Comments about roots never being omitted in another question How to distinguish between a minor triad and a maj7 chord with same notes but without the root prompted this one.

This question Why rootless chords? only partly covers the question. It only considers a bass part supplying the root.

It seems to me for practical purposes "rootless" chords are voicings for accompaniment chords where either a bass supplies the roots, or a treble instrument ends up hitting the root in the course of improvising. A pianist could supply all three parts.

To what extent will roots actual get played somehow even if they aren't in the "rootless" accompaniment chords?


A lot of responses are saying things amounting to "roots aren't played all the time", or even "the root is absent (from all instruments) more often than not."

I though my wording "to what extent" was clear enough to show I'm looking for a rough description of what's normal in styles using rootless chords (not Dixieland, not free jazz, etc.)

Maybe two examples from Evans/LaFaro will help...

From Alice in Wonderland

enter image description here

From Nardis

enter image description here

The dissertation containing the transcripts is about LaFaro's unique, groundbreaking bass style. The examples aren't cherry-picked. Most all the examples look like these. Roots for the labeled chords are in the piano or bass most of the time. Also, it seems roughly, when a chord doesn't have a root in either instrument the rootless chord contained between chord that do have roots - like the first G7 in the Alice in Wonderland example.

It isn't a question of black and white extremes or isolated passages. It a question of norms. Isn't this kind of harmony normal for "rootless" chords? Chords roots are play somewhere in the texture for a significant amount of the music.

"Rootless" is really a reference to a type of voicing, typically for the guitar or piano. "Rootless chord" is a misnomer. "Rootless voicing" or "rootless chord voicing" is the actual meaning.

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    There isn't any expectation that, if the pianist is playing a rootless chord, then someone else in the band will be playing the root. Rootless voicings don't need to be played simultaneous with the root. Perhaps you are thinking about a concern that, without the root, the listener might become confused about what the true root is. But a given root can be established earlier in the measure or even earlier in the song. In cases of really well-known songs, the root is established before the recording begins, because the listener knows the roots by heart.
    – jdjazz
    Jul 9, 2020 at 4:32
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    This question seems to assume that the bass supplies the root. The bass might play some other note than the root.
    – Rosie F
    Jul 9, 2020 at 5:43
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    If the definition of a rootless chord means that there is a bass playing the root tone most chords played by the right hand (piano, keyboard) would be rootless chords, isn't it? But is this what is meant by rootless chord? Jul 9, 2020 at 8:26
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    @AlbrechtHügli - any chord without a root note will be called rootless - on one instrument.
    – Tim
    Jul 9, 2020 at 10:00
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    I think the issue here is assuming that the notes that are played is everything there is, the whole objective truth that could be analyzed under a microscope. But that's never the case - like jdjazz says, "... the root has already been sufficiently established in the listener's ear". When you play a note or a chord, you're only giving hints and suggestions. The real music is in the listener's mind, it's subjective and you can only manipulate it indirectly, you don't have direct explicit access. The listener might not get your clues, and for some people you try to explicate the harmony more. Jul 9, 2020 at 11:25

5 Answers 5


First I’m not a fan of the term “rootless” when referring to jazz because regardless of whether it’s being played or not the root of the chord is very important to jazz players and is something they are aware of at all times. Pianists tend to not play roots on the bottom of their chords much because it can clash with the bass but they may include root notes in other parts of their voicings. Guitarists will sometimes voice with the root on the bottom, it depends on the style and preference of the player but it is in a higher register than the bass. As a bassist I prefer pianists and guitarists avoid playing roots in general, especially in the low register because it can sound cluttered against a walking bass line.

As for your final question: “To what extent will roots actual get played somehow even if they aren't in the "rootless" accompaniment chords?”

The answer is a fair amount but not all the time and mostly by the bassist, so about 25-50% of the time at most. It also depends somewhat on the style of jazz, the more modern, the less you will hear roots. When playing walking bass lines in 4/4 usually only one or two of the quarter notes in any given bar will be a root, most often on a downbeat to establish the foundation of the harmony. The rest of the time the bass creates lines using chord tones and passing notes to spell out the harmony in a logical linear fashion. If a soloist plays a root it is in the context of improvising a melodic line and doesn’t really feel like the root, more like part of a melody.

