Rootless Chords for Piano in a Nutshell

If you're playing solo Jazz piano, you pretty much have to do the bass line.

However, if you're playing with a band (or at least a bass player), I strongly suggest you become familiar with the system of rootless chords.

These chords basically fall in the region surrounding middle C (figure about 75% of the chord generally falls below middle C and the rest above).

When playing rootless chords, the best way to approach them is to think of your left hand as a rhythm guitarist. You'll want to "punch" or "kick" the chords crisply in a spare yet rhythmic manner. (By "rhythmic" I don't mean klunking out quarter notes, unless it's your intention to duplicate the Errol Garner style.)

Rootless chords typically have only two inversions. Naturally you'll want to use the inversion which is located nearest to the last chord you played.

For those of you unfamiliar with rootless chords, the philosophy is very simple:

1) Stay the heck out of the bassist's way, and
2) there's no reason to play the root in your left hand since the bassist's already got that covered.

When playing rootless chords it easier to think in terms of chord QUALITIES, rather than specific chords.

MAJOR qualities (Maj6, Maj7, Maj9, etc):

inv. 1: 3 5 6 9
inv. 2: 6 9 3 5

minor qualities (m7, m9, m11, etc):

inv. 1: b3 5 b7 9
inv. 2: b7 9 b3 5

Dominant qualities (7, 9, 13, etc):

inv. 1: b7 9 3 6
inv. 2: 3 6 b7 9

Using the above formulas and voicings, it should be relatively straightforward to extrapolate the construction of the other chord qualities (half-diminished, altered, etc).

And of course, rootless chords also sound very cool in the right hand too.

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copyright 2003 Jeff Brent

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