Understanding Rootless Voicings

This is perhaps one of the hardest areas of jazz theory to understand for students coming from a classical background.

Student Question:

When you play a rootless voicings for Cmaj7, you played E-G-B-D which to me is E-7. How can E-7 be Cmaj7?

Hayden’s Answer:

On a lead sheet we see the chord symbol Cmaj7 and so as a jazz arranger, you need to decide how to play a Cmaj7 to produce a nice sophisticated jazzy sound.

You need to understand that whenever you voice a chord, you have the creative freedom to choose what notes to include, your options for major chords are root, 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, #11th & 13th (if you add another 3rd on top of the 13 you are back to the root so 13 is the highest extension)

Generally speaking, the higher the extension you include, the richer and ‘more complex’ the sound will be. Complex doesn’t always mean good, sometimes just the 3 and 7 will suffice, but rootless left hand voicings with added extensions and alterations (pioneered by Bill Evans) have become a staple sound of jazz piano.

As your ears develop to hear and appreciate the sound of extensions… you will understand they these voicings have more ‘texture’ and ‘colour’ than voicings made up exclusively of the primary chord tones.

The Benefits Of Rootless Voicings:

There are a number of key reasons why we play rootless voicings, and why leanring them is an important part of your musical development:

  • You free up a finger for a more interesting note choice such as an extension or alteration

  • Rootless voicings voice lead much more smoothly in a 251- it’s easy to play a rootless 251 without looking and so you can focus on your right hand lines.

  • It gets you familiar with extensions and alterations, if you don’t practice rootless voicings, chances are you will be sticking to simple root position 7th chords. Practicing rootless voicings will give you a much greater appreciation of the extended and altered tones available to you.

  • If you are playing in a jazz band, you will be required to play mostly rootless voicings, otherwise, you will clash with the bass player.

Stripping The Chord Down To The Essentials

One of the main things you need to understand here is that to play Cmaj7, all you really need is the 3 & 7 as these define the C major sound. Aside from that you can choose any of the other notes listed above (root, 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, #11th & 13th)… that’s the available notes you have.

3-5-7-9 or 3-6-7-9 would be my 'go to’ voicings… they have the essential chord tones which are defining the C Major sound, but also has extra texture from the 9th.

Solo Jazz Piano vs, Trio or Band Performance:

If you are playing solo jazz piano, you should include the root most of the time.

Left hand voicings are what you would play in a band where a bass player is present. However, I do stress in the lessons that these voicings are still very useful in a solo piano context but just not on every chord. When playing solo piano, you should be playing at least some of the roots to ground the harmony.

One Voicing Is Actually Many Different Voicings:

As you learn more voicings, you will find much overlap:

If you take the notes Gb - Bb - C & F

  • This could be a rootless voicing for Ab13 - from bottom to top we have b7, 9, 3 & 13 (probably the chord that you associate this voicing with)

  • It could also be a D7#5#9 - from bottom to top we have 3, #5, b7 & #9 (think tritone sub D7/Ab7)

  • It could also be a C-11b5 - from bottom to top we have b5, b7, b3 & 11

  • It could also be many other things.

This is where you need to understand that ‘intent’ is important.

Understand That “Intent” Is Important

If I see a Cmaj7, I could play just B (7), C (Root) & D (9). This is a cluster voicing.

From a classical standpoint, this voicing does not follow the rules of traditional harmony. There is no 3rd in the chord which from a classical standpoint makes no sense, but in jazz, if you play this in your left hand, it can sound very interesting. I wouldn’t use this voicing all the time for Cmaj7 but it can be nice to throw in a more ‘obscure’ voicing like from time to time.

Rootless Voicings In The Context Of A Band

If you are playing jazz in a band, you will likely be playing with a bass player.

The bass players job is to play the root of the chord.

If I played the Cmaj7 as C-E-G-B then I am doubling the root note that the bass player already has covered.

Whereas, if I play 3-5-7-9, then I have added in an extension which creates more interesting harmony and a more interesting sound overall coming from the band.

A Common Tripping Point

A common tripping point for students is analysing rootless voicings as a completely different chord which isn’t the case. It’s simply a rootless voicing.

It’s a hard area to grasp because in classical/traditional harmony, we are conditioned into analysing and naming chords in their root position.

Whereas in jazz this isn’t the case, there are lots and lots of ways to voice a chord and 1 voicing can actually function as many different chords as in the example highlighted above.

Complicated and confusing I know! But it makes sense with time.

