How to Write Simple, But Effective, Piano Parts

For the last few years I have been including written piano parts for my combo and big band arrangements.

I used to never write “comping” parts for piano players, but rather chord symbols and slashes throughout the entire part.  The only things I noted for piano – depending on the chart – were figures that added to the ensemble, such as Basie-type fills or short solo fills.

Pros and semi-pros will generally be able to comp as needed, but as an arranger, you never truly know who is going to be playing your charts in the future.

Having a written piano part actually serves a couple of purposes.  1) It gives the piano player the necessary tools needed to sound good, and 2) having a written part serves as an excellent teaching tool for inexperienced piano players (or classical players who are clueless when it comes to comping.)

The following video covers a variety of tips you can use to construct written piano parts so that they easy to read and, most importantly, sound good.

Click here to Listen and View This Chart

I have summarized the points below the video. Let me know if you have any questions.

  • Primarily use 4-note voicings, but you can use triad (RH) over tritone (LH) for altered dominant 7th chords.
  • Reflect similar rhythms during ensemble parts, player can vary and improvise rhythm for comping during solos
  • Generally keep entire range of both hands within 1 1/2- 2 octaves
  • Reflect inner voice movement that is happening in horns (for combos esp)
  • Construct voicings in quartal structure whenever possible.
  • For dominant 7th chords, include 3rd and 7th in LH, upper extensions (no roots ) in RH

Click here to Listen and View This Chart

14 Replies to “How to Write Simple, But Effective, Piano Parts”

  1. Balbino de Jesus

    Muito bom vídeo.
    Parabéns por todo o seu trabalho em nos ajudar.
    Um forte abraço.

    TRANSLATION:
    Very good video.
    Congratulations on all your hard work in helping us .
    A big hug.

  2. Kenneth Jackson

    Thank you Martin, been trying to arrange and want to sound better and get it all right. Lost one if your quotes from Frank MANTOOTH. You asked how does he wrote do many arrangements and you figured it out. It was something like 8 bars a day, etc. If you have that in your posts, please let me know about it and how I can receive it.

    Thank you,
    Kenny Jackson

  3. Eric Schultz

    JM:
    For dominant 7th chords, include 3rd and 7th in LH, upper extensions (no roots ) in RH
    —-
    ES:
    The exception to the (no roots) in RH rule would be the dom.7th(13) voicing with the root in the melody. Especially in a ‘blues-based’ tune it’s effective if the top note in dom. chords is the root or 5th (although it’s good to avoid R & 5th virtually everywhere else inside of a dom.7 voicing)

  4. Andrew Meronek

    The more I arrange, the more I appreciate the theme “less is more” when it comes to piano parts. I’m not a huge fan of doubling horn parts in the piano, because for me that practice, unless used for a specific orchestrated effect at a good moment, tends to wash out the colors of each section of the band. So, I’ll more often have the pianist sit out or maybe fill with basie-like complementary lines while the horns twirl sectional magic.

    Also, the convention of using fourths in piano voicings works well for piano because of the closeness of equal temperament to Pythagorean-based tunings in fourths. Horn players will tend to not use those tunings for the thirds and sevenths of chords, so I think that doubling horns with piano in some of these kinds of voicings where the tuning tendencies between the piano and horn players conflict can contribute to that “washed” out effect.

  5. Jim Martin

    Eric, you are exactly right. I wanted to make a general point on writing 4-note voicings for piano, and with only two notes available in the right hand, its better spent on upper extensions.

    I did a big band chart on Sandu recently and I wrote 5 and 6 note voicings in piano with many roots in the upper voice. There are always exceptions, but I wanted to stay on point with this 4-note simple voicing approach.

  6. Jim Martin

    Andrew, thanks for the input.

    Yes, many times “less is more” is best for piano. I often give the piano player rests during full big band sections, such as “shout choruses”, etc. In those areas, piano won’t even be heard and anything they play will most likely “compete” against the ensemble.

    I understand your comment about “washing out” the colors of the band, but I would contend that in most situations that won’t be the case. Also, I understand the tuning tendencies between equal temperament (i.e. piano) and horns (i.e. unequal temperament), but in the case of big band I would challenge anyone to be able to actually hear those differences in the context of a real chart. In a slow ballad, I could maybe see the issues with doubling piano voicings with, for example, trombones, but a medium or uptempo chart where piano is simply comping rhythms, its not something that arrangers need to sweat bullets over. Besides, you are assuming that horn players in the band are playing perfectly in tune. Unless its a band chocked full of pro players, that simply won’t be the case.

  7. David Cannaday

    Thanks Jim Always good stuff!! Keep up the good advice. It’s nice to have chords with roots once in a while to change the sound and give the chart a little sound variety.

  8. Jim Martin

    David, I agree. There are always exceptions to everything. Roots are fine but upper extensions of chords are even better. 🙂

  9. Charles Bond

    One of the motives for rootless voicings is in harmonic economy. Someone should write a book about getting the maximum effect out of the minimum number of tones. Anyway, it isn’t a stretch to assume that the roots will be handled by the bass, and duplicating them in the piano (at least in some passages) may be a waste of resources.

  10. Jim Martin

    Charles, you are exactly right. I rarely put roots in trombone voicings, and tend to not include roots in sax voicings either. In a dominant 7th chord, I never include the 5th of the chord either. Because it is the first fundamental tone above the root in the harmonic series, it tends to detract from the sound of the voicing, not add anything to the sound of the chord. In the case of 4 note piano voicings, its best not to waste a RH note with the root of the chord, when you could add another tone that adds more spice to the chord.

  11. Ria Osorio

    Hi Jim, I appreciate this tutorial. There will always be points of contention with regards to this matter, of what to put in and what to leave out when writing piano parts for big band. The principles you laid out here, I believe, are the “safest” (ergo more universally effective) for the genre, especially when writing out arrangements where you are not sure if the piano player is trained in big band jazz or not. In the case that he is not, at least the part will still sound okay. In the case that he is, then he will know based on experience or his good ear when to play the piano parts with all the written-out chords in them, or just leave the part alone.

  12. Jim Martin

    Ria, your comments are exactly spot on. I meant for this tutorial to show how to construct sight readable parts for piano that still sounds good. A pro would most likely read the changes, but having a part covers all bases. I sometimes include a “chords only” piano part with a chart now too, basically the same type of part that I would write years ago.

  13. Jim Martin

    Thanks Jeri! You really can’t go wrong with voicing piano parts with 4 note voicings. They will generally cover all the important chord tones and are easy to read for non-jazz players. Experienced piano players will typically read changes only and maybe cop some of the rhythms so this approach covers all bases.

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