• Exposed: The Top Four Characteristics of Phat Chords

    in Chords & Progressions,Contemporary Music,Experienced players,Gospel music,Piano

    phat chords image

    The term “phat chords” is a popular but unconventional nomenclature (name) for chords.

    Terms like “phat,” “steroids,” “spinal,” and others have gained popularity in many parts of the world, especially among gospel players. These names, however, merely describe the “aural” picture of the chords (i.e. – what we “hear”).

    Our focus today is on phat chords and we’ll continue some other time with “steroid chords” and friends.

    Phat literally means “FAT” and phat voicings are chord voicings that have certain features that distinguish them from other chord voicings. The difference between two pianists in terms of harmonic ability is how they choose to VOICE their chords.

    In this lesson, I’m going to take you by the hand and show you, step-by-step, four very important characteristics of phat chords.

    Phat Chords Secret #1 – Bigger intervals like 4ths and 5ths (quartal harmony).

    In traditional practice, chords are built by an aggregate of three or more pitches that are an interval of a third away from each other. E.g. C♯ min6 has C♯, E, G♯ and A♯

    C♯ to E is a third. From C♯ to E encompasses three letter names – C, D and E.

    E to G♯ is a third. From E to G♯ encompasses three letter names – E, F and G.

    A♯ to C is a third. From A♯ to C♯ encompasses three letter names – A, B and C.

    (The distance between G# and A# however is only a second. But if you invert this chord with A# as the root, it will also give you an A# half-diminished 7 – A# C# E G#. If you count the intervals between each tone, you’ll discover they’re all thirds: minor 3rd + minor 3rd + major 3rd).

    “Phat Chords” – Transformation

    C# min6 can be “phattened” by voicing it this way:

    Can you see? The chord now contains fourths as the interval between successive chord tones.

    E to A♯ is a fourth. From E to A♯ encompasses four letter names – E, F, G and A.

    A♯ to D♯ is a fourth. From A♯ to D♯ encompasses four letter names – A, B, C and D.

    D♯ to G♯ is a fourth. From D♯ to G♯ encompasses four letter names – D, E, F and G.

    G♯ to C♯ is a fourth. From G♯ to C♯ encompasses four letter names – G, A, B and C

    ** I also added the 9th (D♯) to our C# min 6, making it now a C# min 6/9 chord (that is, a “C sharp minor 6 with an added 9” chord).

    This takes us to my second characteristic of phat chords:

    Phat Chords Secret #2 – Extensions (Compound Intervals).

    Extensions are compound intervals that literally extend the range and expand the harmonic potential of a triad or seventh chord. Below are minor chords:

    C♯ minor triad

    C♯ m6

    C♯ minor [6/9]

    The difference between a C♯ min6 and a C♯ minor 6/9 is the addition of the ninth. Ninths are extensions and extensions are compound intervals. Other extensions include the eleventh and the thirteenth. Chords that contain these compound intervals sound phat.

    Phat Chords Secret #3 – Upper-structure triads that add extensions to triads and seventh chords.

    E.g. Below is C Dom7th

    Which can be played with both hands as:

    However, C minor 6th can be played above the C Root note (also our bass note in this case).

    And this will yield a phat voicing of C Dom7th with two extensions known as C Dom7 [5, ♭9]. In traditional practice, when the ninth and/or fifth of a chord is raised or lowered, it yields an altered chord. Therefore playing a Cm6 chord over a C bass note will yield a more sophisticated (Phat) voicing of the regular C Dom7th (C E G B♭).

    Technically though, this is how we should name the tones of the chord if we are to call this a C7 b9#5:

    Since D is the 9th of C, Db is the b9 (not C#).

    Since G is the 5th of C, G# is the #5.

    Since dominant chords always use the b7 interval, B is the 7th, which means Bb is the b7 (not A#).

    Naming intervals is a skill many musicians skip. Here’s a great lesson on doing it correctly.

    But for the purposes of this lesson, it is very hard to think in terms of upper structure triads, while spelling the chord correctly. This is one of those “learn the rules, then forget the rules” advanced techniques.

    (For example, using C# minor 6 has certain benefits, while using Db minor 6 has other benefits. But neither of them perfectly spell the chord: C Db E G# Ab. There is a trade-off, either way).

    Back to the lesson though :-)

    Those desirable[altered] extensions – 5 and ♭9 are from the upper-structure chord – C min6.

    If we go ahead to change the intervals between the chord tones by using the C min6 voicing we covered earlier, we’ll have:

    Wow! Imagine what we JUST made out of a regular C Dom7th Chord. Resolving the chord above to the F minor11 voicing below will sound heavenly.

    Did you see the size of that chord? That’s Titanic! That takes us to the final characteristic of phat chords:

    Phat Chords Secret #4 – Range: They span 2 octaves or more.

    C min6/9

    Can be voiced as:

    The chord above spans 266.66% of an octave (over two and half!)

    The range or width of this chord increases because of the use of the open triad technique.

    C min (which is the harmonic foundation of all C minor chords [all big C minor chords can be broken down to the basic C minor triad]) was voiced by an octave transposition of its middle note.

    In the situation above, the middle-note is played an octave higher.

    In the next article, I’ll be breaking down the steroid chord. However, here’s what you should know before then:

    Steroids are nothing but a quartal voicing of the min11 chord. Here’s what I mean:

    Above, is a typical minor 11th chord. The interval between successive chord tones in this minor 11th chord is in thirds. However, if we use bigger intervals (fifths precisely) between successive chord-tones like we covered in the first step, we’ll have

    This voicing sounds “thick” and spans an octave wider than usual and also contains fifths (quartal harmony).

    In medicine, steroids are said to make someone fat. Could it be that steroids are phat voicings??? You know better.


    1. The phat chords below can be applied as a 6-2 chord progression on E♭ or a 3-6 chord progression on A♭.

    2. For those who know their onions, you can even fit this into other harmonic pictures like a 7-3 in the key of D♭ or a 2-5 in the key of B♭.

    3. For a partial modulation from C Major to E♭, these chords will take you to F minor (chord ii on the key of E♭).

    Next is on steroid chords. Meanwhile, explore the techniques we covered in this lesson til’ then.

    Hope you enjoyed.

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    Onyemachi "Onye" Chuku is a Nigerian musicologist, pianist, and author. Inspired by his role model (Jermaine Griggs) who has become his mentor, what he started off as teaching musicians in his Aba-Nigeria neighborhood in April 2005 eventually morphed into an international career that has helped hundreds of thousands of musicians all around the world. Onye lives in Dubai and is currently the Head of Education at HearandPlay Music Group and the music consultant of the Gospel Music Training Center, all in California, USA.

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