Here’s a little 4 bar example of piano and bass playing a simple I-VI7-IIm7-V7 in C. You’ll see that the only roots are in the bass and only the second bar has more than one root in it but it sounds surprisingly grounded.

enter image description here

  • There seems to be a lot of confusion about my question. But I appreciate you gave an example and tried to quantify things. I call your example notation 100% roots given. The harmonic rhythm is one chord per bar. Each bar's chord has a root somewhere. Even if the root was not on beat one, it would still provide the root. Is my question being misunderstood to mean "is the root present for the entire duration of the chord?" Jul 9, 2020 at 14:31
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    Seems like it, I tried to demonstrate that roots do often occur and where and at what frequency they typically occur in jazz, although “typical” and “jazz” don’t always go together, lol. I agree with you on the 100% roots given comment. I’d say the short answer to your title question is: By themselves sometimes yes, in context almost exclusively no. As mentioned in the other question you referenced, if a pianist is performing solo and he improvises using left hand voicings that have a 3rd or 7th as the low note (basically playing with an imaginary bassist) that can be described as rootless. Jul 9, 2020 at 15:20
  • Your last line confuses me. A pianist plays a rootless chord in LH - like Dm7 voiced 7935 - the RH plays some passage that includes a D natural, are you calling that a rootless chord? Jul 9, 2020 at 15:45
  • It’s a gray area I know, but I guess I would because the right hand would be playing a melodic line independently of the chord in the left hand. The root in the right hand would be more part of the melody than the harmony imo. It’s open to interpretation and I wouldn’t argue the point if someone thinks the opposite. In my head I’d be hearing that low D though! Jul 9, 2020 at 16:14
  • For me I think this was just a matter of "rootless chord" versus "rootless voicing." The former seems like a bad term, the latter is perfectly clear... at least to me. Jul 13, 2020 at 21:32

It's important to clarify the role of rootless voicings. They are not limited to contexts where someone else in the band plays the root. Even in a solo piano concert, the pianist will frequently use rootless voicings--even when the root isn't being sustained as a bass note and even when the root doesn't appear in the right hand as part of the improvisation. In most small combo contexts, the root is absent (from all instruments) more often than not. There is no rule, expectation, or convention that the root be ever-present somewhere in the band.

In a small combo context, each instrument has a designated role. The bassist's job is to lay down the bass line, which establishes the roots. That's why it is generally considered poor form for pianists or guitarists to play the root in the lower range of their instrument. Doing so takes over the bassist's role, causing the pianist/guitarist to clash with (or override) the bassist's creative choices. This is part of the reason why rootless voicings are so popular--they provide an easy way to avoid stepping on the bassist's toes.

But just because the bassist establishes the bass line doesn't mean they will play the root most of the time--or even at all for a given chord. Paul Chambers and Scott LaFaro (among others) provide great examples of how to walk a bass line without ever playing the root. In some instances, a single chord may occur for multiple consecutive measures, in which case it may be unnecessary to play/sustain the root in every single measure.

But even in those cases where the bassist does play the root, it is usually only played on the first beat of the measure. And then on beats 2-4, any rootless voicing that the pianist/guitarist plays will occur without anyone else in the band supplying the root. This is perfectly fine, because the root has already been sufficiently established in the listener's ear.

So, it's very common that, while a rootless voicing is being played, no one else in the band is playing the root.

  • "But even in those cases where the bassist does play the root, it is usually only played on the first beat of the measure." In a nutshell that is my point. The root was supplied. That seems to be a norm. The rest seems to be cases of the exception proving the rule. Jul 9, 2020 at 14:21
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    Ah, so by 'supplies the root' you don't mean 'plays the root simultaneous with the chord'? Is this an accurate representation of your Q: "are rootless voicings truly rootless if the root has been implied earlier by the bass?" I think the answer here would be "yes," because the term 'rootless voicing' is really only meant to characterize the notes that the comping instrument is playing. The reason for using rootless voicings is to avoid duplicating what the bass is doing (namely, playing the root, among other things). But if the voicing doesn't have the root, then it qualifies as rootless.
    – jdjazz
    Jul 9, 2020 at 18:11
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    Yes. And I think the matter may simply be between terms "rootless voicing" or "rootless chord voicing" and "rootless chord." I see people use the term "rootless chord." I don't mean to nit-pick. In the question I linked about an incomplete maj7 chord, root omission was a concern. Jul 9, 2020 at 19:57
  • It sounds like you're using the word 'chord' to refer to all of the notes played collectively by the entire band at different times in the measure. To me, it doesn't sound like we're still talking about a chord. This usage also seems problematic because it blurs a very important distinction. A pianist might play Cmin as (1) C-Eb-G-Bb or (2) Eb-G-Bb-D. We need to distinguish between those; the second is rootless, & the first isn't. It seems problematic to say that chord #2 is not rootless if a different instrument plays the bass at a different time in the measure from when the chord is played.
    – jdjazz
    Jul 10, 2020 at 0:59
  • firstly I'm just going with the chord symbols in those transcriptions. But otherwise I would treat "chord" like analysis in any homophonic style. It's an abstraction and you need to assess vertical and horizontal aspects all the parts. I didn't do any analysis in my question. Are you disagreeing with the chord labels in the transcriptions I included? Jul 10, 2020 at 18:20

