9 Steps to Understanding Jazz Voicings and Chord Inversions

9 Steps to Understanding Jazz Voicings and Chord Inversions

It's about getting the right DEFINITIONS to start with!

This blog post accompanies the video above. In short, I personally found a little gap in my students with regards to voicings and inversions, as used in jazz context. 

Most of the confusion, I believe, comes from a lack of proper definitions for some of the basic terms in jazz music theory and harmony. In other words, the nomenclature is often not well established in the intermediate jazzer's mind.

The most common "mistake" that comes across in private lessons, Facebook comments and YouTube comments is confusing inversions and voicings. Those are two separate concepts that I cover at length in the video. 

Grab a strong cup of coffee, it's about to get intense.

So, are you ready to get enlightened?  Dig in! :-P

1. Build basic triads

A triad is built of three notes. The simplest example is a C major triad, it contains the notes C, E and G. The triad can also be understood as the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the C major scale

C major triad - video screen capture


2. Identify triad inversions

Instead of laying out the C major triad as C-E-G, we can keep the same chord contents (same notes), while changing the order in which they appear

The C major triad can appear as C-E-G, as E-G-C or even as G-C-E

c major triad inversions - video capture

These concepts have names as well. Root position identifies the C as the root note. First inversion means the E as the lowest note. And second inversion has G as the lowest note.


3. Build the 7th chord and its inversions

In the video, around 3:30, I slowly introduce the concept of 7th chord. Simply put, if a triad contains three notes, then a 7th chord contains four. It's pretty straight-forward ... 

In the example, C major 7 chord contains the notes C-E-G-B. Those are the first, third, fifth and seventh notes of the C major scale, respectively.

cmaj7 chord - video capture

Now, inversions for 7th chords work the same way as triads. Any of the four notes in the chord can be found as its lowest. The only new thing we have to keep in mind is that there is now what we call a 3rd inversion, when the B of Cmaj7 is found as the lowest note. 

cmajor7 chord inversion - video capture


4. RESPECT inversions!

Now, there's a point in the video where I rant a little bit about inversions and confusion. That's around 5 minutes mark. If you watch only one segment in the video, *that* should be the one!

In short, knowing the inversion of a chord gives you access to ONE (and only one) piece of information: which note is lowest. Zat sit! 

Knowing the inversion does not give you information about the way the notes are laid out on the staff (no info on the note spacing)

Knowing that you're playing "F#m7b5 in the first inversion" (to take a hard example) ONLY allows you to conclude "Ok, I know that that 3rd degree of the chord is in the bass". BUT it doesn't allow you to conclude anything else. 

Let me rephrase:

Knowing in which INVERSION a chord is being played does not give you information as to which VOICING the chord is being played in.
And vice versa.

Don't confuse the concept of inversion with the concept of voicing.

Not yet at least! LOL


5. Accept that you're not the bass player

As a side topic in my "rant" from the point above, guitarists must remember something important:

You can play inversions of Cmaj7 on your top strings all day, if the bass player decides to sit on a low C note, the musical result is not really an inversion.

It is an inversion on your guitar fretboard, technically, but not an inversion for the entire band. This ought to save you some headaches in the future!

In short, the inversion really is defined by the lowest note in the orchestra and not just on the guitar or piano.


6. Learn your first "useful" guitar voicings

At around 7 minutes in the video, I explain how to create Drop 2 voicings. In simple terms, Drop 2 means to drop the second highest note in the voicing down an octave.

Of course, we must do this for every inversion in our Cmajor7 chord that we had in our previous steps. This generates four inversions of the Cmaj7 chord in a Drop 2 voicing:

c major 7 drop 2 creation

Notice, however, that  the inversion information is not preserved when going from our basic voicings from above and dropping a note down a octave. 

This is why we must look around and rely on the definition of inversion itself to qualify the Drop 2's. The first chord has a G at the bottom, and it's thus a 2nd inversion C major in Drop 2. It's a mouthful, I know!

drop 2 c major 7 inversions

Important note: you'll recognize the third chord here as C-G-B-E, playable as x3545x on the guitar. A common, garden-variety chord for jazz guitarists! :)

Also see: chords in three scales here.


7. Learn to differentiate CLOSED voicings and Drop 2 voicings

... and I could have added to the sub-header: AND don't confuse inversions and voicings definitions!

If we qualify Drop 2's for what we DO to the original voicing, then we must have a name for whatever the voicing was originally, when we just stacked 3rds on top of one another in the first few steps of the video. 

As we saw above, we built inversions of closed voicings before introducing Drop 2's. In short we have:

  • closed voicings , and then we have
  • spread voicings (where we bring notes up or down an octave.)

Thus, we use the term closed voicings when the notes within chords are all "crunched" as close together as possible. Here's a closed voicing:

cmaj7 chord - video capture

So going back to our definition, the picture above is a C major 7 closed voicing in root position. All notes are as close as possible together, and the lowest note is the 1st note of the scale. And the chord is C major 7. Simple? 

In contrast, here's the same chord, in drop 2 voicing, in root position

cmaj 7 in drop 2 voicing root positionNotice, both C-E-G-B and C-G-B-E are 

  • Cmajor7 chords
  • In root position

BUT they differ: they are written/played in a different voicing. Starting to see a clearer picture now? The voicing is what tells us about the layout of the notes within the chord

Now, for a little homework: go back up this page and give a name to each and every chord you see in the screenshot picture. Your "chord name" should contain this information:

  • The chord root (i.e. C)
  • The chord quality (i.e. major7)
  • The voicing (i.e. closed versus Drop 2)
  • The inversion (i.e. root, 1st, 2nd or 3rd inversion)

Go on, I'll wait here :)


8. Commit to never mixing apples and oranges

And now, we are ready for good working definitions. 

Inversion: gives information about the lowest note of the chord only. 

Voicing: gives information about the spacing the notes of the chord only.

Ok, those are not really definitions. Nevertheless, they're a pretty decent way to remember what's what when learning music :)


9. Experiment with other kinds of spread voicings

Of course, if you see a Drop 2, why not create a Drop 3? Exactly. This is found in the video around 13 minutes. 

cmajor7 drop 3 voicings inversions

Go ahead and experiment with different spreads for voicing. Keep your method consistent: the "drop concept" always refers to dropping a note down an octave. Do it for all inversions.

Most of those won't be playable on the guitar, but it doesn't really matter! If you can dream it, you can write it down on staff. I recommend these to get you started exploring:

  • Drop 2
  • Drop 3
  • Drop 4
  • Drop 2 & 4
  • Drop 2 & 3

WRAP UP: Voicings versus Inversions ... You good?!?

There's plenty of materials to learn in theory, especially for jazz chords!

We've scratched the surface in this blog/video. Remember, we did not even cover chords with doublings (i.e. having the same note appear more than once in the chord). 

We'll leave that to pianists! ;-)

Digging Deeper: Jazz Harmony 101

If you're interested in starting from scratch and building your understanding of jazz theory from the ground up, I highly recommend our very own course on jazz harmony here:

Harmony 101 thumbnail