You don’t have to be a jazz virtuoso to play interesting chord voicings. Here are five techniques to help you turn drab chords into fab chords, expanding your songwriting and arranging toolbox.

Scroll down for audio examples.

1. Fourth Voicings

Image placeholder title

Ex. 1a shows a voicing for an Ebmaj13 chord. The left hand includes the chord’s root and major seventh and the right hand features a fourths voicing starting on G. The upper two notes form the extensions of the 13th (C) and ninth (F), adding color to the left hand shell. Ex. 1b illustrates classic fourth voicings (actually built with fourths and thirds) that McCoy Tyner popularized. In Ex. 1c we combine two relatively simple fourth voicings, stacking them on top of each other. This voicing, derived from the C Dorian scale, works over Cmin and F7 chords.

2. Triads on Top

Image placeholder title

In. Ex. 2a we have an Ab triad over a C7 shell voicing in the left hand, creating a C7#9#5 chord. To find this voicing quickly, think about playing a triad whose root is a sharp fifth above the actual root in the left hand. Similarly, starting a flatted fifth above the root yields a b9b5 chord (play a Gb triad over C to create C7b9b5), and a sixth above the root gives you a b9 natural 13 chord (so, an A major triad over C). Ex. 2b shows a Dmin13 voicing, built with a D minor shell in the left hand and an E minor triad in the right—try this the next time you’re playing a Rhodes patch through a phaser! Ex. 2c illustrates chromatically-moving triads over a traditional ii-V-I progression in the key of C.

3. Drop-2 (or 3) Voicings

Image placeholder title

The progression in Ex. 3a (Bb, F, C) opens up dramatically when we take the second voice from the top and make it the bottom note of our chord voicing. This is called a “drop-2” voicing, and it’s a great arranging trick for horn and string parts. Ex. 3b presents the left hand part of Ex. 2c in a drop-2 style, which adds space and movement. Ex. 3c demonstrates drop-3 voicings by taking the third note from the top and making it the lowest. Here, we play C7-F7-Bbmaj7.

4. Clusters in a Mode

Image placeholder title

In Ex. 4a, by simply picking notes from a particular mode and playing them together, we can create interesting colors. Try pedaling an A in the bass while playing these unusual A minor shapes. Ex. 4b illustrates the A Dorian mode, used exclusively here. Ex. 4c has more open-sounding voicings, built by making clusters out of the A Dorian scale, and employing the drop-2 techniques from Ex. 3.

5. Diminished Chord Tricks

Image placeholder title

Ex. 5a illustrates the C half-step-whole-step diminished scale, which can be used over a C7 chord. Ex. 5b shows a C7b9 voicing, derived from the scale in Ex. 5a. Ex. 5c demonstrates a great diminished chord trick: playing triads a half-step below the right-hand chord tones in Ex. 5b. This creates dense, altered voicings, and works great on Clavinet over a C7 funk jam.

Brian Charette 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 Learning To Count is available on Amazon and iTunes. Visit for more information.