Some Words about Chord Vocabulary (or Bucky Pizzarelli is Absolutely Right!)

Imagine listening to a practiced pianist who only used single notes to play a song. Unheard of!

The piano keyboard offers 88 keys to make music. It's logical—indeed, almost obligatory—that both notes and chords be played by the instrumentalist. The guitar is the same way in that it too provides multi-tonic playing possibilities. Single notes are often used, of course. But it’s chords that are played in the majority of musical situations.

In many respects, chord playing is the essence of the guitar. Yet today it’s easy to get the feeling that chordal exploration—what can be considered as a true art within the art of guitar playing—continues to wane in practice and performance.


Take an informal poll on Facebook or YouTube. Guaranteed, you’ll find players of all styles flashing their lead-playing chops. Rarely do you see posted videos of people’s chordal pyrotechnics!


None of this is to denigrate playing one-part harmonies. It’s fun to “fly”—whether it’s a screaming rock lead, boisterous bluegrass picking, or sweeping jazz lines. Still, chordal improvisation and development seem to be taking on “dying art [within an art]” status.


One of the most renowned guitarists ever embodies—and is preserving—the beauty of chordal mastery. That player is jazz guitar legend Bucky Pizzarelli.


Bucky is currently making a remarkable comeback from a mini-stroke he suffered late last year. Clearly, there’s no slowing down this 90-year-old grandmaster—who, incidentally, is a friend of 95-year-old Al Caiola, who was cited in this space a few weeks ago. (Two New Jersey nonagenarians. Revered musical elders. Guitar monsters. Makes sense.)


Bucky is, without question, best known for his chord-centric style of playing. Interviewed recently before a gig, he stressed the criticality of chord playing in order to attain freedom and flexibility as a guitarist. He touched on 3 things that all players should consider. Allow me to paraphrase and amplify his words:


  1. Having a strong chord vocabulary enables you to create solo arrangements of any song you want. The guitar can be voiced “pianistically” to play songs using combinations of chords, chord phrases, and single notes—thus enabling you to play unaccompanied. Bucky has always emphasized the importance of learning and playing complete songs. (Sounds obvious, but a lot of developing players simply don’t do it.)

  2. When you play as part of a group, you’re often playing accompaniment. Always “make the other guy sound as good as he can.” Face it, we’re accompanying other musicians most of the time before we get our moment in the solo spotlight. That means we’re generally playing chords. The prettier the chords/phrases we play, the better the “other guy” will sound. In an interesting take on guitar karma, Bucky suggests that this selfless mindset will come back to us in positive musical ways. (I agree.)

  3. An expansive chord vocabulary can be applied in all aspects of playing. Beyond chord melody playing, Bucky is known as the master of block chord soloing. His is a vintage style of chording that harkens back to the earliest jazz guitar pioneers like Carl Kress, Eddie Lang, and Dick McDonough. What’s ‘notable’ about Bucky’s chord voicings is that many are used interchangeably between his solo and accompaniment work. (And oh so tastefully.) 


Sometimes I can be accused of trying to sound like Bucky. To that I say, “Yeah, so? What jazz guitarist wouldn’t want to have a little ‘Pizzarelli’ on their musical menu of techniques?” Besides, Bucky’s sound has rubbed off on me over the years… hey, I can practically hear him practicing, considering I live just over 5 miles from his house in Saddle River here in northern New Jersey.


Still, I love playing octaves the way Bucky plays them. And his signature style of chord soloing is an ongoing area of study and application for me. He plays a forever-classic jazz sound—occasionally infused with country and Western Swing—that strongly resonates with me as a guitarist.


Bucky is right when he says we all need to keep learning and playing songs, both as a soloist and accompanist. It stands to reason that only with a solid foundation of chordal technique—and a true appreciation for it as an art within the art of guitar—can we do so.


His insightful words and inspirational playing attest to that.


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