Vibrant Voicings

October 20, 2005

Greene’s dedicated study of harmony gave him a deeper understanding of the subject than perhaps any other player. From Bach to bebop, he had it all under his fingers—and, when the voicing called for it, under his thumb. He shared his wisdom in his books Chord Chemistry and Modern Chord Progressions, published in 1971 and 1976, respectively. They are chock full of sophisticated music theory and knuckle-busting forms, which led some who knew of him only through his tomes to peg him as pedantic. Studying privately with Greene over a few years, in the late ’80s, I knew him differently. He clearly prized heart and soul in music as much—or more than—hip chord substitutions or proper voice-leading.

I moved away from L.A. in ’89, and asked Greene if I could to continue my studies with him via the mail. He said it wasn’t the norm, but he’d give it a shot, so I sent him a complex arrangement I had been working on for “Somewhere,” from West Side Story, along with a check for the lesson. A few weeks later, his lesson came. I had expected to find my arrangement returned, marked up with red-pen corrections. Instead, I found my “Somewhere” intact, my check returned, and a three-page, hand-written letter.

Greene wrote that he felt he couldn’t fairly assess my work without hearing me play it in person, or at least on tape. He added that clever arrangements alone aren’t usually the stuff that gives people goose bumps—and Greene was all about the goose bumps. (Check out his album Solo Guitar, and you’ll know what I mean.) He encouraged me to consider writing simpler arrangements, adding that the joy of playing music for people lies in reaching them someplace below their brain. By playing a little more simply, I might find it easier to focus on elemental things such as my tone and sense of groove, rather than worrying about making each crazy stretch I had planned out. I might also have an easier time connecting with listeners, he said. I took this to heart, and soon noticed more smiles and tapping toes on my solo-guitar gigs.

The classic Greene lesson that follows originally appeared in June ’80 GP. As you play the examples, try to make each chord ring clearly. Once you feel comfortable with some of the voicings, incorporate them into your own songs and arrangements. See, that’s another interesting thing about Greene—he rarely taught by giving students sheets full of isolated chords. His photocopied handouts usually featured nice arrangements of jazz standards, or cool 12-bar blues comping patterns. He seemed to believe learning was more valuable when it focused on real music, not exercises. See how much music you can make with Greene’s lovely major-family voicings. That’s where his legacy truly lies.

When new students come to my home for their first lesson, one of the most common things I hear is: “I’m bored with the chords I play—if I just knew some better voicings….” Well, that’s what this article is about—chords and voicings. For those who don’t know, the word “voicing” refers to how the notes of a chord are arranged. For instance, here are two different voicings of Em11 [Ex. 1]. The notes (the letter names) of each chord are the same, but the order is different, that’s all. Of course, the sounds of the two chords are slightly different, too, which is one reason learning more about voicings is so worthwhile.

Let’s start with voicings of major chords. The basic major chord contains the 1st, 3rd, and 5th tones of the appropriate major scale—notes that can be referred to more simply as the 1, 3, and 5. For example, a Bb major chord contains Bb (1, or root), D (3), and F (5) from the Bb major scale [Ex. 2]. Some good sounding voicings of this chord are shown in Ex. 3. (Note that Roman numerals indicate fret numbers.)

Doubling Tones

As you may know, major chords are often voiced with one of the tones doubled. Among the many possibilities, some of the more interesting ones are illustrated here in the simple chord progression in Ex. 4. (You’ll probably have to use a fingerstyle plucking approach, instead of a pick to sound some of the chords in this article.) Here is another simple progression using some three-note major chords [Ex. 5]. Again, note the smooth connections.

Adding Tones

One of the most common tones to be added to the basic major chord is the 9th tone of the major scale. (The 9 is also known as the 2 because it is the same note, but an octave higher.) The resulting chord seems to be loved by almost everyone and has found its way into many styles of music. Here are some of my favorite voicings (in the keys of A and E) for what is commonly referred to as the “add9” chord [Ex. 6]. (The notes designated by open circles are optional.) And here are some tasty voicings in various keys on the top four strings [Ex. 7]. Notice that the first three chords in the immediately preceding group are a variation on the basic C-D-E progression, which leads us to a fundamental point: All variations on the major chord can replace the simple major triad, according to your own tastes.

