Rootless Chord Voicings

Chord Voicings

In a previous module we learned about the theoretical aspects of Jazz Chords. In this series of lessons we will be discussing how chords are actually played in practice. This is a very important part of playing Jazz piano. A chord voicing is just a way of altering the order of and intervals between the notes in a chord. So instead of playing CMaj7 as a block chord (C E G B) we could reorder the notes and play C B E G. Playing appropriate chord voicings can make a song sound very jazzy and very professional.

Omitting Notes

In previous lessons (specifically the one on Shell Chords) we established that in Jazz we don’t need to play every single note in a chord. Specifically, it’s possible to omit the less important notes (root & 5th). Well, using this same idea, we can create rootless voicings.

Rootless Chord Voicings

A smooth and popular type of chord voicing are called (Bill Evans style) Rootless Chord Voicings. As the name suggests, these chord voicings exclude the root note. Instead of the root (and sometimes the 5th) we play chord tensions. This gives us a jazzy sound (because of the tensions) while not being too crowded (you only ever play 4 notes because we drop the root).

Even though we are allowed to omit the root note in a chord, if you’re playing in a band often the bass player will play the root note. Otherwise, there’s nothing wrong with just leaving it out. The root note isn’t really all that important, harmonically speaking.

In short, Rootless Chord Voicings are played as follows:

  • For Major and minor chords play: 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th
  • For V7 chords play: 3rd, 7th, 9th, 13th

There are also two ‘types’ of rootless chord voicings. One is just an inversion of the other (if one has the 3rd on the bottom, the other has the 7th on the bottom). These voicing works really well for II-V-I progressions, because you only need to change a few notes (and by only a small interval) to move from one chord to the next (i.e. there is smooth voice leading). Below is an example of a II-V-I in the key of C using rootless chord voicings. Notice how smoothly each chord transitions to the next.

Type A Rootless Voicings
Chord7th Chord in CRootless ChordNotesDegreesNote on Bottom
iiDm7Dm9F A C E3 5 7 93rd
VG7G13F A B E7 9 3 137th
ICMaj7CMaj9E G B D3 5 7 93rd
Type A Rootless Voicings
Type B Rootless Voicings
Chord7th Chord in CRootless ChordNotesDegreesNote on Bottom
iiDm7Dm9C E F A7 9 3 57th
VG7G13B E F A3 13 7 93rd
ICMaj7C69A D E G6 9 3 57th
Type B Rootless Voicing

Chord Ambiguity

Notice also, that because we are omitting certain notes, chords become a little ambiguous.

  • Rootless Dm9 (F A C E) = FMaj7 = Am♭6
  • Rootless G13 (F A B E) = Rootless Dm69 = Rootless D♭7#9♭13
  • Rootless CMaj7 (E G B D) = Em7 = G6

Notice how all the above chords are substitutes for each other (generally Median Note or Tritone substitutes). This is part of the charm of rootless voicings. There are a little ambiguous.

Altered Rootless Voicings

As we learned in the lesson on Available Tensions, we can alter the chord tensions (♭9, #11, ♭13, etc.). We can apply this idea to Rootless Chord Voicings. We must keep the 3rd and 7th the same, but we are free to alter the other two notes.

So you can create chords like a:

  • CMaj7#11 (by substituting the 5th for a  #11th);
  • C69 (by substituting the 7th for a 6th);
  • Dm69 (by substituting the 7th for a 6th);
  • Dm7♭5 (by flattening the 5th).

Rootless Chord Voicings for Jazz Piano

Left Handed Voicing & Rule of Thumb

Rootless voicings are played entirely with the left hand. This means your right hand is free to play the melody or improvise. In future lessons we will also discuss numerous two handed chord voicings.

Because you are playing 4 notes all within the span of a single octave, these voicings can be a little bit muddy if played too low. As such, try adhere to the ‘rule of thumb’: the top note of a rootless chord voicing (played with your thumb) should be between middle C and the C an octave above middle C on the piano. That is, try stick to the middle register with this chord voicing.

Jazz Piano History

Rootless chord voicings were developed in the 1950’s by pianists like Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly and Ahmad Jamal. Prior to this, Jazz pianists tended to use Shell Chords (like the Bud Powell Voicing we will learn in a future lesson) or Stride Piano.

Have a Listen to

  • My Foolish Heart ~ Bill Evans version
  • Autumn Leaves ~ Bill Evans version
  • Any and Every Bill Evans song


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