I remember when I started playing jazz it took me forever to find chords. I felt like there were a million possible chords and I would never learn them all. But as it turns out, as with most things in life, there are a few simple principles that, when applied carefully, can make finding chords a lot easier. Today I want to look at what I call shell voicings. I call them shell voicings because that’s what my teacher, Chris Buzzelli, called them. I bet you can find some cool diagrams over on his web site! Shell voicings are constructed with the Root of the chord on the 5th or 6th string and the 3rd (minor, major, or sus4) and 7th (minor, major, or 6) on the middle two strings. These are simple chords, but they are designed so that you can add color tones such as 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths to them easily. We’ll look at that in a later post.
The first thing you must be able to do to get to these chords quickly is to be able to find the root of any chord on the 6th or 5th string. I suggest that you try to stay between the 3rd and 10th fret, and when moving to a new chord, change strings rather than jumping up and down on one string. For example, in the tune attached (All the Things You Are), the first chord is Fmi7. You can find an F on the 5th string at the 8th fret. Each subsequent chord moves up a fourth, and if you keep changing strings, you’ll find a Bb on the 6th string, an Eb on the 5th, an Ab on the 6th, and so on. Remember to only use the bottom two strings to find the roots. This is just like finding power chords, kids! You should be able to pick any (and I do mean any) song and find all of the roots between the 3rd and 10th frets on the bottom two strings.
You may have noticed that chords often move by 4th, and that following this alternating string idea moves you down the neck of the instrument. As a result, once in a while you will need to make a jump up the neck. In the example I wrote out, I put the jumps in places where I felt they made sense, such as when a new phrase or section was beginning. But in actual practice you will learn for yourself where you need or want to jump up, and ultimately you may learn other strategies and concepts for voice leading so that you don’t have to jump up. Shell voicings are just one of many approaches to chord voicings.
Now, if you have taken some time to be sure that you really can find roots of chords on your bottom two strings, let’s add the 3rds and 7ths. You may want to refer to the example here. When the root of the chord is on the 5th string, the third of the chord will be on the 4th string, and the seventh will be on the 3rd string. So, if you look at measure two you will see an F on the bottom, an Ab in the middle, and an Eb on top. When the root of the chord is on the low E string, the third and seventh switch positions so that the third is on top (on the 3rd string) and the 7th is in the middle (on the 4th string). This results in nice, simple voice leading in the top two voices. If you look at measures 1-8, you will see that no voice moves more than a step.
It’s a good idea to memorize the following shapes – Maj7, 7, 6, mi(M7), mi7, mi6, 7sus4. Remember that there are two ways to play each shape. Check out this list of each chord in C. Once you have memorized these shapes you may notice a few things. The first is that if you leave out the root (which you should definitely do when playing with a bassist), the only intervals you have to deal with (besides the mi(M7) chord) are fourths, fifths, and tritones. That’s because the interval between the 3rd and 7th of a chord is always either a perfect fifth (Maj7 or mi7), a tritone (7, mi6), or a fourth (6, 7sus4). And since the instrument is tuned in fourths, these shapes are really easy to play. The hard part is not playing them, it’s finding them without the root. The second thing you might notice is that there is no diminished chord listed. That’s because these chords have no 5th. The mi6 voicing serves as a diminished chord. A third thing that you might notice is that you can get better voice leading in the bass by alternating between the root and the fifth. You might want to try this approach if you think you will be doing a lot of traditional rhythm jazz guitar. Just always use the 6th string, so that your voicings are either R, 7, 3 (low to high) or 5, 3, 7.
When practicing these chords, please take the following steps. First find the roots for the chords of a few tunes on the bottom two strings. Next learn to play all the chords in the tunes with three note shell voicings using the best possible voice leading. Last, remove the roots. You’ll be playing simple shapes on the middle two strings but you will be defining each chord well. These small voicings will expand to create some very cool, colorful voicings. And yes, these chords also work on the piano. Good luck! And use your new chord skills to play music that resists the coming totalitarian nightmare. Don’t play cool jazz for uncool fascists.