Spend some time reading over the above and if you want me to clarify or elaborate on any of the points then copy and paste any particular sentence that doesn’t make sense and I will try my best to explain further :slight_smile:

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I understand the need for rootless voicings in a trio context, but with regard to solo piano, how do you personally choose the voicing “type”?

I guess it’s personal choice, but I was thinking if I were going to create my own arrangement, when would I choose a big open 2 handed voicing and when would I use a rootless voicing, or block chords, or cluster voicing? And then there’s arpegiating, etc

I understand the need to always consider the melody note in context of its position in the chord, but I wonder if your choices are driven mostly by listening or if there are any parameters?

Thanks as always for your wisdom!

Hey Kim :wave:

As you quite rightly point out, if you are playing solo piano, then big 2-handed spread voicings are often the best choice.

This is because they give you a full and complete sound as you are incorporating multiple registers of the piano.

But let’s think about a basic stride style for example:

If you hit the bass note of the chord way down in the lower register and then come up to play the rest of the chord in your left hand, a rootless voicing would be a great choice, giving you the essential chord tones, and also the additional colour of an extension or an alteration.

Effectively, you are playing the same notes as a spread voicing, but perhaps you wanted the stride effect where the bass note comes in first. Or perhaps the bass note you played was in such a low register that a spread voicing wasn’t possible.

If it was a II-V Progression, you could hit the bass note of the II chord, then come up and play both the II-V rootless voicings and then hit the bass of the V chord. That’s a lovely effect to do, which you could sprinkle in here and there with your big 2 handed spread voicings.

The point I’m trying to highlight is that knowing rootless voicings gives you additional ways to voice the chords in a progression or in a tune.

This ties into one of the benefits I mentioned above:

It gets you familiar with extensions and alterations, if you don’t practice rootless voicings, chances are you will be sticking to root position 7th chords. Practicing rootless voicings will give you a much greater appreciation of the extended and altered tones available to you.

By spending the time to learn rootless voicings, you are not only better equipped for playing with a bass player, but you will also have a wider variety of voicing options available to you.

You will be much better at visualising and identifying extensions and alterations in all 12 keys.

Next… Leaving The Root Out Creates A Different Effect

When playing solo piano, if you leave the root out you create a very different effect.

The root ‘grounds’ the voicing and gives you the foundation of the harmony, which you should be doing most of the time.

But leaving the root out will create different “textures”.

Starting out with the big 2 handed open voicings makes perfect sense. That’s often how I’ll play through a tune for the first time. But then as the arrangement develops, I search for other ways to voice the chords. Variety is key here.

It all depends on the effect you want to create. For example, I love playing upper structure triad voicings without the root of the chord.

You will see this all of the time in my arrangements.

So I’m playing 3 and b7 in my left (or vice versa b7 and 3) and then the triad on top. I think this is nice because it takes some of the weight out of the chord, makes it sound a little lighter and less jarring IMO.

It also adds tonal ambiguity because you are hearing the chord with the 3 or b7 on the bottom which my ears like the sound of! :slight_smile:

Please don’t misunderstand me here, playing all the way through with 2 handed spread voicings sounds just fine, ultimately we play for ourselves first and others second. So if you like the sound of something then run with it.


Regarding Block chords, look for stepwise melodies, or melodies that move up or down an arpeggio… that’s when they work best. I’ll create another thread on that :smile:


Cluster Voicings are unusual, and can have many different applications.

Again this would be down to the type of effect I want to create. That ties into the “Intent” point I mentioned above. Perhaps that needs another thread too!

Yes exactly. Always analyse the scale degree of the melody in relation to the underlying harmony and that will to some extent dictate the types of voicings options available.

This will become almost subconscious where you see the chord symbol, the melody note, and your hand will gravitate to certain voicings. That does take time but it will happen as you develop.

Of course, listening is paramount. It’s the ultimate source of inspiration.


Great questions here by the way Kim… I’m working on moving past Q&As from students out of my inbox and into the forum so everyone can read and benefit. I have over 2 years worth of Q&As in my inbox so it will take a while! :grinning:

Moving forwards, I’ll also be encouraging everyone to post questions here, instead of emailing me. It makes sense so that everyone can benefit from the answer and we can also build upon the topic through discussion and each other’s insights.

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First of all I love this thread you created on jazz theory, gobbled it all up last night. And I agree, its time to move away from the inbox and into the forum so that your time can benefit everyone. I’m trying to be more disciplined about using the forum when I write to you with questions :wink:

As to the core answers, so very helpful as always. You gave the perfect examples of when to consider each type of chord, and the advice to start with 2 handed voicings, then letting it develop from there really makes sense.

Your answers are always so specific and well thought out, I really appreciate it!!

