Adam Levy

Often when you’re backing a singer or a horn soloist, you spend most of the gig just comping. But comping doesn’t have to be boring, especially if you know a few ways to liven up ordinary chords. Studying with the late, great Ted Greene, I learned a wonderful comping approach that can really transform the ordinary drop-two voicings we guitarists play all the time by giving them a keyboard-like, Fender Rhodes sort of texture—and it all has to do with playing the lowest note in each chord as a false harmonic. This technique allows you to achieve many voicings on the guitar—including close voicings—that have a magnificent sound but would otherwise be very difficult to finger. Add some amp tremolo (or use your favorite trem stompbox) and you’ll really get that magical Rhodes vibe happening. And suddenly that 17th chorus of “All the Things You Are” won’t sound so stale!
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Before we get started, let’s remind ourselves what a drop-two voicing is. First, fret this Cmaj7 chord [Ex. 1]. This is a really easy chord. With the root, 3, 5, and 7 residing within the same octave, this comfy diagonal shape is a close voicing—one of the few, in fact, that is easy to play, because it doesn’t require any insane stretches of the fretting hand. If we play inversions of this chord, though, we get close-voiced fingerings that aren’t so friendly [Ex. 2]. What guitarists do to avoid these knucklebuster grips is drop the second voice—that is, the second-highest note—down an octave. Here’s how to make our first Cmaj7 a drop-two voicing [Ex. 3]. The fingerings are vastly different, but if you look at the notation staff, you’ll see that pitch-wise, the only difference between the two chords is that that the second note in the first voicing (the close voicing), G, has been dropped an octave.

What Ted Greene showed me is a remarkably simple way to reconstruct drop-two voicings back into close voicings without altering the fingering. This is done by making the lowest note of a drop-two sound an octave higher by playing it as a false [or octave] harmonic. I achieve false harmonics by putting aside the pick and touching the string with my picking hand’s index finger exactly one octave [12 frets] above the note—the 17th fret if you’re playing this G [Ex. 4]—and plucking the string with my thumb.

Now, put that false harmonic G back into our drop-two Cmaj7 [Ex. 5], plucking the three higher strings with your middle, ring, and pinky fingers. The voicing you now hear will be the original “diagonal line” close-voiced Cmaj7 we started out with [Ex. 1], but with a little extra chime, thanks to the G being played as a harmonic. Here is the next inversion of our drop-two Cmaj7 [Ex. 6]. Play the lowest voice as a false harmonic [Ex. 7] and you’ve got the same close voicing as the first grip in Ex. 2, but without the painful stretches. Now, try yet another inversion with the harmonic added [Ex. 8]. Using this technique, you can convert all your drop-two voicings into chimey closed voicings. You can even slide into these chords. Play the chord a half-step lower and slide the fingering up a fret, and all the notes will travel, including the harmonic.

One way to practice this technique is to apply it to various drop-two inversions on the first four strings as we’ve been doing [Ex. 9], but there are, of course other Cmaj7 drop-two voicings and fingerings on other string sets [Ex. 10]. Another way to practice it is to apply it to chord scales [Examples 11 and 12]. The beautiful thing about this approach is that once you get it down, you’ve instantly gained tons of new chord voicings without having to learn any new fingerings.