©1999 James Walker
Many beginning and intermediate vibes players, even with strong backgrounds in music theory, are intimidated by the thought of learning chord voicings. While there is a great deal of material to cover when learning how to voice chords, the basic techniques for creating and altering chord voicings are fairly straightforward.
As in European classical music, jazz harmony is (traditionally) founded on chords constructed in thirds. Stacked thirds can be a starting point in constructing four-note voicings, as can stacked fourths. Here are four-note voicings based on each note of the C major scale, in thirds and fourths respectively:
In jazz performance, the bass player of an ensemble will normally provide the root of the chord. Therefore, any chord voicing containing a root is, by definition, redundant; instead of dedicating one of four mallets to the root, use that fourth mallet for a more colorful tone.
Any chord voicing will sound complete if it contains the third and seventh of the chord (what are known as "guide tones.") These two tones, when combined with the root, will define the basic quality of the chord as major, minor, or dominant. Colorful upper structures, such as the 6th (also referred to as the 13th) or 9th, may be added to fill out the voicing. In fact, one simple way to construct a good chord voicing is to put the third and seventh in the left-hand mallets (with either note on the bottom of the voicing), and fill out the voicing with chord tones in the right hand:
Looking through the stacked-thirds and stacked-fourths examples at the top of this page, it will be clear that some of these four-note voicings will work well as a voicing for a C major chord, and others will not. Some voicings don't contain the guide tones (E, B), others contain the root, and some contain the pitch F, which is the fourth scale degree of the C major scale, a note which will clash with the third (more on this later in this lesson). Here are two voicings from the example above, one based on thirds and one on fourths, which are good starting points for voicings.
Let's take the voicing on the left as a starting point.
One way to alter a voicing is to take the four given notes, and rearrange them through the use of octave displacement - basically, moving the pitch(es) in question to a different octave. The most obvious example is inversion, taking the lowest note of the voicing and transposing it up one octave. Note that eventually, you cycle around to being in root position once again.
(The pitches which are being transposed are shown as solid note heads.)
All of the inversions above are closed-position voicings, meaning the lowest and highest notes of the voicing are no more than one octave apart. Other techniques, known as the "drop/skip" variations, may be used to create voicings spanning more than an octave. The notes are numbered 1-4, starting with the highest note: "drop" means to lower the note(s) one octave, and "skip" means transpose the note(s) one octave higher.
Inversion and the "drop/skip" techniques specify which notes of the voicing are to be transposed, but any note may be transposed up or down. Listeners tend to focus on the highest and lowest notes of a voicing; therefore, by selecting a colorful tone as the top note of a voicing, the voicing itself will sound more colorful. In this example, the 9th is moved from the middle of the C major voicing to the top:
Earlier, it was pointed out that the fourth scale degree should be avoided when voicing a major chord. The reason has to do with intervals. If the fourth (F in the key of C major) is placed above the third (E), the two notes will be separated by a minor second (or a minor 9th, if the notes are more than an octave apart). This is a very weak, very dissonant interval, usually considered inappropriate for the sound of a major chord. Similarly, 9ths are usually placed above thirds in open voicings. Compare these two voicings of a dominant chord with a raised 9th:
Both of these voicings are functional, but the second one sounds weaker, due to the minor ninth separating the outer pitches of the chord.
(For more information on this topic, please see my "Chordal Jazz Vibraphone" lesson.)
Another way to change voicings is via pitch substitution. This means replacing one note of a voicing with a more appropriate pitch. In this example, the fifth, a fairly static note on a major chord, is replaced with the 6th (13th) and the #11, respectively:
Here are some common pitch substitutions, organized by sonority:
As important as it is to develop a variety of voicings, it is just as important for one to remember those voicings. There are two techniques which are particularly helpful in this area. One is to remember a voicing in terms of the chord tones, defined as numbers. This voicing would be identified as "3-7-9-6," numbered from bottom to top:
This sort of numbering system makes it easier to transpose a voicing from one key to another.
Another common technique is to associate a voicing with the visual shape it creates on the keyboard. Eventually, one thinks of a voicing less as a group of several distinct pitches, and more as one single voicing. Here is an example of what a voicing would "look" like on a keyboard:
Finally, not every note in a melody needs to be fully voiced. Good four-mallet vibes playing will utilize a blend of different textures, including single-line melodies and chord voicings. Here are two possibilities for voicing a phrase:
(For an additional discussion of this topic, please see my "Four-voice Textures for Jazz Mallets" lesson.)
The techniques outlined here will provide a solid foundation in chord voicings on the vibraphone, preparing one for further study of chordal vibes playing, including reharmonization, textures, etc. Not all of the voicings created in the practice room are guaranteed to sound good, but it can only be beneficial to have a knowledge of the way voicings are created and altered.
(This page and all the materials within copyright ©1999 James Walker, All Rights Reserved. No portion of this page may be duplicated or distributed without the author's written consent.)
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