Maybe additions to the tags - of guitar and piano - would make the question more focussed.

On the proviso that the bassist will often (not always) provide roots - after all, in a lot of music, including jazz, that's almost a given, rootless chords are justified for guitarists and piano players.

I consider that at the very beginning of any piece, it's important to give the listener a feel of where 'home' is, so they know where they are, and the simple expedient for this is to play the tonic. That of course includes the root - otherwise we could be anywhere. Whether that's played on whatever instrument is academic, but could be on one, some or all.

After that, with bass playing root of some harmonies, and/or 3rds 5ths or extensions of them, the listener will have some guide to the geography of the piece, as a 3rd, for example, is directly a clue to whatever root it would have been. So, rootless for piano/guitar, and also rootless for bass. 7ths work similarly.

There is no need to keep putting roots in, although it does help to keep the listener in the loop. If it's a jazz classic, then the journey is possibly already known, so the listener may well put the missing roots in, in his inner ear.

As already stated, rootless chords are very useful as they keep players off each others paths. Roots, by definition, tend to be low notes, which when there are more than one, tend to muddy up quickly. Avoiding extra low notes therefor alleviates that situation.

Back to para. 3: not certain that something like Sweet Georgia Brown falls into this category!


It's common and trivial for a player to choose a voicing that doesn't include the root of the chord. Maybe another instrument will play the root, maybe not.

Look at this example. The first chord omits its root, the second one omits its 3rd. But if the composer tells us the underlying harmony is as marked, we mustn't argue! A fine example of chord symbols NOT being a complete description of the music. (I suppose we COULD have written 'C/G(omit root) and G7(omit 3rd). But why not let the notation do its job?)

enter image description here

Then there's this sort of thing. Yes, a dim7 chord often acts as a dom7(b9) rooted a major 3rd under one of its notes. People who want to emphasise this function sometimes use a chord symbol like the one in red.

enter image description here

But beware of taking this idea too far. If you find yourself writing 'Cm13#11(omit root)(omit 7th)' (and we DO see this sort of thing) it's time to consider whether you're looking at the chord from a useful angle!


To give you a more metaphysical answer: If no musician play the root of a chord, it should be played in the heads of the listener. This is an extremely important part of playing jazz: To create a "player" in each listeners mind. This goes for melody, chords, rythm, structure. You should as a jazz player be able to create this "player" inside each listening mind.

In my opinion, this is what jazz is all about. This is what makes music swing, this is why a melodic twist turns out "interesting", or a rythmic cross-rythm feel enticing.

When that is said: The musicians need to "set up" the player in each listener, as the previous answers adress. They need to establish a tonal center, a basic rythm, basic chords and roots. And this is why a seasoned jazz fan actually experiences a lot more when hearing jazz than the inexperienced listener. Because they already got the "internal player" tuned up!

EDIT: I'd say that roots are generally played in jazz. The early forms of jazz used roots on the down beats, and later forms will play roots on up beats, off beat, possibly even being played in the bar prior to the chord, or the bar behind. I would also say, in the Bill Evans Trio case, that Scott LaFaro often used ambigous notes that may be interpreted as different roots in adjacent chords in the form. This was a part of the unique creation of Evans/LaFaro, in my opinion. LaFaro expanded the role of the bass due to the much more varied playing of the roots of chords, both in time and beat, and he also did this by frequently omitting the root altogether, because it was implied by the tradition and culture. In a way you could say that they brought the listener closer to the band by exploiting the "player" inside the head of the listener, thus making the listener actually becoming a player in the band. I know that this is highly subjective, but I feel that way about the Evans/LaFaro music.

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