in this chord theory lesson i’m going to show you some rootless voicings guitar chord shapes that don’t have a root and these rootless chords are a version of what we can call incomplete chords so we’ll address that broader concept as well this is actually a really important and useful thing to know about of course you want to know what chords you’re actually playing so you can maybe write out a song sheet for someone or communicate with your bandmates or figure out what scales to use to improvise over something or any number of reasons and i’ve seen a lot of people get stuck trying to figure out what a certain chord is thinking that every chord shape that we play is supposed to have one right answer or one specific label that we put on it but some chord shapes on the fretboard don’t fit into our standard vocabulary and there are actually many different ways that we can interpret or label those chords i don’t want you to get stuck like that so let’s dive into this lesson and broaden our creative potential by understanding rootless chords and how any one chord shape can actually be interpreted as or function as or be used as several other chord types that’s coming right up in this rootless voicings guitar lesson i’m jared from soundguitarlists.
com a professional guitarist and teacher from seattle this is episode 22 of a chord theory and chord techniques series for guitarists that goes from beginner to advanced every lesson in this series both builds on the previous material from the previous lessons but also stands totally on its own as well definitely check out the link in the description for a playlist of the full series and if you happen to hit the like and subscribe button on the way down there i wouldn’t mind that at all so i’m gonna define what rootless chords are by giving you three quick theory examples and then i’m going to show you a couple examples of how this idea can be used in real music in any style and stick around because after that i’m going to address the one thing that gets most people stuck when trying to analyze chords so let’s define rootless chords or rootless voicings typically jazz musicians and specifically piano players are the ones who are talking about rootless chords and rootless voicings but i think it’s a useful concept to know about on the guitar for any style and we want to see the fretboard with the same amount of clarity as piano players see the keyboard so it makes sense that as we learn and gain that clarity we can start to take advantage of concepts like this that piano players talk about all the time the big picture here is that any chord can actually be interpreted as or used as several other types of chords depending on where you say that the root is and the root does not have to be a note that you’re actually playing to be clear there’s always a root there’s always a root you just don’t have to always be playing it in fact sometimes the root can be considered the most obvious and boring note and so it’s worth getting rid of and replacing with a note that might feel a little more interesting or colorful certainly the context where this is most common is if one is playing with a bass player because the bass player will often most of the time cover the sound of the root so in that kind of setting you can safely play rootless voicings chord shapes on the guitar that don’t have the root in it but that is not a rule you can actually play those same rootless voicings anytime even if nobody else is playing the root anywhere so here’s our first example and it has to do with triads every triad chord shape on the guitar can be interpreted as the upper three notes of a seventh chord so every triad can be thought of as a rootless seventh chord the triad is the structure and if you change where you’re thinking of the root then that triad is not including the root anymore and it’s again the upper three notes of a seventh chord the three the five and the seven so the pitch that is three scale degrees below the root of a triad is the root of a seventh chord that contains that triad within it confused let’s look at some examples on the fretboard and you’ll see what i mean so what you see here is in a minor chord shape that probably looks familiar this is the fifth of the chord this is the root of the chord and this is the flat three of the chord and this is the root as the open string and this is the fifth as the open string this is an open string a minor chord shape well as we can see here this part right here the three notes that’s a complete triad it has the one it has the three and that has the five that shape is a complete a minor three notes down from a in the scale of a natural minor or c major is the note f so a is here and that same note is here on the fifth fret a note down is g here and another note down is f so i said three notes down but you that’s if you include this first one you can think of it as two scale steps down from the root of your triad is going to be the root of a seventh chord so we found f here so we know that f is there and if we put that as the root of the chord well what we get is a familiar looking if you’ve worked on seventh chords a familiar looking f major seven chord or a major seven chord shape where this is the root and then this is the seven this is the three and this is the five we’ll go ahead and say that’s not there and that’s not there and sure enough you can see that that a minor triad chord shape is the upper three notes of the f major seven chord let’s play that example so you hear it there’s that open a minor chord and then these three notes alone are a complete a minor triad you have the root you have the flat three and you have the five okay here’s a here a g f three notes down or two steps down okay that root there and the a minor shape above sure enough makes an f major seven chord shape so here’s a d major triad in the fifth position if i go down two steps or three notes one two three notes in the scale of d well then i play that as the root and keep that triad shape above it these three notes right here are a complete d major triad