Back around the time of my album Dog Party, I rediscovered how much fun it is to play in a guitar trio. For me it’s more challenging to play without any support from a keyboard player, and especially when there’s no vocalist, which is the situation on my new record, Vibe Station. One of the first things I learned when playing guitar in a trio is that single-coil pickups are more full range than humbuckers and make the band sound bigger. I also learned that chord voicings using open strings make the guitar vibrate more and filled up even more sonic space. Also, I’ve always loved chords with small intervals between the notes, but I don’t have the ability to stretch my fingers like Allan Holdsworth, so the way I get those smaller intervals into the chords is by using open strings.
There’s a little bit of jazz theory involved, because you need to know which notes will work with each chord, but even if you don’t know jazz theory, your ear will tell you which notes sound good and which ones don’t. The concept is very simple: Any time you can use an open string in a chord, do it! I also try to keep my chord voicings fairly small, because there’s always a bit of distortion going on in my sound. Big voicings with a lot of notes sound great on a clean hollowbody guitar, but on a Strat with distortion they can sound muddy.
I’m going to use examples from the song “Festival of Ghosts” on Vibe Station, because I was able to use a lot of open strings the song. It’s in 3/4 time. In Ex. 1, the chords are Bb/A, Bm/A, Bb/A, and Asus. As you can see on the tab, I added a 6 on the B string to the Bb/A, and the open E string becomes the 5 of the A root, giving it more of a feeling of Asus(b9). The open E becomes the 4 on the Bm chord, which is a nice note to add to a minor chord. The third chord is the same as the first chord, but there’s an F (5th) in the chord instead of a G (6th). On the Asus chord, the open string is the 5th of the chord, making it simply a G triad over A with an added 5th. In Ex. 2, I’m using the open B string to give the phrase a more ringing, legato sound. The B string becomes the 13 of the D7(#9) chord.
Ex. 3 features the same thing, using open strings to add some sparkle to the phrase. The G, A, G in the first measure is done with the whammy bar on the open G string. In Ex. 4, the harmony over the Bb root is so weird, I didn’t know what to call it. I guess the closest thing would be Bbmaj7(b5, #5, b9). The open G string adds the 6, which somehow makes the phrase less dissonant.
I’m using open strings in Ex. 5 to create fast phrases, which I’ve done many times before in songs like “Dolemite” and “Hole Diggin’.” I’m not a fast picker, so any time I can do a pull-off onto an open string, I do it.
In Ex. 6, the whole chorus of the song is played with an open B string. In measures 12, 14, and 15, an open G string replaces the open B string in a few chords. I won’t go into detail about which interval the open string represents in each chord, but if you’re studying intervals, it would be good practice to discover that for yourself. Here are the ones I find the most interesting: The first chord, F#add4—I love the sound of the major 3rd and 4th in the same chord. The D13(add#5) is cool because the open B string is the 13th and I like the way it rings against the Bb or A# which is the #5 of the chord. The F#m11 is a nice voicing; the open B string is the 11 in that chord. The G9sus is also nice. The open G is simply the root, but you can use it as an F(add9) chord, which is also cool.
Thanks for reading! Don’t forget about your open strings. They can add a lot of dimension to your chords!