Introducing Small Chord Units

Charlie Parker

Jazz guitarists rarely use 5 or more strings for their chord voicings and prefer to stick to 3 or 4 note chords, sometimes even only two. This minimal approach employs the most important notes of the chord to greatest effect. The most common notes to leave out of a voicing are the root and the 5th because they remain unchanged in maj, min and dom chord types. By leaving out the root, the 3rd becomes stronger and therefore the tonality of the chord is enhanced.

Leaving out the root and 5th notes frees the chord for a more interesting harmonic role and allows a greater amount of chord substitution possibilities. Being able to solo over a chord progression that has been altered in this way allows you the freedom to experiment with b5, 5 and #5 intervals that would otherwise clash with the perfect 5th interval being included in the chord.

The use of these 'small chord units' is not restricted to jazz (most power chords in rock are made up only of the root and the fifth - the principle omission in this situation being the 3rd note - and in a band situation the possibilities in combining instruments to give a unique sound lies in the way that the chord voicings are used.

The reason that the Count Basie Orchestra sounds very different to the Glenn Miller Band is not only due to the number of instruments used, but is largely because of the way the horn sections were arranged to produce different chord voicings. This principle is still used today in all forms of music composition from heavy rock to ragtime.


John Lee Hooker As a guitarist, it is a good idea to have several different chord shapes for the same chord available to you so that you are not limited in ideas. You will also be able to work around and complement the other instruments in the band to give the best overall effect. As a band member, it is you duty to think of the music's best interests first, and if you are needed to play a comping role to emphasise a certain feel to the overall sound for a few songs, then that should be your primary aim.

Too many players have an almost irresistable urge to play in front of everyone else (by this I mean too loud and too busy), thinking that by being heard they will get more attention from the audience. This is, in fact, true, but the attention you get will may not be that favourable. The best players will always take a back seat if the song requires it, and they generate huge respect from the other band members by doing so. You will find that when it is your turn to cut loose, you will do so with the encouragment of your fellow band members. It is always better to have people urging you to play than for them to be wishing that you would shut up!

Copyright Dale Churchett © 1995. All Rights Reserved.