Block Chords (Locked Hands Style) vs Spread Chords: How Pianists Create Them

There are certain types of rich chord techniques the jazz pianist ought to have under their fingers in a piano/bass/drums or larger group setting. Both Block and Spread Chords may be used for a full sounding effect during the melody of certain tunes. Additionally, these styles may be used to build intensity during a piano solo, or culminating in impressive spread chords at the solo’s highpoint.

The Block Chord Style on the keyboard was originally invented by pianist/organist Milt Buckner, who imitated the shout chorus horn arrangements of bands like Glen Miller’s, then translated similar voicings to the piano. The pianist however, who received most recognition for this signature sound was George Shearing, when his quintet in 1949 rose to fame with the Harry Warren hit, September In The Rain. The George Shearing Quintet used the instrumentation piano/vibes/guitar/bass/drums, with the first three instruments each playing a highly nuanced melody in perfect syncronization. Check out the September In The Rain link below:

Officially Block Chords, also known as “Locked Hands Style“, consists of the RH playing the melody on top while grabbing several notes underneath, while at the same time the LH doubles the melody a mere octave below. This technique keeps all the notes closely voiced within an octave, and the hands appear to be moving as though locked together. Usually block chords are played around the center register of the piano. This video below explains it:

Pianist Red Garland played what most musicians consider to be Spread Chords (with apologies to correcting Miles Davis when he asked the pianist, “Play some block chords, Red”). Spread chords have the hands visually spread further apart, just like you’d think! The RH plays the melody or improvised solo line in the mid to upper register using octaves, while perhaps including a complimentary note in between that RH octave. The LH plays rich and complex 4 note chords in the sweet spot around center register of the piano. Both hands play simultaneously, with every top melodic note backed by all 7 or so notes, punched together. Check out Red Garland’s trio playing Billy Boy in the link below: 

Pianists mainly use block or spread chords in a combo setting – or at least with a bassist who plays the roots to the chords in order to give the music a bottom end. However, there are exceptions! Check out Oscar Peterson playing, Give Me The Simple Life, covering the keyboard using block chords just by himself on his solo piano album Tracks in the link below:

There is an even more advanced 2 handed piano chord technique called “Drop Two Voicings”, which we will leave for another day. Meanwhile, this is plenty to handle for now! Read more about harmonizing under a melody, chord techniques, and other ideas in my book/audio, Amazing Phrasing – Keyboard.

Big Ideas For Small Hands: How To Write a Full Sounding Piano Arrangement

Let’s take the lovely ballad Skylark (by Johnny Mercer/Hoagy Carmichael), and learn how to enhance a ballad’s melody with beautiful chords and a foundational bass line. In this video observe how I took a chart from an old fakebook and updated some chords more to my liking, a process called reharmonization:

The music I used during the above tutorial was this messy looking chart:

It’s probably something only its creator could decipher, right? A few of my YouTube subscribers & students wanted me to share the written music with them, so I reverted to a technique I normally do when I wish to add my own chords to a desired tune – I write out just the melody, with no other chords to distract me, and start afresh:

Now if you weren’t familiar with this tune, judging by the key signature Skylark could either be in the key of C minor or Eb major, but since I knew in my head how the tune was supposed to sound I went with the latter key of Eb, figured out the tune’s skeleton structure (bare bones chords that give Skylark its characteristic sound). Next step was to add pleasing passing chords between the essential ones, keeping in mind how the melody might affect each chord’s quality (ma7, mi7, or chords with altered notes?) etc., while at the same time creating a strong bass line to move the harmony along from the bottom roots to the top melody note:


The final step is perhaps the most challenging – how to figure out the inner voice movement (inside moving notes in between the melody and the bass), all the while using good sounding voicings, divided up between the fingers which are full in tone, yet also playable by small hands! I enjoy using the Bud Powell Shell in my left hand for chords within a certain range. On ballads I intersperse LH shells with rolled or broken 10ths, mixed with single note left hand lines or the occasional low bass note for richness and variety! (You can find in depth demonstrations of these techniques in my book The Aspiring Jazz Pianist plus several video tutorials

It helps with expression to hear the lyrics of a song, even when playing instrumentally.  There’s a part where the lyrics “crazy as a loon” pop up, can you guess where? Great American Songbook composers and lyricists work hand in hand to bring out the best in a tune. In the video below I’m playing the above written out arrangement, plus a few ‘birdcall trills’ to top off this 2 handed piano arrangement of the beautiful Skylark:



Tea For Two/My Little Suede Shoes (Piano Medley)

This quirky mambo/cha-cha mashup of 2 seemingly unrelated tunes had been buzzing inside my brain for a week. What would happen if I paired this Vincent Youmans 1924 classic with a Charlie Parker mambo, put them both in the same key, mashed the tunes together with a Latin Jazz Dance Beat, figured out how to create that groove for the solo pianist’s left hand while exploring the possibilites of how to utilize the range of the piano for a ‘hands on the keys bird’s eye view’ tutorial/demonstration, filmed with a gooseneck cell phone clamp attached to the music rack? Continue reading “Tea For Two/My Little Suede Shoes (Piano Medley)”

When The Saints Go Marching In (Lesson in Jazz Harmony)

Memorial Weekend 2020 felt like a relevant time to revisit this recording of When The Saints Go Marching In, to honor the lives of heroes lost during both the past and most recent of days. The concept of my arrangement was similar to a New Orleans Funeral or Celebration of Life – a contemplative piano introduction, followed by a jubilant jazz band send off: Continue reading “When The Saints Go Marching In (Lesson in Jazz Harmony)”

Adding Chords to a Jazz Ballad: Skylark Tutorial

Ever wonder how jazz musicians come up with inspired chords when playing ballads? Reharmonization can be a fun experiment to try!  Watch my video to find 3 ways to create a compelling bass line plus some sweet chord voicings to play under the melody of Hoagy Carmichael’s classic composition Skylark:


It’s All About YOU! Party Game

How To Play the Musical “Guess that YOU-tune” Game:

The host will want a copy of Debbie Denke’s album, It’s All About YOU!*


Additionally the host will want a pencil for each guest, a fun dessert to serve for intermission, a prize for the winner (I suggest something musical like an album or a music book as an award), and have copies of the list of clues for each guest (or a page with blank lines numbered 1-16), plus a copies of the lyrics to #16 It Had To Be You. Clues and lyrics are found in this site under the Downloads tab above. Allow about 90 minutes to play this game.

Continue reading “It’s All About YOU! Party Game”