The Chord Doctor - Expand Your Chordal Command

 by Clifford Carter You hear that the government is contemplating another multi billion dollar stimulus package. That’s an intimidating number I can’t even digest. A much kinder, gentler number is 12 — the number of notes in the chromatic scale.
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 by Clifford Carter

You hear that the government is contemplating another multi-billion dollar stimulus package. That’s an intimidating number I can’t even digest. A much kinder, gentler number is 12 — the number of notes in the chromatic scale. This month, we’ll scratch the surface of combining those notes into chord colors appropriate for different styles of music.

The chord chart for what I play could be the same for accompanying a number of different artists, but how I voice those chords may be radically different depending on the music. To illustrate that, Examples 1-5 present the same eight-bar chord progression in a variety of contexts — proof positive that the same chord can sound completely different depending on how you voice it. Example 6 gives you hands-on practice material to start expanding your chord comfort zone. The ultimate goal is that regardless of whatever curve the music throws you, you can choose your next voicing without overthinking.

One last thing: Notice the simple left hand parts in the bass clefs throughout. It’s good to practice more than one thing at a time, and you don’t want an idle hand. By playing a bass line, you give the right hand a musical context, while developing hand independence. You’re also working on your timing, and making what could be a somewhat tedious exercise a bit more fun and musical.

Click the sheet music thumbnails for super-size versions suitable for playing! Click the example headers for audio clips.

Ex. 1 - click for audio. Here’s an eight-bar progression I’d play on, say, the first verse of a Patti Scialfa song. It’s simple and sparse with not a lot of movement — a nice bed. All chords are either triads or four-note chords with one of the triad’s notes doubled. The exceptions are bars 3 and 6, where I’m just playing the root and fifth in each hand. Why? Because Nils Lofgren is next to me playing some fat, soulful chords unique to the guitar, and I want to get out of his harmonic space. By eliminating thirds at that moment, it avoids any clashes or unnecessary doubling. ?

kb0210 Plat It Chord Doc 1

Ex. 2 - click for audio. I’d play in the second verse with more character and rhythmic action. By simply using the ninth of each chord, we get a new sound, moving the piano a little more to the forefront.??

0210 Play It Chord Doc 2

Ex. 3 - click for audio. In this variation on Example 2, I add the fourth in addition to the ninth. It’s similar in style but adds new harmonic identity. This style of adding fourths and ninths (or “twos and fours”) is very guitar-like, and a signature sound of guitar bands like the Byrds and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Many pianists have taken cues from guitar-oriented voicings when playing triad-based music. Listen to Elton John, Billy Joel, Matt Rollings, and the E Street Band’s Roy Bittan to get these new sounds into your hands and ears.??

0210 Play It Chord Doc 3

Ex. 4 - click for audio. Here’s the same basic progression, played with a gospel or R&B style. I recently played in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s “Too Hot To Handel,” a jazz-funk adaptation of Handel’s Messiah. If the chord progression from Example 1 appeared in this show, it would sound like this. I’m using dominant seventh chords and triads that define the rhythm and connect one chord to another. The late, great Richard Tee played this style masterfully, on literally hundreds of records.

0210 Play It Chord Doc 4

Ex. 5 - click for audio. This is how I’d play if accompanying Betty Buckley, an interpreter of songs whose eclectic taste runs from Broadway to standards to pop to jazz. She likes a pianist to re-harmonize the traditional chord structure using jazz voicings, whether she’s singing Gershwin or Joni Mitchell. All 12 notes are up for grabs. Now I’m using ninths, 11ths, and 13ths. A thorough knowledge of the melody is essential to knowing what voicings will support the vocal. In all of Examples 1-5, the chord chart may look identical, thus it’s up to me to know what voicings work for the singer I’m accompanying.

0210 Play It Chord Doc 5

Ex. 6 - (sorry, no audio). This exercise helps you gain command of the keyboard. Each measure is a set of inversions for a different chord structure. They’re written in C, but you should practice each one in all 12 keys. I’ve been in situations where I was playing in G, feeling really creative. If the singer or bandleader changed the key to, say, Ab, I was out of my comfort zone. Expand your zone by changing keys as you play according to the circle of fifths, up in minor thirds, chromatically, or in whole steps, and so on — it’s cardio for your fingers and brain!

0210 Play It Chord Doc 6

Session and touring ace Clifford Carter has been one of New York City’s most sought-after keyboardists for the past three decades, anchoring the bands of James Taylor, Patti Scialfa, Betty Buckley, and Art Garfunkel. Carter’s recent projects include co-producing Dallas singer-songwriter Emily Elbert, touring with Harry Connick Jr., and performing “Too Hot to Handel,” a contemporary adaptation of Handel’s Messiah with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Learn more at

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