The Easy Way To Play Complicated Chords On The Piano

Lisa Witt  /  Chording / Jul 19

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Moving beyond playing simple triads will really make a HUGE difference in your piano playing.

You won’t sound like a basic player anymore, you’ll sound advanced, way more sophisticated and the music you’ll be able to create will be beautiful.

So how do you do it? How do you get from playing simple chords to complex chords?

The answer is chord extensions. That means adding notes (extensions) to the simple chords to create a different characteristic.

How To Build Chords

To do this, let’s first take a look at how we build simple chords. Triads are just a stack of thirds. The root – 3rd – and 5th note of whatever key we’re in.

Let’s take G minor as an example. The basic triad is:


To move beyond those simple triads, we just need to apply that same principle to extend the chords further.

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Building A 7th Chord

The next logical third up from the 5th note is the 7th note, and we’ve done lots of lessons on 7th chords. They’re beautiful chords and are a great way to begin expanding your chord repertoire.

So our Gm7 would now be: 



But why stop there?

Building A 9th Chord

If we keep applying the same principle and go up another third, we’ll end up on the 9th. Now the 9th note is the same as the 2nd note. But we call it the 9th because we have built the chord up from the root and because it also has the 7th in it.

So now our Gm9 chord looks like this:



Notice how it’s called a Gm9 (or Gmadd9 because we are ‘adding’ the 9), but we are still playing the 7th? That is because 9th chords also contain the 7th, so it’s just implied that you’ll play the 7th as well. Confused yet? Don’t worry.

Major Chords

Up until now, we’ve been working with a minor chord, but the same principles can be applied with major chords as well.

So let’s look at Eb Major.

The basic triad is:



Going up a third gives us an EbMaj7, which is:


Now let’s stop – and take a look at the EbMaj7 and the G minor triad. Notice anything similar?

The top three notes are exactly the same!! That’s why playing a G minor chord with an Eb in the bass sounds so good because you’re really just playing an EbMaj7! How cool is that?! (well maybe you don’t think it is, but I do)

So this is a lot to take in. The important thing to remember is that the notes we are adding (the 7th and 9th) are notes that naturally occur in the key signature.

How To Actually Use These Chords

That’s all well and good, but how do you actually play them? Are you supposed to play four (or five)-note chords for every chord? No! 

This is where two-handed voicings come in. All that means is taking the notes of a chord, and dividing them up between your two hands. So your left hand might play the root and the 5th, and your right hand could play the 3rd, 7th and 9th.

Or you could play the root and 7th with your left hand, and the 9th, 3rd and 5th in the right hand. There are so many possibilities and it’s really fun to explore.

Lisa Witt has been teaching piano for 19 years and in that time has helped hundreds of students learn to play the songs they love. Lisa received classical piano training through the Royal Conservatory of Music, but she has since embraced popular music and playing by ear in order to accompany herself and others.

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