I didn't really 'learn' to play swing, I more or less 'grokked' it. For most of my early youth, my father was a working stride piano player. He played every swing standard known to man and he swung his butt off. Our house (and my head) was filled with the sound of that piano every day of my life. Needless to say, I had an advantage when I got calls to do traditional swing or dixieland gigs, as I felt I already knew a lot of the tunes, whether I had played them before or not. All I had to do was 'remember' the changes.
Swing Chording is unlike any other chording technique. It is style-specific much like Bluegrass accompaniment, Travis picking or Blues. The feel., time and sound are the most important elements. The chord voicing necessary to produce that sound are very different from the open chords or full bar chords you might be using right now. These, as you have probably discovered, don't work worth a damn!
The 6th chord is often considered the sound of traditional swing, although many players will include the Maj7 if they are leaning towards a Jazz/Swing version. This is mostly a style decision. The really important difference between the two approaches lies in the chord progression itself.
The 7th chords in Traditional Swing arrive earlier than in the Jazz/Swing versions. For example, when my father plays “All of Me”, the first two chords are C6 and E7. If I sit down and play with him with my “jazz hat” on, and play C, Bm7sus4, and E7, he gets a puzzled look on his face. And he is right! Those are not the chords to the tune. They are the reharmonized jazz version of the progression. Paying respect to the music and your fellow musicians is an important part of playing any music. So……….a good rule of thumb, is to check with your fellow travelers to see how close to the traditional version they are going to play a tune before jumping in!
The Chord Voicings
The “chunk” associated with the Swing chording style, usually played “four to the bar” (on each quarter note), comes from chord voicings that utilize the lower strings, very often the 6th, 4th and 3rd strings. with the 5th string muted.
They are pared down chords that use GUIDE TONES to represent the whole chord. Guide Tones are the essential notes in a chord that initiate chord movement - generally the 3rd and 7th (or 6th). The Root and 5th are considered optional, although they are often important to give the chord ´body’. The Root can be safely left for the bass player (although it can usually be heard “in context” anyway), and the 5th (unless altered) is a neutral note.
Here are the first eight measures of “All of Me”. See if you can figure out which chord shape each of these voicings is based upon, and which notes (Root, 3rd, 5th, etc.) are being used to represent the chord.
Big fun! The * indicates a “secondary dominant” for the purpose of the text. More about that later.