Upper Structures

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

Dear Basic,

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 Maj) are fair game for upper structure playing, so C, G, D, Em, Bm, Am ect, all work. In Ex 2 we are following the upper structure triads around the cycle of 5ths, so we go from CMaj7 (that includes a G triad) to D, A, E, B, F#, C#, G# ect. 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 are 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.

Upper Structures In Depth:

Hmmmm…. Where to begin on this one…

Upper Structures derive from the Overtone Series and the concept that notes exist inside other notes. Of course you can play a D Major Triad over CMaj7; the notes are already there!! Here’s a great explanation of the overtone series:


Ok, got it? Great. So anyway, the overtone series is the scientific basis, but musically, its just about change. As the register goes up, you have access to all those other notes because the ear gets comfortable, and thus desires change. So by changing keys and super-imposing other harmonies on top as upper structures, you get a delightful surprise. Jerry Bergnozi and Dave Liebman have some incredible books out devoted entirely to this subject, so I recommend you check them out.

Practice Tips:

My best suggestion for practicing the triad approach, is to first get really good at triads!! Then practice linking them together, in different registers, and skipping around between the keys. The larger the jumps between keys, the greater the effect, and the closer related the keys are, the more subtle the effect. Experiment when you play and you’ll find what you prefer (no mystery what I like best). Start by playing over one chord. When you get really good at that, use a standard form, like blues or rhythm changes. The last step is to be original with the material, and be able to play it on everything… but enough about that…

Good luck jazz guy!!!

Link to PDF Example: HJG – Upper Structures

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Categories: Harmony, Specifically Soloing

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