note chords, the pianist should use the fifth and second fingers and thumb of the right hand to play the top three chord voices, and the second and fifth fingers of the left hand to play the two bottom voices.

Chord Families

This approach uses three basic chord families: major, minor, and dominant.

Major family: all major triads, Ma6, Ma7, Ma9, and 6/9 chords.

Minor family: all minor triads, Mi6, Mi7, Mi9, Mi11, and Mi13 chords.

Dominant family: all dominant 7ths, 9ths, and 13ths, with all possible alterations (flatted 5, + 5, flatted 9, #9, #11) and any possible combinations of these chords.

How It Works
   First the pianist decides which family a chord belongs to, then he uses the appropriate format to construct a generic voicing.
   Major family chords. Start with the right hand and follow the rule of thumb (keep it between C4 and C5). First, place the right hand fifth finger on the root of the chord and the second (or third) finger a perfect fourth lower (on the fifth of the chord). Then place the thumb a perfect fourth lower (on the ninth). Then move on to the left hand, placing the second finger a perfect fourth lower than the right thumb and the left hand fifth finger a perfect fourth below that. The result is a five-voice construction built entirely of perfect fourths.
   As an example, the pianist who sees an FMa9 on a chart would first identify the chord family (major), then construct the chord beginning with the tonic played with the fifth finger of the right hand:

Music Example 1

   Looking at the five-voiced F 6/9 chord in the example, you’ll note the absence of the major seventh. Theoretically, we do not have an exact FMa9; however, there are no offensive chord tones, tertiality has been avoided (in this case restructured), and the right thumb is between C4 and C5. The chord is in the best position on the keyboard for sonority, and most important, the system works.
   Minor family chords. Place the right fifth finger on the minor third and, following the format for the major family chords, use descending intervals of the perfect fourth to construct the five-note chord. For an EMi9, start with the minor third (G):

Music Example 2

   The chord produced is really an Emi11, a rough approximation of an EMi9, because the ninth is absent. Again, however, there are jjo offending chord tones, the rule of thumb’applies, and the resulting sound is tastier than the usual tertial rendition of an EMi9.
   Dominant family chords. Building this category of chords requires a little more thought. The chord voicing in the right hand is the same as the one for major family chords: fifth finger on the tonic, second finger a perfect fourth lower, and the thumb a fourth lower than that. To play the left hand notes, first determine the third and seventh of the dominant chord (these are the most important chord tones) Use the second finger for the seventh and place the fifth finger a tritone lower on the third of the chord.
   For example, to play an E13, place the right hand fifth finger on the tonic (E) and proceed as follows:

Music Example 3

   All the ingredients of a bona fide E13 are present, tertiality is avoided, the right thumb follows the rule, and the sound of the chord is remarkably more palatable than the ho-hum-sounding rendition of textbook chords.
   These generic voicings should accommodate most of the chord symbols that your pianist will encounter. They are sure to add zest to many charts, answering the need for tastier voicings from the student jazz pianist.             

   Frank Mantooth is a faculty member at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, Illinois, as well as a jazz clinician, composer/arranger, and adjudicator. He holds a music degree from North Texas State University and a diploma from the Vienna Academy of Music.