That is a somewhat stupid page title, but I think they’re nice, so there… Anyway, I’m going to show you some ways to expand and extend the standard chord voicings we all use. You will have to have a understanding of how to play basic chords on the guitar if this is going to make sense. If you have any questions – please leave a comment below, and I’ll answer it as soon as possible – given that I actually have an answer.
One more thing: If you’re interested in the technical part of getting the sounds I’m using, you should have a look at the companion article: How to Get A Nice Clean Tone.
Cowboy Standard Chords
OK, you know your standard major and minor chords, and maybe even a dominant, minor and a major seventh chord, but you’d like to have some more colours at your disposal. How to go about getting them? First, let me say that there’s nothing wrong with standard chords – I use them all the time – but there’s a time and a place. Maybe you’ve learned some jazz chords, but if you’re not into the, er, jazzy quality they lend to a progression, you’re still stuck. The chords I’m going to show you have a more pop/rock sound to them, and to my ears also have an airy, or ambient, timbre that makes them work well in many pop/rock (and jazz too) scenarios.
Singles or Doubles?
One of the first things on your list when you’re trying to break free from the conventional chords, is to stop doubling notes. If you’re using all six strings to play a chord, you’re not necessarily doing it wrong, but you won’t get the results we’re aiming for here. The standard chords we’ve all learned consist of nothing more (if they’re straight major or minor chords) than three notes. In a standard open E chord, the root (E) is played three times in different octaves. Furthermore, the fifth (B) is played two times, and the major third (G#) is played once. If we remove all the doublings, we’re left with the skeleton of the chord, which could be played like Figure 1 or Figure 2. There are several other alternatives, but that’s beyond the scope of this article.
Nice chord voicings, tip 1: Avoid or reduce the amount of doubling in your chords.
The Magic Voicing
Everything I’m about to tell you I
stole learned from a column in Guitar Player Magazine from the late eighties. It was written by Frank Gambale and focussed on what he called The Magic Voicing. The reason for this term became clear when Mr. Gambale proceeded to show that a basic pattern, or way of organising chord tones, could yield voicings that were versatile in the extreme. He actually used one voicing to represent all the chords in a harmonized major scale. Personally, I think that there are some voicings/functions that work better than others, so I’m concentrating on the ones that I like best.
The Magic Voicing Unveiled
OK, what exactly is this magic voicing, then? Well, basically it’s a major triad with an added fourth scale degree in the bass. That means that if we take the standard E major chord from earlier, we just add the fourth degree from the E major scale – which is the note A (Figure 3). That was easy – can we all go home now? Nothing more to see here?
Actually, yes; yes, but you shouldn’t; and yes – there is more to see here. The new bass note changes the centre of gravity in the chord, so to speak, and it now behaves more like an A major seventh (astute readers will have gathered that it spells out an A major ninth with no third) chord. If we wanted to use the magic voicing as an E major chord, we’d have to have the E in the bass and stack a major chord on top which has E as its fourth scale degree, namely B major. So, B major with an E in the bass (which usually is notated B/E) will work as an E major chord (Figure 4). The root lies at the bottom in these examples, althought it strictly speaking doesn’t have to. We’ll get back to this.
Nice chord voicings, tip 2: To use The Magic Voicing, take a major triad and add the fourth scale degree in the bass. This bass note is the root of the chord you’ve built. By the same token you can build from an existing note that you want as the root, and add a major triad a fifth above.
The Magic Voicing with different bass notes
OK, we’we used The Magic Voicing as a major seventh. Unlike some standard maj7 chords, it doesn’t invoke the ghost of jazz when you play. To my ears it sounds modern, and it doesn’t carry the association that comes with jazz chords that, to me at least, give them an old-fashioned sound. Don’t get me wrong – sometimes this is exactly the association you want to make, but as I said earlier it’s a question of time and place. Sometimes you want it, and sometimes you don’t. The chords we’re working on now are supposed to be alternatives.