When you reiterate practicing rootless voicings to get a better grasp of the extensions and alterations in all 12 keys, are you referring specifically to the Minor 2-5-1 lesson?

Thanks so much,
Kim

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Glad you’re on board with this Kim. I think this section of the forum has huge potential - I’ll kickstart it by migrating the “library of Q&As” from my inbox :smile:

Wonderful, happy to help out!

I’m referring to both major and minor 251s.

Remember that with major 251s it’s optional whether you add alterations.

However, with the minor 251, the V7 is always an alt chord so you will always be playing alterations.

The b9 is arguably the most common in minor 251s, because the b5 of the II-7b5 chord becomes the b9 of the V7alt chord, but you have the creative freedom to choose between the other alterations too.

A Nice Rootless Major 251 Drill For Improving Your Awareness Of Altered Tones:

It can be a nice exercise to play an unaltered major rootless 251, and then systematically work through each alteration.

So for example play a rootless 251 in C Major:

D-9 / G13 / Cmaj9

then play the b9:

D-9 / G13b9 / Cmaj9

then the #9:

D-9 / G13#9 / Cmaj9

then perhaps 2 alterations over the V chord:

D-9 / G7#5#9 / Cmaj9

then perhaps change the 1 chord to a 6/9 chord:

D-9 / G13b9 / C69

Repeat in a few keys and that will be a good 30-minute practice session!

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Oh yeah, that looks like a great drill, Will try it out tonight. Thanks for breaking down the example so clearly!

Hey Hayden,

Thanks so much for the information in this thread! It’s extremely helpful. I just wanted to chime in and say that as someone who has been struggling for a while to figure out the best way to practice in a solo jazz/no bass player context, your recommendations here gave me great insight.

To clarify, would you recommend doing the rootless major 2 5 1 exercise you listed above, and then implementing those voicings with a bass note when playing solo?

Thanks!

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My pleasure Deven… really glad to hear that this thread is useful.

You can play that exercises both with, or without the root. Above I was recommending it as a rootless exercise and just to play the voicings in the left hand.

You could also drill them in the right hand with the bass note in the left. Then go to the tritone substitute in the bass and you will get different extensions/alterations.

For example, if you play D-9 / G7#5#9 / Cmaj9 rootless voicings in your right hand, but then play Db in the bass instead of G, you will then have D-9 / Db13 / Cmaj9

You could also spread the notes out over 2 hands, like we did in this lesson: https://www.pianogroove.com/jazz-piano-lessons/altered-jazz-chords-major-251/


If you are playing solo piano, you should be playing the root most of the time. You will see that in my solo piano arrangements, I generally play the root on every chord. However, sometimes I will play a few rootless voicings. It’s all about creating different textures.

By practicing these rootless voicings drills, it will help you visualise the extended and altered tones which you can then apply to solo piano performance.

Check out the lesson referenced above and you will see that it is in essence the same exercise, but we are playing spread voicings with the notes are spaced out between 2 hands.

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Hi Hayden I’m reading up as much as possible to understand how rootless voicing’s are described/named so I can identify which inversions I’m using in a tune, mainly to help me remember where I am in tunes.

1)Have I understood it correctly that Jazz terminology describes only ‘Type A’ & ‘Type B’ rootless voicing’s ,therefore we only practice those two types?

2)So, with a 4 note rootless chord what do we call the other 2 inversions with say, 9th or 5th on the bottom…‘cluster’ chords? (that also wouldn’t make sense to me as I’ve just watched the video on cluster chords & the 3’d & 7th are normally ,or, not always included)

3)My sense so far is that if I’m constructing chord melody in the Right hand from any Real book standards ,the (right hand)chord inversion I’m using is dictated by the ‘melody’ note on top, that comes first & any other chord tones fall underneath the melody note. Meaning you could end up with other inversions outside ‘Type A’ / ‘Type B’ .
If that is correct (?) how do we name the other rootless inversions.

4)Is there a PDF /study drill, (other than the rootless 2 5 1 /Major/Minor) to practice all rootless chords groups?

Thanks, hope I’ve explained that clearly enough. It’s a linguistics thing really, Whereas the other study drills for rooted chords deal with root position then 3 inversions but rootless seems different again.

Thanks,

Niall.

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HI Niall,

Great questions here.

Here are some detailed responses for you :grinning:

To start with I would recommend just focusing on these 2 inversions.

Knowing these 2 inversions will always allow you to play the rootless voicings in the ‘sweet spot’ of the piano; which is right around middle C.

These 2 inversions are the easiest to visualise, and the smoothest in the hands which is a big plus when playing fast, and/or adding right hand melodies on top.

