August 1


How to use sus4 chords as upper structure chords

By Thomas Gunther

August 1, 2018

jazz voicings

In this article I will discuss how we can use suspended 4 chord structure and its inversions to create interesting modern jazz voicings and melodic lines for improvisation.

Why sus4 chords, and who uses them

Whenever I play with modern jazz guitar players I notice that they use stacked 4th voicings more than anything. The reason for it is simply that the guitar is tuned in 4ths and 5ths.
By playing those fourth structures over different base notes, guitar players created very interesting sounding voicings that we pianists don't necessarily think of. We tent to use more what Frank Mantooth called "third world" voicings, meaning voicings that are mainly based on thirds. 

The Sus 4 chord and its inversions

Every pianist is somewhat familiar with triads and their inversions. But what about those inversions we get from a sub 4 chord. When I first focused on them it opened a whole new work of possibilities when it comes to thinking about and building voicings and melodies.
The first inversion is the familiar sun 2 chord. The second inversion gives us a very interesting structure, which is a stack of two perfect fourths. Unfortunately, there is no chord symbol for it. 

Rethinking the sus 4 chord

Here is a thought. Let's make the second inversion of the sus 4 chord the actual chord for a second. The first inversion is then a sus2 chord, and the second inversion a sus 4 chord.
We can also think of it this way: by inverting the chord downwards we get the sus 4 chord (2nd inversion), and when we invert it upwards we get the sus 2 chord ( first inversion). 

To get you turned on to sus4 chords watch the video! Below the video you find my transcription of what I improvised in the video.


There are 3 things you may focus in on:

    1. The two-handed rhythmic pattern (thinking like a drummer):
      a) Watch the video above starting at 1 min 15 sec.
      b) Check out bar 1-4 of the transcription below. The second version exposes the “thinking like a drummer” approach best, because the two hands are combined in one system.

    1. The harmonic changes I created by used different bass notes (chordal and non-chordal) for underneath the Csus4 chord:
      a) Watch the video above starting at 2 min 40 sec
      b) Check out the transcription below where you find me playing almost every bass note
      there is below the same Csus4 chord.

    1. The right hand improvisation based on sus4 root, 1, inversion (=sus2), and 2. inversion (=double 4):
      a) Watch the video above starting at 3 min 36 sec

    1. b) Check out the transcription below where you find me playing almost every bass note

Thinking Like A Drummer” version with both staves combined into one:

Sus4 chords are fantastic upper structure chords

Sus4 chords are simply amazing!
As I already demonstrated in my video you can use the same sus4 chord as an upper structure chord above any bass note, each of them creating very interesting harmony.

Before I continue building on this idea, for those of you that wonder about the terminology of “Slash Chords” and Upper Structure Chords”, here is a quick explanation for you:

Slash Chords
Slash Chords

In jazz and pop music, a slash (slashed) chord is a special chord symbol used for chords where the bass note is a different note than the root note. This is also the only way how we can indicate an inversion of a chord. For example, C/E means that the bass note is E, which makes it the first inversion of a C major triad (as shown above).

Upper Structure <br />Slash Chords
Upper Structure
Slash Chords

“Upper Structure”chords are a special kind of slash chord. In upper structure slash chords, the bass note (written after the slash) is not included in the upper structure chord. That’s why it can also never be an inversion of a chord. For example, Bb/C means that we play a Bb major triad above C in the bass. C is not part of the Bb major triad, thus it is not an inversion. Instead we call it an Upper Structure slash chord (as shown above).

By the way, there are 3 chords that are rarely used in pop music. Those are measures [5], [7], and [12]. You will almost never find them in mainstream pop music. However, [5] and [12] are used as upper structure chords over altered dominant seventh chord in jazz frequently. [7] however is very, very, very rare.

So what does this table show us?

It shows us that by simply changing the bass note below a sus4 upper structure chord, we can create great sounding chords, harmony, and voicings.

How can we use this?

Like with any upper structure chord, we can quickly realize complex chords with a very simple structure. For example, lets take the second chord in our sus4 upper structure table from above. It is a Dbma7(#11) chord. The table shows us how we can quickly play this chord type by simply putting a sus4 chord whose root is a minor second below the root note of the chord symbol. In our example this means we put a Csus4 chord above the bass note Db. We right this as Csus4/Db
Look at it this way: The Csus4 chord is made of 3 pitches: C, F, G. Put above Db those notes give us the following chord notes: C=major 7th, F=major 3rd, G=sharp 11th.

Take the quiz

“Take the quiz?!? ARE YOU CRAZY” you are probably thinking right now.
Sorry! I just want to make sure you followed me this far before we get into the thick of it. So can you tell me the name of the root note of the slash chord below?


Did you answer it correctly? Great. Let’s move on then.

Thomas Gunther

About the author

Thomas Gunther (alias Thommy Günther) is a versatile internationally active jazz pianist and keyboardist, music producer, and music educator. Born in Germany, Thomas moved to Chicago after receiving his masters in teaching popular music and jazz, with focus on piano and electronic keyboard performance from State University of Music and Performing Arts Stuttgart/Germany.
In Chicago he soon become the principle pianist with the Chicago Jazz Ensemble let by Stan Kanton's music arranger and composer William Russo. Soon he formed his own bands playing piano and keyboards all over town and touring Europe regularly.
He has produced and recorded lots of music as a leader and sideman, appearing on over a dozent albums. He also offers music arranging and orchestration services. Thomas currenly serves as adjunct Professor of instruction at Columbia College Chicago where he designs and teaches courses for the Contemporary Jazz & Urban Music Program. The courses he has been (or is currently) teaching include Pop-Jazz Keyboards, Music Theory, Applied Music Production, Contemporary Arranging & Music Production.
Thomas is also the creator and owner of several educational websites such as and He also teaches group and private lessons on Zoom.
Visit for more info.

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}