By BRIAN CHARETTE
MANY OF MY PAST ARTICLES ABOUT PLAYING HAMMOND ORGAN HAVE FOCUSED ON IDEAS FOR SOLOING.
This month, let’s look at ways to voice chords. Building chord voicings on the organ is often much different than on
piano. First of all, the left hand usually plays bass on the organ, so the chord voicing is usually contained entirely in the
right hand. It’s also common for organ voicings to be more “spread out” than piano voicings.
The following voicings will be given in the key of C for the most part, so that you can easily see the “math” behind
assembling these chord tones into playable structures. By all means, though, learn them in all 12 keys.
1. Piano versus Organ Voicings
In bar 1 of Ex. 1, we see a typical piano voicing, with the left hand playing the third
and seventh, and the right hand playing the ninth, fifth, and root of a C13 chord.
Bar 2 shows how an organist might play this voicing. The left hand is now assigned
to the bass line, so the right hand has to play everything else. This is a very common
organ shape, with the three lowest notes of the chord in a piano “shell voicing,”
with a third on top.
2. Major Voicings
Ex. 2 shows some intriguing major voicings for the Hammond. In bar 1, we see a voicing much like the one in Ex. 1 above; the left hand holds down the
bass while the right hand plays a fourth shell structure with a third on top. This voicing is a Cmaj7#11. Bar 2 is a slight variation on this—the right hand
plays the following chord tones from the bottom up: 13th, ninth, third, and fifth to make a sonorous Cmaj13 voicing.
Bar 3 is a two-handed piano-like structure for organists that play without bass players, a “drop 2” voicing of a simple Cmaj9 chord. To build this one,
take the note second from the top and move it to the bottom of the chord. Play the top three notes with your right hand and the lowest note with your
left. Bar 4 is the “drop 3” version, with the third note from the top moving to the bottom and played with the left hand.
Bar 5 illustrates how raising the fifth of a major seventh chord gives you the Cmaj7#5 voicing, which became prevalent in modern jazz after 1960. For
a two-handed version of this, try building “drop 2” and “drop 3” versions of this voicing.
3. Minor Voicings
Bar 1 of Ex. 3 is one of my favorites; the left hand covers the bass while the right hand plays the minor third with a Bb triad on top. This creates a beautiful
sounding Cmin11 voicing. Bar 2 is a smaller, crunchier Cmin11. This one was shown to me by one of my teachers, Boston keyboard guru Charlie Banacos.
Here, the right hand plays from the bottom up the ninth, flatted third, 11th, and fl at seventh.
Bar 3 shows how the seminal Jazz organist Larry Young might play a Cmin11, using a “fourth shell” starting on F and a third on top. Spelled from the
bottom up, this voicing reads fourth, flat seventh, flatted third, and fifth. Bar 4 is a two-handed “drop 2” Cmin9 voicing to be used if you don’t have a bass
player. Bar 5 is the “drop 3” version of a Cmin9.
4. Dominant Voicings
Bar 1 of Ex. 4 is a simple, tightly spaced “shell voicing” for a C9 chord. From the bottom up the chord tones are the third, fl at seventh, and ninth. Bar 2
is a voicing that the legendary organist Jimmy Smith often played. From the bottom up, it’s the flat seventh, third, 13th, and root. Bar 3 is a voicing that
Jimmy Smith often played at either the end of a tune or the beginning of a blues chorus. From the bottom up: third, flatted seventh, raised ninth, and
raised 11th, making a C7#9#11 chord.
Bar 4 is another one of my favorites; a C13b9b5 voicing that the great pianist [and longtime Keyboard lesson author] Andy LaVerne showed me. From
the bottom up, it’s the flatted ninth, flat fifth, 13th, and root. Bar 5 is a two-handed “drop 2” voicing for a C9 chord. Remember to play the bottom note
with your left hand. Bar 6 is the “drop 3” version of the same chord.
5. Diminished Voicings
In bar 1 of Ex. 5 we see a simple Cdim9 voicing. Because of the symmetrical nature of the diminished scale, diminished voicings can be transposed up and
down in minor thirds. Bar 2 is an example of augmented fourth “shells” moving in minor thirds, creating slightly obtuse sounding Cdim voicings.
Bar 3 is a tightly spaced Cdim voicing, spelled ninth, flatted third, flatted fifth, and 13th. Bar 4 is a two-handed structure that does not employ the root
in the bass. This voicing takes every other note and moves it to the left hand in a lower octave. From the bottom up, it’s the flatted third, 13th, root, and
flatted fifth (notated here as F# to keep the augmented fourth interval).
In bar 5, the left hand plays a Cdim voicing in first inversion while the right hand plays a sus2 triad (E) a half-step above the lowest note in the chord.
Bar 6 is a popular Herbie Hancock voicing that is sometimes called “double diminished.” It’s simply a Cdim voicing in first inversion with the same chord a
half-step higher above in the right hand.
6. Patterns, Combinations, and Ideas
Ex. 6 shows some of these new sonorities in action! Bars 1 and 2 illustrate a ii-V-I progression in the key of Bb. Here I’m using wide chord voicings,
ending with a sharp 11th on the top of the Bbmaj7 chord. Bars 3 and 4 are in the style of Larry Young. Bar 3 uses the notes of C dorian mode with
“fourth shells” and a third on top to make C minor voicings. You can also try playing fourths and holding the top note to make tension in your comping,
as in bar 4. Bar 5 employs the blues scale in tightly-spaced voicings that add a “greasy” element to the sound. You can even fudge some of the
notes for more grease.
“Organ voicings are often written an octave higher (notated 8va) than their piano
counterparts,” explains Jazz organist and composer Brian Charette, “because they
often sound too mushy when played on organ in the octave above middle C.” Brian
has performed and recorded with Joni Mitchell, Lou Donaldson, Bucky Pizzarelli,
Michael Bublé, and Rufus Wainwright, in addition to leading his own jazz groups. His
latest album is Music for Organ Sextette, on SteepleChase Records. Find out more at