40 Ways to Play a 'C' Chord

February 11, 2014

“WHAT WOULD JIMI DO?” IT’S A QUESTION I'VE ASKED MYSELF countless times over the last four decades, particularly when faced with creating groovy rhythm guitar parts from basic chord charts. Hendrix didn’t really use a lot of different types of chords, but the vocabulary he created with the ones he knew was astounding, especially on ballads like “Hey Joe,” “The Wind Cries Mary,” “Little Wing,” “Castles Made of Sand,” “Axis: Bold As Love,” and “(Have You Ever Been to) Electric Ladyland.” Drawing from the soulful guitar moves of Curtis Mayfield and the country piano style of Floyd Cramer, Hendrix developed a unique collection of embellishments and filigrees that allowed him to improvise using dyads, or two-note chordal fragments, decorated with hammer-ons, pull-offs, and slides to play within and around a basic “parental” chord shape. For the next few months, we’ll demystify some of these magical sounds so you can incorporate them into your own musical vocabulary.

Take the humble third-position C barre chord. Some might think of it as a finite entity, but in Hendrix’ hands, it became an entire universe. Fig. A puts this transposed “A”-shaped major triad (root on the fifth and third strings) on the grid and shows how it connects to the next highest “G”-shaped C chord (root on the sixth and third strings). Fig. B adds parenthetical diatonic passing tones—the 2, the 4, and the 6—to the same grid. These are the notes Hendrix used to pair with and weave in and out of the chord tones, and this is your world for the next month.

We begin at the upper end of the chord, with the 5 (G) voiced on top of each dyad. Ex. 1 illustrates ten different ways to hammer- on, pull-off, or slide the 2 and 4 (D and F) in and out of chord tones on the top three strings during a single beat. Many feature the same notes and rhythms with subtle variations in phrasing. This is a key concept in Hendrix’s style, and the idea is to mix and match these moves into one-bar phrases. For instance, try playing bars 7, 1, 10, and 2 back-to-back. See what I mean? The more moves you learn, the more options you’ll have.

Now that we’ve established a kind of formula, dig into the ten similar 3-on-top moves shown in Ex. 2. Here, we’re mostly hammering and pulling the root and 2 by shifting into the “G”-shaped C chord and concentrating on the second, third, and fourth strings. Get comfy with the moves, and then mix and match them with the ones from Ex. 1. Follow suit in Examples 3 and 4, which feature the root and an octavelower 5 on top of each dyad, and you’ll have played circles around that humble C chord 40 different ways! Finally, pick a nice slow tempo and combine any of the previous 40 ideas while you cruise the four-bar chord progressions in Examples 5a and 5b. Play any C moves as written, transpose them to first position for Bb, sixth position for Eb, eighth position for F, tenth position for G, and eleventh position for Ab, and presto! You’ve been Jimi-fied!

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