Jazz Piano Chords: Upper Structure Triads

Jazz-Piano-ChordsOur journey with jazz piano chords continues as we take a look at upper structure triads. There are several of these and, here, will take a look at one.

First, what is an upper structure triad? Well, as the name implies, a triad is certainly involved. “Upper” refers to where we play the triad in a given chord structure – yes, at the top. When we think in terms of upper structures, we are more easily able to visualize jazz piano chords of certain qualities. Lets see why…

The chord we will be using is a dominant 7th chord that has a b9 and 13 added for color. A basic C7 chord is spelled as follows:

C  E  G  Bb

The two most important notes of this chord (outside of the root, which is sometimes played by the bass player) are the 3 and 7 of the chord, so let’s begin with those:

Jazz-Piano-ChordsWe mentioned that the b9 and 13 will be added. Although we can identify the b9 as the Db and the 13 as the A with some thought, playing this chord becomes “easy as pie” when we think in terms of a triad. Think “A major” and play it over that 3 and 7, which looks like this:


Play this chord voicing and listen. Notice that the A Major triad, which is our “upper structure” (at the top) includes the A, which is the 13, and the C# (or Db), which is the b9, of C7.

So, if we are playing a dominant 7th chord, we can play the major triad whose root starts on the 6th in relation to the chord we are playing. In other words, we wanted a C7(b9)(13) chord, so we started with the 3 and 7 at the bottom and played the triad whose root is A (6 away from C).

You’ll notice that the A Major triad also contains the E, which is the 3 of the chord. You could, of course, eliminate it if you choose.

After you have played this chord voicing as illustrated above, have some fun playing that upper structure (the triad) in its different positions. We used the root position already. Play it with the 1st inversion of A Major and then with the 2nd inversion of A Major. Listen and compare.

Question: What inversion of A Major would you want to harmonize a melody note of E? Of C#? Of A? Since each inversion of the upper structure triad results in a different note at the top, we can change its position to accommodate that melody, which we usually want to be at the top.

Transpose this chord voicing to other keys to boost your confidence. You’re going to learn to love upper structure voicings!