Alternate Fingerings

I wonder if there are any curious and observant rascals amongst you readers. If you’re one, you probably noticed that these two grips [Ex. 8] are the same voicing—that is, they each contain the same pitches in the same octave, but they’re played in different places on the neck. The guitar is one of the only instruments in which such funniness occurs. If you were really astute, you might have also noticed earlier two other pairs of chords that were identical voicings with different fingerings [Ex. 9].

The Friendly Major 7

Another good scale tone that is often added to the basic major chord is the 7 (that is, the 7th tone of the major scale). The resulting chord contains the 1, 3, 5, and 7, is commonly called the major-7th chord, and has the common symbol maj7. In Ex. 10, numbered for convenience, you’ll find some of the most popular voicings of this oft-used friendly color. Compare the first and fifth voicings. Also compare the sixth to the second; the seventh, eighth, and ninth to each other; and the last to the second.

And here are some slightly more unusual voicings that have thrilled me ever since I first had the pleasure of making their acquaintance [Ex. 11]. Make sure that your guitar is really in tune for these voicings, because some of them contain two notes right next to each other on adjacent strings at the same fret. (The fourth grip is a ridiculous stretch!)

Enriched Chords

As is the case with the add-9th chord, the major-7th chord may replace the basic major chord whenever you desire the extra spice that the added tone seems to impart. Notice that we’re not really using chord substitution when we play Cadd9 or Cmaj7 in place of the basic C major chord; it’s more like we’re enriching what’s already there. I call this, simply, chord enrichment.

When you add both the 7th and 9th scale tones to the major chord, a major-9th voicing results, the symbol for which is maj9. As with its siblings, add-9th and major-7th chords, the major 9th chord is simply an enriched major chord. Enriched chords are commonly referred to as extended chords. When playing Ex. 12’s voicings for the major 9 (which I’ve selected because they sound particularly rich and vibrant), there are a few details you should keep in mind, so I’ve numbered them for convenience. In the fourth voicing (which is hard to fret but very pretty), the 2nd and 3rd fingers may be reversed. In the sixth voicing, there is no 3 in the chord. The ninth voicing is another difficult-but-pretty one, and in the tenth grid you’ll find another difficult grip; one that requires double-stop technique (in which you use a single finger to fret two notes), as the 2nd finger holds notes on both the fourth and fifth strings. Finally, compare the eleventh voicing to both the first and tenth voicings.

Steel 6 Chords

The major-6th chord is formed by adding the 6th scale tone to the basic major chord: 1, 3, 5, 6. It has a unique sound—very sweet; loved by many, shunned by some. Steel guitar players usually play richer, fuller voicings of this chord than do most of us “regular” guitarists. One reason is that one common tuning of the steel guitar lends itself to nice major-6th voicings. But if you’re willing to work, you can achieve quite a few of these voicings on a regular ol’ 6-string, too.

The final two examples in this lesson list some of my favorite voicings for these pedal steel-type chords. The fourth voicing in Ex. 13 is a real stretcher. (Do you hate me yet?) In the last one, use the side of the 1st finger for the notes on strings one and two. George Van Eps, who taught this to me, calls it the “5th finger principle.” Try arpeggiating these voicings—they sound especially good that way.

And last but not least, here are some of the many other voicings of the major 6 that are available on the guitar [Ex. 14]. The first four A6 voicings correspond directly to the next four (compare the first to the fifth, and so on)—the same notes simply played on different strings. Of course, as with the other major extensions, you can use the major 6 in place of the basic major chord whenever your ears say “yes.” B.B. King, for example, often uses a major 6 for the tonic (key chord or I chord) in blues progressions.

I hope that this article has helped reveal some of the ways in which the guitar is particularly suited to provide unusual and beautiful chord voicings. If some of these fingerings look impossible, don’t forget how tough basic chords seemed when you first learned them, and how you can now play them almost automatically. Good luck!

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