Have you ever felt bored while listening to a 3 chord pop song?
Do you find the chord change bland or repetitive?
If you answered yes to any of these questions you’re not alone.
Many educated and studied musicians have trouble relating to pop songs because of their lack of harmonic and melodic sophistication.
Lets face it, there are many pop songs that have some boring chord changes. How many thousands of times do we have to hear I-IV-V (1-4-5) before we fall asleep?
For those of us who love the power of richer harmony there is good news though. There are a number of pop artists who’ve learned how to use rich jazz harmony in an incredibly tasteful way.
People like Jamie Cullum, Steely Dan, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Sade, Musiq Soulchild, Jill Scott, and Erika Badu have been able to successfully achieve that mix in many of their songs.
So, what can you learn from their success? How can you blend that subtle mix of jazz harmony into a pop context?
How can you successfully learn to use jazz chords in a pop song in a tasteful way?
Painting Pop Songs With Hip Harmony
Being able to tastefully use jazz chords in a pop song is no easy feat.
On the surface it may seem easy but to do it well requires a special type of skill.
I know from my experience as a professional songwriter, I too, tend to want to “hip” up my chords and try to paint with the deepest colors.
As Jazz pianists especially, we are on the never-ending journey for richer and cooler sounding chords.
I do believe however that there is a fine line between using richer harmonies because it’s what the song calls for, versus my wanting to show and demonstrate how much I know…or worse, to sound cool.
I have seen numerous times when a fellow jazz musician tells me they are writing a pop song and after hearing it I realize that they really don’t understand the idiom.
The melodies are meandering, the chords are way to dense, and the structure ultimately is that not of a pop song.
Sounds formulaic I know, but there really is an art and skill to writing a song in less than 4 minutes that has a huge catchy chorus and resonates with millions of people.
Though much less so today, there have been numerous artists who have bridged the gap between pop and jazz with huge commercial success.
So, today I’m going to share with you one of the best examples of jazz harmony being successfully used in a pop idiom.
Say Hello To Steely Dan Chords
For close to 40 years now, Donald Fagan, the keyboard player and main songwriter of the group “Steely Dan”has successfully incorporated pop, jazz, fusion, funk and R&B into his pop/rock tunes on an extremely high level.
With over 40 millions records sold, Steely Dan has been a powerhouse hit machine.
They’ve written classic songs as well as being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (2001) The depth and breadth of their catalog is enormous.
So, for sake of this article I would like to show you how Steely Dan expertly uses jazz chords in the intro changes to their hit song “Peg”.
For those of us trying to bridge the gap between pop rock and jazz this song is an essential study!
Peg Ain’t Never Square!
Let’s take a look and listen to the very hip, and instantly recognizable intro to “Peg”.
Take a listen right now and then we’ll learn explore how it’s contracted. Turn it up too! Let’s have some fun.
Steely Dan Peg Chord Breakdown
Here are the chords in the intro:
Gmaj7 – F#7#9 – FMaj7 – E7#9 - EbMaj7 - D7#9
Now, lets break down some of these chords and chord progressions and study some of the great techniques behind them.
Chromatic Bass Motion Is Super Cool
Never one to just settle for just a plain old chord progression, Steely Dan hits us immediately with a chromatic walk down switching between major 7’s to Dom7#9’ chords.
Talk about hip right off the bat!
The cool part about is that he’s using one of the oldest jazz harmonic “tricks” in the book. The tritone substitution.
Fagan is simply moving each chord down a half step. By subtly changing the chord qualities each time every chord sounds new and fresh.
If you’re new to this type of chord progression check out Steve’s great tutorial on the tritone substitution.
How To Play The Jazz Chord Voicings In Peg
Now that your ear is starting to get a feel for some of the jazz moves that Steely Dan uses in the intro lets dig a little deeper and learn how to play these chords.
Here are some simple tips for you to nail these voicings.
- GMaj7: (Think B minor triad over the note G).
- F#7#9: (RH: 3- b7-#9 over LH: F# root).
- FMaj7: (Think A minor triad over the note F).
- E7#9: (Voiced RH: 3- b7-#9 over LH: E root).
- EbMaj7: (Think G minor triad over the note Eb)
- D7#9 chord: (Voiced RH: 3- b7-#9 over LH: D root)
Chord wise, this is quite a jazzy intro but Fagan is a master at making jazzy chords feel common sounding and unforced.
Now, lets talk about a few other gems you can take away from this song.
Major 7th Chords Are Slick
Major 7 chords are one of the most utilized chords in jazz most notably in the 2-5-1 chord progression.
Here Fagan is voicing his Major 7 chord typically, but still very effective. He creates a wonderful example of tension and release by repeating these the two chord qualities.
Hendrix Chords And Jazz
With regards to the Dom7 #9 chord, oftentimes referred to as “The Hendrix Chord” take note of the shape of the voicing.
The voicings above are the most commonly used voicing for a Dominant7#9 chord on the piano.
So, add it to your chords collection immediately.
The Dom7#9 chord is used endlessly in Blues and Rock styles. Billy Joel uses this shape as well in his pop classic “New York State Of Mind”.
If you really want to learn more chord voicings you should check out Steve’s whole library of chord tutorials inside his Premium Jazz Lessons Elite Membership Course.
As you begin to hear what these chords sound like as well as learn their shapes you will begin to see how prevalent they are in many pop songs.
It’s all in when and how they are used that creates the most impact on the listener.
Learn From Steely Dan!
After you get the intro under your fingers and in your ears check out the rest of the tune and see how many jazzy cool chords Steely Dan makes use of.
Major9 chords, Dominant 7sus chords, and the signature “Steely Dan” slash chord (A/C#) are just some of the gems intertwined into the tune, and they all feel right.
Add these newly leaned jazz structures into your own compositions when necessary. Sometimes just adding tension 9 to your major 7 chord can be just enough spice to liven up your tune!
How To Add These Chords Into Your Music
Ready to grow your playing now? Cool! Here’s your next steps to master these chords.
1. Take this article to the piano with you and block out just a few minutes of time.
2. Go through “Peg” and learn these shapes. Sit down and get the feeling and sound of these Steely Dan chords. Get them under your hands and in your ears.
I’ve given you every note in the chord voicings above so the process should be easy for you!
Some Final Practice Thoughts
You never know when you will want another harmonic option when writing and composing, especially in a pop situation.
I can’t repeat enough that options are everything, and one jazz chord can take your creativity to a place you only dreamt of going.
Remember: don’t just use it because you know it. Develop your instinct for what’s appropriate. Like Donald Fagan, this is the sign of true artistry.
- Do you have a favorite rock or pop song that uses jazz chords?
- How about a favorite jazz artist who’s done a pop recording?
- Do you have questions or have anything to add to the article?
- Please leave your comment below!
This was a guest post written by Brett Epstein. Brett is a Los Angeles based jazz pianist, professional songwriter and music producer. Brett studied at the the Berklee College of Music where he majored in Contemporary Writing and Production. His songs and productions have been featured on many TV shows and feature films, as well as performed by national recording artists. His guitar playing can also be heard on Cher’s latest recording. Brett gigs with many jazz bands around the Southern California area and maintains a small private piano teaching practice.
For more on Brett you can check out his wikipedia page here or connect with Brett on Facebook here:
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