Chord Voicings: In Search of Lost—and Overlooked—Chords

This lesson can expand your vocabulary, make you sound more professional and allow you to play the voicings you hear in your head.
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Most guitar played spend something like 80 percent of their time playing chords, yet few of them take enough time to work on their chord vocabulary. Instead, they rely on old standby shapes and voicings to get through tunes.

Sure, that root-position 9th chord may sound really cool and be easy to execute, but a little variety could take your rhythm work a whole lot further. After all, constantly searching the neck for root-position chord voicings is neither the most efficient nor the most exciting rhythm technique available.

If these habits sound familiar to you, this lesson may be just what you need. As a useful guide to chord voicings, it can expand your vocabulary, make you sound more professional and allow you to play the voicings you hear in your head. (How you handle the voices in your head is another matter entirely.)

Depending on what type of music you play, you may think that you use all the triad shapes available. However, you may be surprised to find a few that you haven’t plied recently. The most common shapes, of course, are open-position cowboy chords and the barre chords that are based on them. These make for fantastic triad voicings, but to limit yourself to those shape is to do your music an injustice.

Let’s start by taking a look at the most popular barre-chord shapes. By far, guitarists use the E and A shapes more than any other barre chord. There are three other shapes, however, that are useful: C, G and D, as shown in FIGURE 1. (Root notes are indicated by the white dot in all these examples.)

The first two shapes, C and G, are identical in harmonic structure (low to high. 1-3-5-1-3). Physically, they’re just one string set apart, which necessitates a slight fingering adjustment. The first D shape shown in FIGURE 1 moves the 3rd from the high to the low E string for both ease of execution and stronger bass presence in the voicing. An alternative voicing with the 3rd left on the high E string and the root on the D string is also shown. Learn both fluently, as each may come in handy depending on the tune.


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One of the practical characteristics of these shapes is that you can play I-IV-V progressions without moving up and down the fretboard. FIGURE 2, for example, is entirely in 5th position.


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These voices also make it a cinch to pull off I-IV rhythm patterns rife with Hendrix-like fills (FIGURE 3).


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In addition, within those shapes reside even simpler versions of the triads. Keith Richards has created a career out of playing little three-note fingerings that make I-IV changes as easy as boiling a hot dog, though certainly more tasty (measures 1–3 of FIGURE 4). Strangely, many guitarists often forget about these ultra-efficient music-making tools.


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When guitar players learn their first 7th chords, they most often learn—as with triads—cowboy and barre-chord shapes, the most common of which are based on open E7 and A7 chords (FIGURE 5A). Once those are permanently etched into mechanical memory, the popular closed-set movable C7 shape and the broken-set root-position 7th chord (also based on the E7 shape) are usually next (FIGURE 5B). The easy part of using these shapes is that all of them contain the root in the bass, so you can find them on the fretboard rather quickly.


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There are plenty of alternatives, however, that can add a little color to your chord voicings. FIGURE 6 contains four options. The first is a closed-set voicing on the top four strings.


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This is handy for comping in blues progressions in which you’re responsible for providing trebly stabs (FIGURE 7). With this particular voicing, you can also use just the top three strings for triple-stops in your solos. The remaining three shapes have been interspersed throughout upcoming music examples.


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There are also two particular major 7th chord shapes that guitarists keep close under their fingers (FIGURE 8A). Because they’re root-position voicings, these are useful for I-IV changes, but the same can be said of the pianistic voicings in FIGURE 8B.


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The R&B-flavored I-IV vamp in FIGURE 9 ably demonstrates the groovy sound you can achieve with these little gems.


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A guitarist who once auditioned for James Brown’s band was asked if he knew how to play an E9 chord. He replied “Of course.” To which the questioner asked, “All night long?”

While nearly every guitarist knows the 9th chord shape, shown in FIGURE 10A, you’d get bored in a hurry if you knew only one way to play it over and over again.

FIGURE 10B contains three 9th chord voicings you should steadfastly maintain in your chord vocabulary.


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The first is a favorite of blues guitarist (you can hear it in Stevie Ray Vaughan’s funky strumming on the track “Tightrope”) because it’s a very useful shape for 12-bar blues comping, as the IV and V chord voicings in FIGURE 11 demonstrate.


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Notice that the root (shown in parentheses) is not played in this chord, nor is the root played in the second voicing. That and the third chord shape in FIGURE 10B are both voiced with the 9th on top. These voicings are ideal for funky stylings like that in FIGURE 12.


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The 13th chord (FIGURE 13A) is another chord in which guitarists tend to rely on one shape. This particular voicing is the first and often the only one that budding jazz guitarists learn, yet the shapes in FIGURE 13B are extremely handy. For example, the first voicing in FIGURE 13B can be substituted for the I7 chord in FIGURE 11, thus creating an even easier fingering and a slightly different flavor for the 12-bar blues changes. Go back and give it a try.


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The ability to effortlessly incorporate altered chords into a progression requires both a substantial vocabulary of non-altered chords and enough command of the voicings to know which notes get adjusted.

For this reason, chord shapes with more than one possible root are extremely useful. For example, the 7b5 chord shapes in FIGURE 14 can be named for the note on two different strings (indicated by parentheses). Though you may recognize the second shape from using it with the root on the 5th string, you probably haven’t thought of using it with the root on the 4th string.


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FIGURE 15 shows how this shape can be used to spice up a ii-V-I-VI progression with a little voice leading in the bass.


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The 7#9 chord (FIGURE 16A)—or the Hendrix chord, as it’s affectionately known in most guitar circles—is another example of a singular shape for which few guitarists can muster a substitute. If that describes you, check out the alternative chord shapes in FIGURE 16B.


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We’ve only scratched the surface of the possibilities here, but you can continue on by trying to work out your own shapes.

Here’s how:

First, pick a chord shape that you find yourself relying on way too much, then seek out another inversion by moving the notes up or down the neck to the next chord tone on each string. This technique sometimes yields unplayable shapes, but it also will lead you to surprising and often familiar voicings that you had either forgotten about or never realized worked for that particular chord.

Good luck, and have fun exploring.