Hey Jazz Guy,
Once I’ve mastered the “jazz power chords,” how can I better understand upper structures and incorporate them into my playing? —Basic in Boise
This is a way of exploring upper structure harmony using triads on the guitar that I find quite sonically delightful. Triads are easy to play and they present an obvious color shift in the harmony. All the examples here are over Cmaj7 and the implied harmony is listed as well. Ex. 1 shows the natural extensions of the Cmaj7 chord (Lydian). All the triads contained in that scale, G major, are fair game for upper structure playing, so C, G, D, Em, Bm, Am, etc, all work. In Ex 2, we’re following the upper structure triads around the cycle of 5ths, so we go from Cmaj7 (which includes a G triad) to D, A, E, B, F#, C#, G#, etc. Each triad is further from the home key of C major, so will give a brighter sound. To really hear this effect, play the later keys in a higher register.
In the next example [Ex. 3], we string some triads together and voice-lead by half-steps, and return to Cmaj7 at the end. Ex. 4 shows an intervallic approach, in which the triads are connected by common tones (the E and the A).
To go even further, here’s a concept I call “stacking keys” in which instead of playing only the upper-structure triads, you can play in the key of that triad. So, in Ex. 5, we’re playing the key of A on top of Cmaj7. We also go through some other keys (D, G, B) until returning to C major to finish out the line. This is a deep topic, but shed these concepts, listen hard, and master upper structures you will.
Jake Hertzog is the jazz ambassador to the non-jazz world. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Jake’s latest release is Patterns [Buckyball].