Monthly Archives: September 2017

Upper-Structure Voicing 101

…shortcuts for playing fancy chords that have more notes than you can handle because you don’t really play the piano.

I like to think I can “fake it” OK on the piano. I know basic major and minor chords, and also I learned “Desperado” when I was 17 years old, so I can always sit down at a party, play “Desperado”, and walk away with people assuming I have a million more ready to go. I recommend this strategy for everyone. I mean, don’t actually pick Desperado, because then the game is up for me, but pick one slow song with a few fancy chords in it, and most non-musicians in a room will assume you’re as good as the person who plays Chopin right after you.

With that said, I’m always looking for ways to squeeze more functionality out of my mediocre piano ability. In particular, I usually have to take the “drop all the chord extensions” strategy, e.g. by playing m7’s and m9’s and m11’s and mwhatever’s as just min. This is what they call a “tell”, and it quickly shatters the illusion that I know what’s going on. I do write a blog about nerdy chord theory stuff, so I know what an F11 is, but my piano-playing-brain simply can’t process anything that defies the following two axioms of piano playing…

Dan’s two axioms of piano playing:

  1. The left hand plays the root of every chord.
  2. The right hand only has to play three notes at a time, and only in the shape of a chord I know.

These assumptions cause a rift in the fabric of the universe when I see the aforementioned F11, or even its much simpler four-note cousin F7. But there’s hope! Using the time-tested strategy of memorizing stuff that’s too much to actually process in real time, one can pick up a few chord voicings that follow those two axioms (axia?) and still represent the chord you’re trying to play.

So, summarizing:

The tables in this post are a shortcut to help mediocre piano players (like me) who can only deal with 3 notes at a time in the right hand – and only the root in the left hand – play extended chords.

The basic approach is “upper structure voicing”: playing a complete chord in the right hand that becomes part of a different chord when you put the two hands together. Upper structure voicing in general could in theory make use of a zillion notes in each hand, so we’re interested in a specific subset of upper structure voicing, so more specifically:

This post is about upper-structure-voiced chords that don’t require playing anything other than the root in the left hand, and only require three notes in the right hand.

Continue reading to learn the tricks mastered by fair-to-midland pianists ’round the world… →