The Magic Voicing is a very versatile concept, and you can easily convert your Magic-Voicing-as-major-seventh to an equally rich-sounding parallell minor. Let’s take the Magic Voicing in G – i.e. a D major chord with a G bass – played with the root on either the fourth or the fifth string (Figure 5 and Figure 6, respectively). That’s The Magic Voicing as a G major seventh. Adding the low E as the bass note magically turns it into a particularly three-dimensional E minor chord (Figure 7). Easy as pie!
Adding a bass note a minor seventh below the same G Magic Voicing (Figure 8), transforms the chord into a lovely A13sus chord. It’s still etheral and modern-sounding, but now it can function as a regular dominant (suspended) chord. What’s not to like? Easy to play, in addition to providing some nice, ambiguous, open-sounding colours.
Nice chord voicings, tip 3: Adding different bass notes to an existing Magic Voicing can triple the mileage, offering minor chords and dominant suspensions in the process.
Other magic voicings – suspensions
If you play a standard D major chord and use your little finger to fret the note G instead of F# on the high E string, you’ve got a suspended chord – in this case a suspended fourth. On the other hand, if you leave the little finger out of it and instead lift your (most people use this fingering, although others are possible) middle finger off of the fretboard, you’ve got a suspended second. To read more, have a look at this Wikipedia article about suspensions. Suffice to say, these chord variants have a restless, unresolved sound. Most people will hear these two examples as exerting a strong “pull” towards the D major chord, and major chords usually follow suspensions. The real fun starts when you don’t resolve them, and start bending them to your will.
The sus2 (suspended second) chord can easily work as a substitute for straight major chords – as seen in Figure 9.
Like The Magic Voicing, adding a bass note produces a slightly different (but equally nice) minor voicing with the new root being the added note (Figure 10).
Inversions are easy with suspended chords, as long as you’re clear on what the (implied) root is. For instance, the standard Dsus2 chord is actually identical to an Asus4 chords, an herein lies the secret – ambiguity. To me, the difference between straight major or chords and their equivalents, is that the ambiguity that the voicings I’ve presented here adds colour and character to the chords. At the same time, they’re not so dissonant that they undermine either the pleasing quality of the chords, and therefore you won’t send the audience running for the hills whith your paint-peeling, newest, most modern 12-tone-row, atonal, free-jazz dominant seventh voicings (I actually use these from time to time. They’re like chili – you don’t want them with everything).
Nice chord voicings, tip 4: Sus2-voicings are effective, and can easily be used as an alternative to The Magic Voicing. The same principle applies: add a bass note a minor third below to turn a functioning-as-major-chord to its respective minor parallell.
Fair Use and Implied Melodies
To my ears, these chord types are best used as variants and alternatives to other chords. Their inherent flavour is one of ambiguity and openness, and that’s what makes them so effective when used as contrast to other chords that don’t share these traits. I’ve found them to be very effective when juxtaposed with dissonant chords, where they provide relief, as well as with more standard major/minor chords, where they provide tension. In addition, they lend themselves to being played either fingerstyle or with pick and fingers, as you can easily pick out single notes in the highest register, thus implying melodies with your chord playing.
Nice chord voicings, tip 5: Although these voicings are exeptionally cool, they can (as all things) be overused. Use them as contrast in your playing, and let them over time naturally blend in with the stuff you usually play.
A Sympathetic Sound
Last but not least, let’s talk about sound. These voicings have, as I’ve said earlier, what I’d call a modern sound, and most of the time they sound best on electric guitar (your opinion may differ). As electric guitarists we have more sounds at our disposal, but that also means that we have a musical responsibility to use these sounds in a conscious way. Imagine having an entire orchestra available and not thinking about sound and timbre! No, we need to meet this challenge. I’ve written an accompanying article called How To Get A Nice Clean Tone that deals specifically with getting a sound I like to use with these voicings. I also have a Youtube clip to show how they might sound.
Nice chord voicings, final tip: Make sure that you put the necessary thought and work into getting a sound that is complementary to what you’re playing. I’ve written about it earlier: How To Get a Better Guitar Sound