and if i add that note as the root it’s a common minor seven chord voicing let’s move on to example two with the same logic every seventh chord is the upper four notes of a rootless nine chord okay let’s use numbers for this one so you have your one two three four five six seven that is the numbers of a scale right there and then of course it continues on both directions forever so you have seven six five four going this way and you have one two three four starting up this way and you just have your scale one two three four five six seven one two three four five six seven one two three and so to create the ninth chord off of the tonic of that scale off the root of that scale you’re gonna choose one then three then five then seven and then nine and nine is the same as two as a chord tone i did a whole lesson on that in this series so you have one three five seven nine well if you take the one away and you just have the three five seven and two those are the four notes of the three chord of the scale because you took every other note for four notes out of the scale that’s the three chord of the scale and it’s a minor seven chord so those upper four notes can be thought of as a rootless nine voicing of that tonic chord so to play a rootless c major nine well what is the minor seven chord shape off of the three of c that would be a rootless major nine voicing the three chord the minor seven chord that is off of the third scale degree in the key of c is e minor seven so if you play an e minor seven chord shape and maybe a bass player plays the root maybe they don’t maybe they play a c maybe not but all of those notes are just the three the seven the nine and the five of c major nine so if you had an extended let’s say several bars of c major seven and you’re playing this very standard chord shape for it and you want a little variety you could go up to this shape as well and it might very much sound like an e minor seven chord but that’s okay just harmonically it still works it still fits if you like it then you do if you don’t you don’t have to play it but it’s one of the many many voicing options that one could play with when playing around with just thinking of c major seven and improvisers are using this concept all the time too you can arpeggiate an e minor seven chord over a c major seven chord to get a little bit of a fresher sound than you might get if you just played the one three five seven arpeggio of c major so every seventh chord structure can be thought of as the upper four notes of a nine chord this is very handy for us guitarists because we run out of strings and we run out of fingers so easily let’s do one more example another way to approach this is to take any chord find the root and then replace the root with something nearby you can replace it with the nine which is right above the root or replace it with a seven which is right below the root so let’s take this triad chord shape that’s kind of a d shape but i’m playing it up here where it is an f major chord and this is the three on top and then the root and then the five okay so that’s an f major chord here’s the root here second string i’m gonna replace that with the seven i now have a rootless voicing of f major seven the root is not in there but i have the third and the seven and the five in there and sure enough that shape is the same shape as an a minor triad okay let’s take a g7 chord over b beautiful chord it’s a first inversion g dominant seventh chord okay let’s identify the root which is the open g and then we’re gonna replace it we’re gonna get rid of it to make it a rootless voicing we’re going to replace it with the nine so that’s a whole step up and we get this potentially familiar shape that is a half diminished chord shape in root position but we get to think of it as a rootless nine chord where g is the root which we’re not playing i did a couple lessons recently on extensions and explaining them theoretically and then specifically how to play jazz chords with extensions and in those lessons i talked about how we can get rid of the five because the five is kind of less exciting it’s a little bit implied we don’t always have to play it so we can replace the five with something that’s an extension well now we can also replace the root with something that’s an extension so these rootless voicings are really our ticket as guitar players to getting really extended even more rich and colorful sounds on the guitar so if we take that same rootless g9 chord the bottom note is the three the next note on the d string is the flat seven the note on the third string is the nine and the note on string two is the five well let’s replace the five let’s replace it with the thirteen the thirteen is the same thing as six so it’s going to be a whole step up there’s our g13 chord that has a 13 and a 9 in it and no root and no 5 3 flat 7 9 13.
11:11 - beautiful chord that exact chord voicing is often played on the top four strings those are the exact same notes an octave up you can hear that there down an octave same thing 3 flat 7 9 and 13. the root is here not being played these are some specific examples of rootless voicings but the bigger point here is that any chord shape can be many other things potentially just by changing around what you’re thinking of is the actual route we just saw how we were able to interpret the half diminished chord shape as a rootless g9 well the half diminished chord structure is my favorite example of this because it can be functionally used as so many different chord types so let’s take this half diminished chord shape that is on the top four strings here’s a root position half diminished chord root flat five flat seven flat three on the top fourth string so this would be g sharp half diminished or a flat half diminished and okay that’s already one thing that it is because if if that’s the root then it’s half diminished well that same chord shape if this is the root then it’s a minor 6 chord if this is the root then it’s a dominant 9 chord if this is the root then it’s a dominant 7 chord with a flat 13 and a flat 9.
