Because of the complexity of harmony in the standard repertoire and the freedom of expression inherent within the genre, jazz requires that guitarists develop a flexible and diverse chord vocabulary. In this lesson, I’ll look at strategies for building four-part seventh chord voicings, their inversions, and voice leading through common jazz progressions.
The term four-part chord voicing refers to a class of four-note seventh chord voicings in which the root, third, fifth, and seventh are all included in the voicing and represented on separate strings. With regard to these voicings, you might think of the guitar as a self-contained string quartet or soprano-alto-tenor-bass vocal choir, particularly when we start working on voice leading later in the chapter. There are six basic groups of voicings:
This chart shows the formulas for the layout of basic four part seventh chords. The numbers represent the voices arranged in order from the lowest pitch to the highest. For example, a chord from group one (1–3–5–7) would be voiced with the root on the bottom, followed by the third, fifth, and seventh, in that order (although jazz guitarists also play inversions for each group, which we’ll get into later). Voicings arranged as described in group one (1–3–5–7) are a favorite of pianists and big-band horn sections, and are commonly referred to as four-way close voicings because all of the notes in the voicings are stacked up in numerical order and contained within a single octave. On guitar, these voicings can be extremely difficult to play in standard tuning, although some four-way close voicings and inversions are possible. You’ll note that a couple of these voicings require a bit of a stretch, so be sure to keep your thumb down low behind the neck to facilitate easier stretching with your fretting hand—if they’re still too difficult, feel free to play them as arpeggios. Ex. 1 shows a brief melody harmonized by a few of the most common guitar-friendly voicings from this group.
If the chords in group two (1–3–7–5) look familiar, it may be because they are essentially guide tone voicings on the bottom with a fifth on top. In these voicings, the fifth is moved up to the next octave, making them much easier to play than the voicings in group one. Ex. 2 shows 1–3–7–5 voicings harmonizing individual melody notes. As you can see, these chords are perfectly suited for solo guitar playing; it’s as if there are two different guitarists, one playing the melody on top and one playing guide tone voicings below.