A chord voicing is the way chord tones are stacked on top of one another to create a chord.
How you stack the notes of a chord can change the vibe of the chord and it’s sound within a chord progression.
Start with understanding the basic music theory on how to make your chords, then explore different voicings and hear the difference a simple inversion or doubling of a note can make.
What’s the difference between Closed and Open chord voicings?
Closed chord voicings are when all of the chord tones are as close to each other as possible. This creates a dense sounding chord.
Open chord voicings are when all of the chord tones are spaced far apart, producing wide intervals between each chord tone. This typically involves experimenting with dropping different certain chord tones down an octave or raising certain chord tones up an octave. This creates a big and open sounding chord.
How many notes are in a chord voicing?
Three or more notes played at the same time form a chord.
3-note chord voicings are chords that are made up of only 3 notes.
4-note chord voicings are chords that are made up of only 4 notes.
You can have 3-note, 4-note, 5-note, as-many-notes-as your-fingers-can-play chord voicings!
The term “voicing” refers to the order of these chord tones. So, for 3-note and 4-note chord voicings, there’s a lot of options to choose from when you factor in closed and open chord voicings.
How to make any chord voicing? (Basic Chord Theory)
When you’re first learning how to make your own chord voicings, it helps to have a solid foundation with your closed chord voicings.
Start out with root position chords. In other words, the root note is at the bottom of the chord (the root note is the bass note).
The basic formula for a root position major triad, is: 1, 3, 5 or root, third, fifth.
1, 3, 5 will sound a 3-note closed chord position and it has a dense sound to it.
If you’re in the key of C Major, the notes of a Root Position C Major Triad, are: C, E, G.
Simple way to create any chord inversion
Next explore either dropping or raising any of the chord tones an octave.
This will now “open up” the chord and create a 3-note open chord voicing. This is how you can start to get some lushious sounding chords!
Explore doing the same thing with all of your triads: Major, Minor, Diminished, and Augmented.
Get a strong handle on this concept before moving onto 4-note chord voicings and beyond.
How to make a Jazz chord voicing?
If you want to sound jazzy, there’re a couple chord voicing formulas that are used with great frequency in jazz music.
I recommend starting out with these chord voicings as your foundation of chord shapes to get under your muscle memory.
Not only are these two voicings used with 7th chords they are also often used with 6th chords and result in a modern sound. You can use this technique with any type of chord, but 7th and 6th chords are most common.
Let’s take a look at the drop-2 voicing and the drop-3 voicing.
Drop-2 Chord Voicings (Popular Harmonic Approach In Jazz)
A drop-2 chord voicing takes the second chord tone from the top of a closed chord voicing and drops it down an octave.
So, if your chord voicing is 1, 3, 5, 6, the new chord voicing will become 5, 1, 3, 6. The fifth was the second note from the top of the chord and was dropped down an octave.
Drop-2 is a very popular chord voicing among jazz guitarists and pianists, because all the notes are contained in adjacent strings (no strings are skipped).
Drop-3 Chord Voicings (Advanced Chord Voicings That You Can Use On A 5-String or 6-String Bass)
A drop-3 chord voicing takes the third chord tone from the top of a closed chord voicing and drops it down an octave.
So, if your chord voicing is 1, 3, 5, 6, the new chord voicing will become 3, 1, 5, 6. The third was the third note from the top of the chord and was dropped down an octave.
Drop-3 is also a popular chord voicing for jazz guitarists, typically for using the low note to walk bass lines while the top three chord tones play comping chords. This voicing lends itself to skip a string between the bass note and an upper chord.
Now It’s Your Turn
Once you get basic concept of what a chord voicing is, practice applying these concepts over an entire chord progression, using a technique called voice leading. I’ll go over voice leading at another time. But for now, the basic idea is that each note in a chord moves step-wise to the next notes of the next chord. That way you’re not jumping around with large distances when your changing from chord to chord.
Learn a voicing in different positions of your fretboard and different octaves. Practice this over different types of chords. Experiment with inversions and take note of the ones you like the most.
Personally drop-2 chords sound amazing on a 4-string bass guitar. And, drop 3-chords take the sound to another level, but you need either 5-string or 6-string bass guitar to play these. If you want to see chord voicings in action with a bass player, check out Oteil Burbridge and Robert “Bubby” Lewis!
For more jazz theory like this, go here.