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How To Play And Practice Rootless Jazz Guitar Chords

When learning how to play jazz guitar chords, we often begin with voicings that contain the root as either the lowest note in the grip, or as a part of a 4-note chord inversion.

Though these chords are an important step in the learning process of any jazz guitarist, we often get stuck with only using root-based chords in our comping and chord soloing/chord melody playing, not knowing where to turn next in order to expand our jazz guitar chord vocabulary beyond these shapes.

In this jazz guitar lesson, you will learn how to simply and quickly adapt root-based voicings to produce rootless jazz guitar chords that will bring a new harmonic sound to your jazz guitar comping vocabulary, without having to learn a series of new chord shapes in the process.

Heard in the playing of Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall, Ed Bickert and many other legendary players, rootless voicings are a commonly used and important harmonic tool that can take any jazz guitarist’s chord work to the next level.

So, to begin, let’s take a look at Major ii V I chord progressions uses two different sets of rootless jazz guitar chord voicings to outline each chord in the progression.

Click to download the PDF for the Jazz Guitar Chords – Rootless Voicings for Guitar Lesson


Rootless Jazz Guitar Chords – Major ii V I


The first example we will look at uses Drop 3 Jazz Guitar Chords as the basis for our rootless chord voicings.

In the first two measures you can see the original Drop 3 chords for a ii-V-I-VI progression in the key of G major.

To create rootless voicings of these chords, I simply removed the lowest note, the root, from each chord, which you can see/hear in the second half of the example below.


Click to hear the audio for this example.


Rootless Jazz Guitar Chords 1


You can use this approach, playing a full voicing and then removing the lowest note, the root, to create rootless chords, with any chord shape you know.

As an example, here is a ii V I Major Key Chord Progression in the key of C using Drop 2 chords as the basis for each rootless chord, which are found in bars 3 and 4 of the example.


Click to hear audio of this example.


Rootless Jazz Guitar Chords 2


Once you have worked through the above examples, at a variety of tempos and keys across the fretboard, practice taking any Drop 2 or Drop 3 chord shape you know, removing the root, which creates a rootless chord voicing.

You can practice this approach with static chords to begin, before using rootless chords with chord progressions such as the ii V I examples above, and then taking them to jazz tunes you know or are learning in the woodshed.

The goal of these exercises is to quickly and easily be able to see the root of any chord, build a shape above that root, but don’t use the root itself in that chord. This can be tough to do, so take your time, but once you have this skill in your pocket it can be an invaluable resource when comping in a jazz guitar situation.


Rootless Jazz Guitar Chords – Minor ii V i


As well as building rootless voicings in Major ii V I progressions, you can practice the same technique to build minor key rootless chord voicings, which you can see in the examples below.

To begin, in the first example I have used commonly played Drop 3 Jazz Guitar Chords as the basis for rootless chord voicings in the key of G minor.

Again, in the first two bars you can see the original Drop 3 chords, followed by the rootless voicings in the last two bars of the progression.

Practice these shapes in 12 keys, and with different jazz rhythms and rhythmic patterns, before building your own rootless chords based off any Drop 3 chord shapes you already know.


Click to hear audio of this example.


Rootless Jazz Guitar Chords 3


As was the case with the major examples, you can use any chord voicing to create a rootless chord shape when applying this ideas to Minor Key ii V I Jazz Guitar Chords.

In the following example, I used Drop 2 Chords to build rootless chord voicings. Again, I simply removed the root, lowest notes, from the chords in bars 1-2 to create the rootless chords in bars 3-4.

Take this approach to other shapes you know, Drop 2, Drop 2 and 4 etc., to see how building rootless chords applies to multiple chord shapes that you already know.


Click to hear audio of this example.


Rootless Jazz Guitar Chords 4


As you can see, building ii V I chord progression, in major and minor keys, is relatively easy to do if you already have a few Drop 3 and Drop 2 chords under your fingers.

But, the goal of this or any jazz guitar exercise is to be able to take this knowledge and apply it to a real-life situation such as a tune you know or are working on currently in the woodshed.

So, let’s take our rootless chords and apply them to one of the most commonly played jazz standards, Summertime, and see how they fit over a tune in a musical situation.


Rootless Jazz Guitar Chords – Summertime


To help get you started in bringing rootless jazz guitar chords into a practical situation, here is a chord study that uses these voicings over the popular jazz standard Summertime.

Practice this chord study with a metronome, backing track and on your own to hear how these chords sound both in a solo situation and with harmonic backing. Go slow and take your time with these rootless voicings when first exploring them in the woodshed.

Once you have this chord study under your fingers, at a variety of tempos and possibly in a few different keys, write out your own chord study over Summertime or another jazz standard that you know or are working on in the practice room.


Click to hear audio of this example.


Rootless Jazz Guitar Chords Summertime


Rootless Jazz Guitar Chords Practice Guide


Once you have worked out the four examples provided in this lesson, here are a number of different approaches you can take in the practice room in order to further integrate rootless chords into your jazz guitar playing in a seamless and organic fashion.


  1. Sing the root of each chord as you play the rootless voicing on it’s own or through a ii-V-I chord progression.
  2. Play the original root-chord followed by the rootless voicing for any chord or chord progression you are working on to build an aural comparison of the two approaches.
  3. Practice visualizing any root on the 6th, 5th or 4th string and then playing a rootless voicing on top of that root without playing the root itself.
  4. Write out 5-10 chord studies over various jazz standards you are working on in the woodshed, using only rootless chords for each study.
  5. Repeat the above in 12 keys and at various tempos and/or positions on the neck.


Sometimes learning a new harmonic color on the guitar is as easy as adapting something you already know, such as removing the root from a chord to produce a rootless chord voicing.

Take these rootless chords into your woodshedding this week and see how removing the root of any chord can simplify the voicing, keep the underlying harmonic color and bring some Ed Bickert/Jim hall sounds to your playing all at the same time.


Have a question or comment about this lesson? Post it in the How to Build Rootless Jazz Guitar Chords thread at the MWG Forum.

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