The Triadic Trickery of Alex Machacek

“I always try to place an earworm in every piece I write,” says Austrian guitar phenom Alex Machacek, “so that the listener comes away with something memorable, even if it’s a just a simple melody or rhythm.” But even when Machacek is playing a lullaby-simple motif, there’s an astounding amount of study behind each note. Machacek began classical guitar at age eight, discovered Joe Pass at 13, and quit high school by age 16 to study at the Vienna Conservatory of Music. His quest for knowledge led him to Berklee College of Music in Boston for a year, then back to Vienna to complete a degree in jazz education.

After releasing his debut album, 1999’s Featuring Ourselves, Machacek’s reputation was on the rise, and he soon hooked up with former Zappa drummer Terry Bozzio to form the group BPM, yielding several CDs and a musical partnership that exists to this day. In late 2004 Machacek relocated to Los Angeles with his wife and musical partner, Sumitra, and has released a new CD, [Sic] [Abstract Logix], that demonstrates a wonderful array of textures, from fast and furious to introspective, from electric guitar to guitar synth, from serious to humorous.

Though Machacek’s first guitar instructor wasn’t particularly gifted at coming up with helpful practice exercises, this was, arguably, a good thing. The frustration of being left to fend for himself led young Machacek to develop a refined and disciplined self-teaching method that has remained with him to this day—which is one reason he never backs down from any musical challenge. For instance, one daunting musical approach Machacek tackled head-on was the “spread major triad plus one note” tactic—a captivating chord voicing technique he first heard in the music of pop pianist Bruce Hornsby and later spied in the playing of guitar greats such as Allan Holdsworth (who, like Frank Zappa, was a major influence on Machacek’s musical development).

For a glimpse into the inner workings and real-world applications of these exotic sounding “plus one” harmonies, start by fretting the simple C triad in Ex. 1. This spread shape is voiced on the fifth, third, and first strings, making it easy to add one extra note on the fourth or second string [Ex. 2]. Any of Ex. 2’s pitches add complexity to the harmony because they aren’t duplicates of the triad’s C, E, or G chord tones. (Though the b7 isn’t a chord tone, Machacek avoids using it, because, to his ear, the resulting sound is too “clunky.”) This process produces colorful four-note voicings such as those in Ex.3. Move up the neck, play some eighth- or twelfth-position inversions of our C spread triad, and you can use the same process to construct more plus-one voicings [Ex.4].

Looking at Ex.5 (based on IIm7-V7-Imaj7-VI7 changes in C), see if you can decode each plus-one voicing, remembering that the basic chord tones are, once again, found on the fifth, third, and first strings. For example, if you leave the fourth string silent on the first chord, you’ll hear a C triad. Put the F on the fourth string back in the chord and you have Cadd11. Notice how, in Ex. 6, Machacek alternates between add11 and add#11 shapes, ascending in half steps, to put a new spin on a standard chord progression. Ex. 7, an excerpt of “Out of Pappenheim” (an homage to the street on which Machacek grew up), acts as a nice plus-one clinic. (Hear the song on [Sic], or download it at

Having explored myriad styles of music, Machacek stresses the importance of thoroughness when learning new chords such as these plus-one spread voicings—in particular, the importance of knowing when not to use them. “They’re beautiful,” says the guitarist, “but playing them over a Dixieland tune would be like putting strawberries on pizza.”