Creative Edge Open Wide

August 4, 2010

gp0810_lessons_AE4_nrOKAY, PICTURE THIS: YOU GET a call from a singer-songwriter friend, who is working on an album and wants you to overdub your vibey electric on one of her songs. She’ll even slide you a few bucks for doing it. Cool!

When you arrive at the session, you both listen to the recording in its current state and discuss ways you could enhance the music. The harmony is simple in this ballad—just major and minor chords—and you quickly realize that your pet altered voicings or favorite chugging drop-tuned riffage just won’t work in this song. While there’s a spot reserved for a moody solo, your singer friend is most interested in having you “fatten up the chords without getting too busy with fills.” She has already laid down a solid, strummed acoustic rhythm, so you need to build on the existing foundation. What to do?

Fortunately, there’s an effective way to enhance a song’s harmony without introducing unwanted colors. This technique works particularly well with triadic harmony, or in songs where extended chords or dissonant voicings—either of which could be desirable in other circumstances—would spoil the music’s character. The trick is to create a second part using open-voiced triads that shimmer and ring above the strummed rhythm track without impinging on the vocal melody. Let’s take a closer look. 1 illustrates the essential concept by contrasting C major triads in both closed (also called close) and open voicings. First up is a 1-3-5, or root-position C triad. Notice how all three notes reside in the same octave. To create an open voicing, you simply yank out the middle note and relocate it an octave higher or lower. In our second C triad, E—previously the middle note—now sits an octave above the root, giving us a 1-5-3 structure. As you play this chord, notice how majestic it sounds, especially compared to its predecessor.

For our third chord, we move the rootposition C triad up an octave to give us room to drop E below the root. That’s what happens in our fourth C triad, which is a 3-1-5 construction. Ex. 2, we examine these open major triads on the fretboard, and then convert them to open minor triads by lowering the 3 to b3. Notice how the roots are shown as hollow notes and the function of each chord tone is indicated below the chord grids. These are all moveable forms, as long as you don’t play the strings marked with an “x.” Try a hybrid flatpick-plus-fingers attack with these open voicings. we have the tools to craft sonically compelling parts within a harmonically simple progression. Ex. 3 offers a sense of the possibilities. In the first two bars, we shift between open voicings with the 3 raised and lowered an octave. This adds interest by generating harmonic motion within the C and D chords—we’re climbing up the fretboard, yet keeping the part sparse. Once we hit bar 3, the listener’s ear is ready for some additional activity, which the arpeggios provide.

As you play through these open-voiced triads, look and listen for the major- and minor-tenth intervals formed by the top and bottom notes in each chord form. These big intervals suggest classical guitar voicings or even a string ensemble—it’s a distinctly different sound from the strummed chords favored by most songwriters. 4 adds some driving rhythm to our open-voiced triads. If you palm mute the eighth-notes, you can create an effect that sounds almost like two guitars—one playing a stepwise bass line, the other adding two-note harmony above it. Again, the changes themselves are simple. But, thanks to open-voiced triads, this passage has the potential to capture a listener’s attention.

There’s more to discover about openvoiced triads, so we’ll continue our exploration in the next lesson.


When an interval extends beyond an octave, it’s called a compound interval. Several compound intervals have their own names—ninths, tenths, elevenths, and thirteenths. When you encounter a number larger than 8 in a harmonic structure (this could be an interval or a chord), you can determine the interval that’s being expanded by an octave by simply subtracting 7 from the larger number. For example, a tenth is an interval of an octave plus a third (10 – 7 = 3). A thirteenth is an octave plus a sixth (13 – 7 = 6). Compound intervals larger than a thirteenth are typically described as “an octave plus” the interval in question—i.e., “an octave plus a seventh,” rather than a “fourteenth.” —AE

Andy Ellis hosts The Guitar Show weekly radio program, which streams online. Visit for details.

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