OKAY, 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.
Ex. 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
In 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.
Now 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.
Ex. 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 theguitarshow.com for details.
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