Be a Shape Shifter

December 29, 2004

It can take days—even weeks—of hard work to coax musical tones from certain instruments. For example, it’s tough to get beyond mere squeaks and scronks on a fiddle, cello, or sax. Fortunately the guitar is far more inviting. In fact, once you know a few tricks, you can lay down big, driving sounds without much difficulty.

One way to do this involves sliding a familiar first- or second-position chord voicing up the neck and strumming it in conjunction with open strings. At different fretboard positions, your mobile grip harmonizes with the open strings in intriguing ways, creating impressionistic colors and jazzy sounds. Singer-songwriters often craft grooves from this serendipitous jangle, and some rockers—U2’s The Edge and the Who’s Pete Townshend spring to mind—have built careers around such shape shifting.

Ex. 1 illustrates the process. Here, we slide an everyday E major chord out of its native first position to the third, sixth, and eighth positions. As you move up the fretboard, the fretted notes and open strings combine to create rich voicings with fancy names like F#7add4/E. But don’t let the labels bamboozle you: Physically, you’re simply sliding a fixed fingering up and down the neck.

Once you’ve nailed the syncopated rhythm as notated, try strumming a few extra eighth-notes here and there. Let your ears and sense of drama guide your picking hand. Then rearrange the order of the chords—there’s no requirement that you ascend or descend in any particular sequence. Finally, try shifting the grip to different positions. Some resulting harmonies will sound as appealing as a bowl of day-old cat food, but others will draw you right in.

Instead of sliding only one shape along the neck, why not alternate between two shapes? Ex. 2 hints at the possibilities. In this case, we’re switching between major and minor triads voiced on the fourth, third, and second strings. You’ll recognize them, I’m sure. Played respectively at the second and first positions, these grips give us A and Am. (Theory freaks: Boasting

5-root-3 and 5-root-3 construction, these are second-inversion triads.) This time, we’re sticking to one open string—the fifth. After working through the chords as written, experiment by changing their order and exploring more jagged rhythms.

Rather than shifting major or minor chord grips, you can slide intervals along the fretboard. In Ex. 3, we move a voicing consisting of an octave plus a fifth from the eighth position to the fifth, third, and first positions. The ringing open G string lends a Celtic flavor to this passage, and recalls “Castles Made of Sand” and “Little Wing” from Axis: Bold as Love by Jimi Hendrix.

For even more pizzazz, try shifting several interval shapes against a droning open string. Check out Ex. 4, which features three intervals played in various positions on the second and third strings. Against the sonic backdrop of an open D, we pluck perfect fourths (as on the downbeat of beat one, bar 1), perfect fifths (as on the and of beat one, bar 1), and tritones (as in beat four, bar 1).

Things heat up in Ex. 5, when we slide minor and major thirds along the fretboard, alternately accompanying them with ringing drones played on the open second and first strings, or the fifth string. They’re a snap to play individually, yet when the shifting intervals and open strings are woven together, they produce sophisticated harmonic textures.

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