and actually if this is the root it can be something else where that second string note is not a flat 13 but it’s a sharp five so it’s a dominant seven chord with a sharp five and a flat nine now even though we’re not playing anything different and the root is the same thing that’s actually an important distinction because it determines what scale it’s coming from so it is it is a different chord and a different interpretation and one more if this is the root then that chord shape could be thought of as a major 13 chord with a sharp 11 major 13 sharp 11 or major 7 sharp 11 chord you don’t have to remember all of these specific examples it’s just showing wow if if we held that chord and the bass was moving around underneath to those different roots you could have a chord progression that very much is sounding like harmonic motion but the rootless voicing on the top is just staying the same now i’m not saying that that is the desirable sound all the time but it might be and theoretically it’s very interesting that chords are so overlapping in this way and yes all those sounds i just played are like jazz harmony sounds and this is very often specifically useful in a jazz context but it really doesn’t have to be so i’ll give you two real world examples where we’ll actually listen to that chord progression that i just showed you there we’ll turn it into some music and use that structure on the top then i’ll show you an example in like a pop song writing kind of situation and how we can still think of rootless structures being an interesting concept compositionally so let’s do this progression let’s do d major 7 and then b minor 6 and then e7 and then b flat dominant seven and then we’ll resolve to a major seven those are the chords that i talked about just a second ago so we’re gonna hear how that structure on top works with it so d major seven b minor six e dominant seven b flat dominant seven and a major seven at the end resolving to it so we just heard that progression with the basic shell voicings now i’m gonna play it again where i hold that voicing on the top and i played the roots of each of those chords as a progression it’s not going to be easy because the point of this these voicings is that we don’t have to play the root but i’ll try to squeeze it in here so we got the d major 13 sharp 11 and then we have b minor 6 and then we have e 9 and then we have b flat 7 flat 13 flat 9 and then we can resolve to a major after that so if that was the progression and the bass player was covering the bass part you could just hang out on this voicing until it resolved to the a now i’m not saying you should hang out on that voicing often artistically we want to have motion and interactivity and move around but sometimes having a static sound is what we want to express we’re just working on our command over music so we can have these options and if you’re working on these it is an amazing ear training exercise to try to hold rootless voicings and sing the root the root that is not included anywhere so you don’t have a reference that you’re able to latch on to that is specifically the same pitch you have to hear it in relationship with the rootless voicing so if we did that with this progression one of the best ways to actually internalize the real harmonic progression while playing all kinds of different voicings very challenging to do the point here is not to memorize all of these examples the point is to get some exposure to the idea that any chord and any chord structure or chord shape can be many things if you change where you’re thinking about the root okay let’s do more of like a pop songwriting type of example i’m going to take an a minor triad and arpeggiate it up here i’m just going to keep that going as my chord structure and now i’m going to think of chords that can include that triad structure as part of them but still feel like it’s moving as a chord progression so i’m going to take a minor because that’s the actual chord and so of course that’s in it then i’m going to take f sharp half diminished and as we can see here f sharp half diminished has that a minor shape in it then i’m going to take the f major 7 which we saw earlier has the a minor shape in it and then i’m going to take c 6 c major 6 and you can see this particular voicing of c major 6 has the a minor shape in it and then lastly i’m going to take d minor does the a minor triad fit within a d minor chord and not interfere with it let’s check it out well the root of a is in the chord itself great the flat 3 of a minor is the flat 7 of d minor great makes it a minor 7 chord and lastly the 5 of a minor is the 9 of d minor so it makes it a minor 9 chord so now just compositionally i’m going to decide that in this song i don’t really want the full sound of those chords in there they’re so big and so rich i’m going to kind of minimize it a little bit i’m just going to play the one and the three of each of those chords so you see and hear how that a minor structure works over that whole chord progression and gets us this just nice kind of energy build feeling of having something so repetitive this is one of the ways that a very repetitive idea can be on top of what sounds like very moving chord progressions underneath before i show you this last thing about where people most often get stuck when trying to analyze chords i’m just curious do you use rootless voicings already if so which ones and how do you think about them i’d love to hear about it so here’s the catch that can trip us up some incomplete chords like a rootless voicing is an incomplete chord well some types of incomplete chords are really not definable these are what i call ambiguous chords some chord shapes are ambiguous which means that no matter what you call the root even something that you’re not playing no matter where you put the root they don’t add up to an obvious chord a complete chord of any kind there’s always something missing like the third is often missing to make it ambiguous because then you don’t know is it major is it minor we don’t know if the third’s not there we don’t of course you can make some deductions based on what key you’re in where you’re going to where you’re coming from and kind of figure out what’s around it maybe but in a vacuum these ambiguous chord shapes are just not definable which is really cool actually so all i want to say here is just that if you come across something like that when you’re as you’re working on your theory knowledge and being able to analyze any chord just that that’s totally okay deciding or figuring out that it’s ambiguous is kind of the arrival point and then you just realize okay we’ll let it go that’s an ambiguous chord it has this this oh it has the five it has the nine it has the seven we don’t know what kind of third it has you know whatever it is uh we just can say cool we figured out that that is a bit of a dead end and that’s what we know about it like here’s an example if we had to analyze this chord shape this structure no matter where we put the root it’s not going to give us an obvious answer okay so this bottom note could be the root which means there’s a flat nine and then a fifth this note could be the root which means there’s a major seven and a flat five this note could be the root which is not being played so it’d be rootless which would mean it has a flat 9 and a 5 and a sharp 11.
those are all possible things that a chord could include but we don’t have enough information to determine what it actually is again in the context of music you could surmise that it is functioning in a certain way because of just what you know about the key but again by itself we don’t know i have an awesome free chord chart that i made called chords with color that shows you beautiful chord shapes as alternatives to standard chords just go to sound guitar lessons dot com slash chords with color or use the link in the description it’s totally free it’s a great theory resource because it shows the chord tone number labels of every note in every chord on the whole chart and it also shows what chords exist within keys together through several keys it’s amazing for writing chord progressions or just studying theory or just trying out random handful of beautiful new chord shapes that you may have never played before i hope you grab it and play with it and have some really fun creative and nourishing guitar sessions that’s it for this lesson next week’s lesson is on functional harmony and chord substitution if you’re interested in songwriting and composing or jazz guitar then you don’t want to miss that lesson looking forward to seeing you there thanks so much and happy practicing.