Feed Your Ears: Piano Chords for Guitarists

Something a bit different this time -- I've collected a few instructional videos for pianists that I think guitarists could learn a lot from.

In general, pianists know a lot more about harmony, and specfically chords, than players of other instruments. So if you want to learn about chords, go and see a pianist. In most (but not all!) contexts the guitarist will want to play the notes the pianist is playing with the right hand -- the "top" of the chord -- and leave the bass to take care of the left-hand part. All these are "jazz" videos because jazz uses the more complex and interesting chords than most popular styles, but there's no reason these ideas couldn't be applied to other styles by an imaginative musician.

Those of you who need a basic primer in chord construction should start here (it covers triads, sevenths, sixths, then (in the second part) suspensions and ninths and (in the third part) elevenths and thirteenths with alterations:

Most guitarists know how to play some of these chords, of course, and jazz players will know all of them. So far, not very exciting. Where it gets interesting is looking at chords from a pianist's perspective and then see how it can be applied to the guitar.

Jazz pianists and guitarists working with a bass player often pleave the root note off their chord voicings. Check out the sounds in this video, look carefully at where the player's fingers are and try to find similar voicings:

Another approach is to use "shell voicings", which are pairs of note that contain just the root and one other note from the chord that you consider most important, usually either the third or seventh. This is a bit different from the "power chord" guitarists are familiar with, which is just the root and fifth. Here are some basic examples of shell voicings in a bebop context:

Here are two great videos of Michael Wolff teaching his "five harmonic concepts", which are more general approaches to playing the chords of a song -- you coudl also use them in composing new music:

Triad superimpositions are a lot easier to hear on the piano, so it's no surprising that pianists use them a lot more fluently than most guitarists. Here's an example you can try; in these cases you may be able to play just the superimposed triad, allowing the other musicians to play the basic triad.

Finally, pianists are very fond of voicings in fourths, which are typical of a more modern kind of jazz. They're very easy to play on the guitar and sound great:

So, next time you want to know about chords try asking a pianist!