Jamie Holroyd Guitar

Jamie Holroyd Guitar

How to Play Shell Voicings on Guitar

How to Play Shell Voicings on Guitar

So far in this series we’ve looked at how we can better our jazz guitar playing by learning a range of chords available to us on the guitar such as quartal voicings, diminished shapes, closed-position chords and symmetrical diminished voicings amongst many others.

Shell voicings are perhaps the most versatile jazz guitar chords, because these voicings can be as simple or as complex as desired. Jazz/country guitarist Danny Gatton refers to these voicings as the ‘two note wonder’ because in their 2 note simple forms these chords will work in almost in situation. In today’s lesson I will be showing you how to play shell voicings on guitar.


Shell Voicings Video Lesson


The two note wonder is just simply a chord voicing that only contains the two guide tone notes that define the chord.

So for example a two note Cmaj7 shell voicing contain the two guide tones needed to make that chord; E the major third and B the major 7th. The root can be also be added if needed. The example below shows how these shell voicings look with each of the three main chord types; major 7th, dominant 7th and a minor 7th chord.



Notice that there is two ways for each chord type to be played on the middle strings, and the notes are just reversed for each one.

Practice shell voicings in all 12 keys across the neck and remember you can always add the root for as a reference point to remember what chord you are playing.



Shell Chord Extensions


The simple construction and easy fingering of these chords make it very easy to add desired extensions which are particularly useful for dominant 7th chords because of the many alternations that occur within them.

When I first began learning to play jazz guitar, I didn’t know many chords and would always see extended chords on charts that I didn’t know how to play on the spot Almost every time I was quickly able to find the extensions I needed by adding notes to these shell chords.

Check out the example below for all the possible extensions you can add to the dominant 7th shell chords whilst still keeping the 3rd and 7th in place.


Possible Dominant 7th Chord Shell Extentions

Knowing these extensions will enable you to be able to create any possible dominant 7th extension on the spot by only changing or adding one or two notes.

Shell voicings can also be used for effective voice leading and passing movement on static chords by changing extensions chromatically.


Applying Shell Chords to Tunes


The plain two note dominant 7th voicings can sound very effective and work well in a wide array of jazz ensemble settings.

Because they are just thirds and seventh’s you can sometimes use them when you’re comping with a pianist and there won’t be any clashing of extensions because you are only playing the meat of the chord.

Two note voicings are also great to use in conjunction with single line soloing in a solo or duo setting because bigger chords are often trickier to grab and your single line soloing could sound more empty when you stop using them.

Check out the following example to see how to use the shell voicings over a 12 bar blues using the Charleston rhythm.

Note when using them over II-V’s there is only note that changes.


12 Bar Jazz Blues with Shell Voicings


Have fun with these voicings and experiment to see how can you use them in your own playing.

Remember to listen to player’s like Ed Bickert and Lenny Breau who use these types of chords all the time in thier comping and with their single line playing to create a very pianist approach to their solos.

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What do you think about using shell voicings? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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Eric Beaty

Hmm. I've never heard of "Shell voicings" before. I've heard of triads and extensions though. These aspects of music theory fascinate me to no end. It's so great having this kind of fresh knowledge at your disposal. Great material from which to glean from!

Jamie Holroyd

Thanks, yeah these voicings are great to have under your belt!

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Peter Noll

I play dull thirteens and unnatural ninths.

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This can be usefull. Thanks! I think the C9 chord is wrong - there is an A (13) and that seems odd to me.

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