To be able to play 251 voicings in both Type A and Type B on instinct - where we don’t even have to think about the shapes - takes a lot of work.

My opinion is that introducing other inversions at this stage over complicates the learning process, and takes focus away from the most important inversions we must learn and master.

I can say that Type A and Type B voicings, or ‘starting points’ give me more than enough freedom of expression for my rootless voicings.

In our course on Altered Harmony & USTs, we see that the V7 chord can be altered in both major and minor 251 progressions. This gives us lots more variations to add colour and tension should we desire.


I have never come across a specific name for the other inversions of rootless 251s.

It’s simply a variation of the same thing.

I see where you could associate them with cluster voicings. This does tie into the point above in that clusters may be harder to finger and hard to voice lead in context of rootless 251 progressions.

Again to reiterate the key point here:

The key benefit and attraction of Type A and Type B (for me at least!) is how ergonomically they fit in the hand and how simple it is to ‘glide’ through the 3 chords in the progression.

Please don’t let this put you off exploring the other inversions Niall. You will hear great players using them, and you can get some awesome sound from them. For organ, the other inversions can give you a ‘crunchier’ sound which is what you may be looking for.

However, my advice would still be to gain fluency and confidence in Type A and Type B before exploring the other inversions.


For all common chord types, there are always a finite number of inversions.

Triads contain 3 notes and so there are 3 possible inversions: 1st inversion, 2nd inversion, 3rd inversion.

7th Chords contain 4 notes and so there are 4 possible inversions: 1st inversion, 2nd inversion, 3rd inversion, and 4th inversion.

The So What Chord contains 5 notes, and so it has 5 possible inversions. etc…

To apply this logic to rootless voicings:

Assuming that the rootless voicing contains 4 notes, (as a sidenote I will often play just 2 or 3 notes for rootless voicings) … the 4 notes means that that there are 4 possible inversions:

Let’s take a 4-note rootless C-7 chord:

  • Eb-G-Bb-D we could name that as the 1st inversion (what I would refer to as Type A)

  • Then G-Bb-D-Eb could be the 2nd inversion.

  • Then Bb-D-Eb-G could be the 3rd inversion (what i would refer to as Type B)

  • Finally, D-Eb-G-Bb could be the 4th inversion

Personally I think this is overcomplicating the topic and I would simply refer to them all as “rootless voicings for C-7”.

The classifications “Type A” and “Type B” were very useful to me when starting out, as it gave me a more achievable goal to master rootless voicings for all 12 keys.

I would try not to ‘label’ the other inversions Niall, simply experiment with them, and if you like the sound of a particular inversion, take that ‘voicing set’ around all 12 keys so that you are comfortable with it and can play it on demand.

There are a potentially limitless array of rootless chord groups, combinations, and so this would be tricky.

I am a huge advocate of practicing these shapes in context of jazz standards, and should you wish to drill a particular inversion, then follow the same process outlined in the Type A and Type B lessons by taking it around all 12 keys.

You can also do this with the iRealPro and continually increase the tempo to keep things challenging.

Yes you explained it perfectly Niall and I hope my answers provide some clarity and insight.

Rootless voicings are a difficult area to grasp and often make no sense from a standpoint of traditional music theory.

Remember that ‘Intent’ is always important…

ie. how do you want your voicing to sound.

That is one of the great freedoms we have as jazz musicians, and for me, that basic intuition guides my choice of rootless voicing, as appose to being restricted to a classification system such as Type A or Type B.

Interesting stuff - I totally agree with the linguistics thing, and I always have fun when trying to explain rootless voicings! :sunglasses:

Cheers,
Hayden

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Interesting concise information that explains a lot of the confusion surrounding rootless chords & associated language.

At least I Have more tools to deal with the subject now ,thankfully!

thanks Hayden,

Niall.

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6 posts were split to a new topic: Improvisation In Classical Music

Sooo good! Excited to work on this. Thanks Hayden!

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After assuming that I should always play the root note of a chord, I’m now diving into rootless chord voicings. I’m confused about A and B. It seems that the lesson on dominant chords rootless voicings labels them just the reverse of the A and B voicings in the Rootless Major 251’s practice sheet. What am I missing here?

Hi Wendy :wave:

I have merged your question into our thread on rootless voicings.

There is a lot of useful information in this thread that is definitely worth checking out if you haven’t already.

Onto your question:

Good question!

For this PDF download on rootless 251s, I have labeled the progressions by the chord inversion that they start on:

rootless_voicings.pdf|attachment (585.0 KB)

  • All Type A progressions start with a Type A ii-7 chord which is b3-5-b7-9.

