Here’s why 3rd-7th voicings hold back many jazz pianists

One of the most common mistakes beginning and intermediate-level pianists make is to try and use chord voicings that are too advanced for their current level of playing. This affects jazz pianists more than their rock and pop counterparts, since jazz harmony is often more complex, but yes, it can hinder the musical development of anyone who’s not careful.

The biggest culprit, in the jazz world, is the notion that it’s good to begin with just the 3rd and 7th of each chord. Since it takes a huge amount of thought and analysis to figure out the 3rd and 7th of a chord before you even know the chord well, this slows down literally thousands of beginning jazzers without their realizing it’s full implications.

Think about it: could you fluently speak to a friend if you had to stop and think about every word you said? No, of course not. Then why not start with basic 7th chords, or move right to rootless voicings? No great jazz pianist uses the 3rd-7th voicing except occasionally anyway, and the full voicings sound so much better for most styles. (Besides, focusing on the 3rd and 7th alone works so much better after you’ve already got “up and running” with the basic 7th chords and rootless voicings, since it’s more about the underlying structure of the voicings, not as something you play on a regular basis.)

The 3rd and 7th voicings are helpful for getting your musical understanding to the next level, not to get started. It’s like learning grammar; you learn to speak first, and then learn the grammar to help you understand it better. Can you imagine teaching a toddler grammar before they can speak???

Begin with the basic 7th chords. Use them on 20 tunes until you can play them with ease, joy, and you know them inside and out. Then, move on to the 3rds and 7ths, rootless voicings, and anything else that you want to learn. But don’t do it too soon or it will hamper the flow of your improvising.

And that’s what most beginners and intermediate pianists are missing: flow.

Good luck and keep practicing until it gets easy for you!

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