Crunchy Chord Voicings

Needn't be this painful - but be nice to mice just in case...

Needn’t be this painful – but be nice to mice just in case…

Here are some distinctive, three-note crunchy piano voicings for the left hand that you may not have considered. They’ve been used by pretty much everyone, and are a nice option when you want something in between the stark, macho bebop shells and the full, rich perfume of the four-note rootless jobs.

They’re incredibly flexible, which means that you’ll have to do a bit of reverse thinking to get the most out of them. It’s all about ambiguity, really. As with gapped scales, the fewer notes you play the more different chord types your selection will work over.

I’ve bored on about this issue before (notably here and here), and the point is not to worry what’s missing and focus on what your selection of notes will fit over. Anyway, let’s meet our crunchy little friends…

One     Two
BCE     BCEb

Another consideration with ambiguity is that the more we “cut down” a musical gesture, the more ways we can find of thinking about it.

Some observations:

  • The distinctive crunch comes from the fact that these voicings have a snarly little semitone on the bottom. The structure is semitone with major or minor third on top.
  • They are inversions of basic seventh chords, but fifthless – C major 7 and C melodic minor.
  • They sit at the points in major and melodic minor scales where the semitones fall.
  • The first is the same as the rootless voicings used over Am7 and D7 without their bottom notes. The second is the same as those rootless voicing as often adapted for Aø and D7b9, again without the bottom note.

It’s a lot to take in. Let’s do a bit of thinking and see what these snappy little chaps might mean over every possible root.

NUMBER CRUNCHING

Well, they’re 7-1-3 and 7-1-b3 in C major 7 and C melodic minor.
Db is a bust – however much you ponder things, you wind up with both b7 and 7. Not really done, old thing.
In D, the first one is 13-7-9 and the second one is 13-7-b9. So, nice over D7 or D7b9. Or even D7#11 – remember we love ambiguity round here.
In Eb, the second one is #5-6/13-1. Definitely handy for a Eb#5 (Lydian Augmented) major chord.
E doesn’t look too promising, even though the root and fifth are there. The problem is the C, the flat sixth, so we’ll pass on E (but bear it mind for Phrygian stuff)
F – now we’re back in business. The first one is #4-5-7 and the second is #4/11-5-b7. Great for FM#4 and F7b9 or F7#11 respectively.
F# – yeah! The first one is 4-b5-b7 – just lovely for half-dim.
G? 3-4-6 – very ambiguous, but sus and susb13 are possible.
Ab – the second one is #9-3-5. Nice over Ab7b9. Would even work over Ab7#11 too.
A – wonderful minor and half-dim voicings, 2/9-3-5 and 2/9-3-b5 respectively.
Bb – think we’ll pass here too.
B – the second is great for B7b9 or B7alt – 1-b9-3.

So these are the chords you can play these shapes over:

ONE
CM, D7, FM#4, F#ø, Gsus13, Am, AmM

TWO
CmM, D7b9, D7#11, EbM#5, F7b9, F7#11, Gsusb13, Ab7b9, Ab7#11, Aø, B7b9, B7alt

Hard working little tykes aren’t they? (Feel free to let me know if I’ve missed any out.) And we haven’t even looked at the diminished possibilities for the second one…

CRUNCH-PLUS VOICINGS

Some of the uses for these are very ambiguous. So, if you like, you can do the crunch in the LH and add some detail in the RH. For instance, crunch number two is fine over some kind of F7 chord, spelling out #11-5-b7. Could be F7b9 or F7#11. Want to pin it down to one or the other? Try adding a #9 on top for the first one or a natural 9 for the second.

GOT A HEADACHE YET?

If so, reach for the aspirin, because there’s more.

Let’s concentrate on the first little snarler and think modally. This semitone-major third structure occurs twice in the major scale:
BCE and EFA

Remember these gritty little guys the next time you’re playing So What or Nardis

HOW TO REMEMBER IT ALL?

I don’t really know! It’s useful to know your melodic minor family for the second one (see Four Note Scales from Melodic Minor for more on this). Basically, since the structure comes from C melodic minor it will work over all the chords from that family. Perhaps your brain doesn’t work that way. And that’s okay.

Best advice I could give would be to think through them from time to time (there are, of course, twelve of each…) – it’s an excellent exercise in key and chord-scale geography to play any clutch of tones and think “what would this go with?” Then gradually work them into your playing by earmarking them for use in pet situations.

Or not so pet situations – I’ll bet you have to stop and think when you see Abø, right? Crunch pal number two to the rescue – Bb-B-D. Actually, the B’s a Cb and the D’s a… well, I hope you know what I mean.

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Posted in b) Harmony & Comping
3 comments on “Crunchy Chord Voicings
  1. Too many diminished chords make for an old movie soundtrack sound, unless you’re looking for Lon Channy! The chromatic scale we use as our building blocks, should be carefully utilized and not used continously as some would suggest. As in art, too much color mixing can only result in a dull gray.

  2. Paul Sorensen says:

    Maybe not the right heading for my comment, but here goes.
    The crunch I had in mind is over any diminished chord. Adding another note a Major seventh above the first note of the dim. triad, instead of the note a sixth above the root.
    In a G dim. chord ex. G,Bb,Db,E we instead use F# in place of the E. This usually resolves
    through to the E and on, but dosen’t have to. To get an even more crunchy sound, we can add the F# to the chord at the bottom also giving us ex. F#,G,Bb,Db,F#. This device can be used over any diminished chord tone. In this example, another “shape” would be A,Bb,Db,E,A. and C,Db,E,G,C. These examples could all be considered as upper voicings for use above a C root in a C7b9 chord, Eb7b9 chord, F#7b9 chord, and A7b9 chord.
    So much for my two cents worth on a crunchy chord voicing!

    • Jason says:

      The example you give – G Bb Db F# – is the same voicing commonly used for an A7b9 chord. And of course G dim and A7b9 are flip sides of the same coin. Crunching by inverting it is indeed an interesting sound.
      It certainly gets you away from the “silent movie accompaniment” diminished sound. Once got myself into hot water by citing this notion to demonstrate that, to all jazz intents and purposes, diminished chords can have a major 7th. The classical analysts got the virtual pitchforks out… There isn’t a 7th at all in the diminished, blah blah…
      Incidentally folks, you also come across “diminished major 7th chords” as substitutes for tonics in post-50s jazz. Miles used the occasional slash chord like B/C in his hard bop days, but others really took up the concept – Herbie not least. Come to think of it, I think Bud Powell was doing this sort of thing even earlier.
      Thanks as ever for the input Paul.

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