  • All Type B progressions start with a Type B ii-7 chord which is b7-9-b3-5

A Systematic Method To Learn These Important Inversions

For myself, this was the easiest way to classify these progressions so that I had a systematic way to learn and assimilate both inversions in all 12 keys.

It’s important to learn these inversions in all 12 keys because it ensures that we can always voice our rootless chords in an appropriate register of the piano.

Rootless voicings sound best in the 2 octaves surrounding middle C. If we drop below that range, the voicings can sound ‘muddy’ and if we go above that range, they can sound ‘thin’.

That rule is not set in stone, but it is a good guideline to follow when playing rootless harmony in our left hand.

The Importance Of “Intent”

When playing jazz piano it’s important to think in terms of “Intent” … I discuss this in length higher up in this thread.

Type A and Type B is a classification system.

The goal is for us to have an understanding of how we can voice any rootless chord or progression to get a pleasing sound that works with the tune we are playing.

Learning and memorising the “Type A” and “Type B” inversions allows us to do so, however, the sooner we can move away from these ‘labels’, the more freedom we then have when arranging tunes and choosing our chord voicings.

There are many other inversions, and also many other ways we could play a rootless 251. See my comments on “Intent” higher up in this thread.

I’d recommend seeing “Type A” and “Type B” as 2 potential ways to voice a rootless 251 and also understand that there are many other ways too depending on the sound that we want to create.

I hope this helps and any further questions let us know :+1:

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Ok, in regards to “intent” I was practicing 251’s and got to the key of Eb. I was just working on block chords so I played the 2 chord, F-7, as F-Ab-C-Eb but accidentally played the 5 chord, Bb7, as F-Ab-B-D (instead of Bb). It was a mistake but it sounded great going into the 1 chord. Since my original “intent” was a Bb7, would that F-Ab-B-D voicing be considered a rootless Bb dominant chord with a flat 9? Is there such a thing? Or is this a completely different chord now? I hope this makes sense. Please advise.

Hi Chelsia :wave:

I like to call those things “happy mistakes” :grin: … when I played something I didn’t intend on playing, but it sounded great.

It’s wonderful that your ears picked up on that, and yes you are correct that you are playing a rootless voicing for Bb7b9.

Check out chapter 2 of this lesson “The b9 Tension” where we play that voicing in all 12 keys:

The b9 is a beautiful tension to add to our dominant chords.

In the context of a 251 progression, it can create a lovely half step inner voice movement.

For the 251 in Eb Major which you mention:

The 5th of F-7 which is “C”, drops a half step to the b9 of the Bb7 chord which is “B natural”, which then drops by another half step to become the 5th of the Ebmaj7 chord which is Bb. I like to play C on top of the F-7 voicing and it really brings out that half step movement.

Of course this is in addition to the normal voice leading of b7s dropping to 3rds.

Be sure to check out the “The b9 Tension” chapter in the lesson above, and let me know if you have any further questions.

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@ZYAH - here’s 5 applications of your rootless Bb7b9 voicing so that you can see some potential ways it could be used.

Rootless voicings are commonly used when playing with a bass player. However, in all of these examples I am playing solo piano. These are some nice examples because students often ask why we need to learn rootless voicings to play solo piano.

By understanding the concept of rootless harmony, it allows us to create lots of different textures for our chords. I am playing the rootless voicing in my right hand which allows me to manipulate, invert, arpeggiate, and fragment it to achieve many different musical effects.

In all of the examples I am playing a 251 in Eb Major and I have highlighted your rootless Bb7b9 voicing in red.

Application 1 - The b9 on the top of the voicing:

Application 2 - Descending Inversions Of The Voicing

Application 3 - The 4-Way Close Block Chords

Application 4 - Descending Melody Line

Application 5 - Ascending Melody Line

Further Information Which Is Important…

That rootless voicing is actually a diminished chord.

It could be Fdim7, Abdim7, Bdim7, or Ddim7.

Furthermore, those 4 notes can function as rootless Bb7b9, rootless E7b9, rootless G7b9 and rootless Db7b9.

Now that might sound confusing but check out our lesson on diminished chords:

Another related area is block chords and the 4-way close, check out that lesson here:

Tuomo also provides an advanced study on the diminished connection here:

Enjoy studying this material - diminished chords are a very fascinating part of jazz harmony to study.

We do also have a discussion thread on diminished harmony here:

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Awesome! Thank you so much. Super helpful. I definitely feel like I’m growing slowly but surely. I will definitely check it out!

Oh wow this is amazing!!! Thank you for demonstrating how this Bb7b9 can be applied. Beautiful!