7 December 2015


Following my own ramblings and speculations about chords, I have received this contribution from the traditional jazz pianist Chris Reilley.
Chris writes: -

In my case learning about chords started when I took an interest in playing Boogie Woogie, so the chord shapes in that case were fairly simple first-inversion major triad shapes. From then on it was only a matter of making slight amendments to the chords for the simplest of Jazz Tunes to be able to play Traditional and New Orleans Jazz tunes.

In recent years I have found that some tunes suggest the use of much more complicated chords – some of which are almost impossible to play with the left hand only. I am referring to those chords that require a span of more than one octave or more than the use of five notes in the chord.

I bought a Chord Chart Book in the 1950s which showed all of the most common chord shapes in use and since then I have referred to this and to a book commonly known as the “French Chord Book”. Both of these list the details of a number of different chords some of which either require the use of six fingers or for the chord to be missing a note (usually the root). This is because the chord would normally be played as a split bar with the root being played on the first and third beats and the chord (less the "Root") on the second and fourth beats.

One interesting point made in the Chord Chart Book regarding “Inversions” is the suggestion that chords played on the Piano should ideally be centred over middle C in order to get the fullest sound. This means that some chords should not necessarily be played in the first inversion but maybe in either second or third inversions to obtain the fullest sound.

There is no doubt that some chords use the same notes as other chords in a different key but in a different inversion; this can be confusing and the only way I know to resolve this issue is to make sure that the chord used is in the same key as the tune (unless there is intended to be a change of key at that point).

Another point in chord use is to take into account the unfortunate limitations of some instruments like for example the Banjo and Guitar which in many cases only have four strings.

I have been asked to play “eleventh” or “thirteenth” chords in certain places in tunes and when I have looked at the melody I usually have found that the notes of the “eleventh” or “thirteenth” are actually in the melody. Now as I want to be able to use my right hand for improvisation and harmonic accompaniment, I excuse myself of that task by playing all the notes except the “eleventh” or “thirteenth” notes of the chord and let the melody instruments sound that.

To add to the above there is also the interesting use of Lead-in notes and Chords (e.g. the Dominant Seventh or Augmented Fifth) and the final Chords (e.g. Dominant Seventh, Major Seventh or Major Sixth as well as chordal sequences) being the most common. Also in some tunes there appears what is commonly called the “magic” Chord (in the key of Bb there might appear the chord of Db prior to playing an Eb chord). In the case of the well-known Boogie Woogie composer Jimmy Yancy, he used to finish many of his tunes with a bar or two in a totally different Key.

I hope you find this interesting.


Thanks, Chris. I certainly did. You have made some points that had not occurred to me before.