A Lesson in Chords and Voice Leading

By Jim Simmons

guitar instructor at the lesson studio

Many famous artists have used and much good music can be made from strumming simple chords against melodic lines, vocal or otherwise. Nevertheless, during guitar lessons at the studio, I am often asked by those who have moved beyond a cursory acquaintance with simple chords and strum patterns how to choose more interesting chords, or how to differentiate their part from other instruments, especially another guitar prone to strum the same chords.

Possibilities here are myriad, and some comment should be made on how to navigate these choices, but before that, I want to introduce two concepts which may prove helpful in any and all scenarios from here on:

(1) Chord Scales, & (2) Voice Leading.

While both of these are topics unto themselves, much can be gleaned from their use in the present inquiry. Now, for a brief survey of options for the inquiring guitarist, and how those options will inform and interact with these two concepts above:

 

(1) Using a Capo/choosing a different register/chord shape (CAGED, etc.); (2) Adding or reducing tones;

(3) Doubling tones; (4) Using inversions;

(5) Differentiating strum patterns; (6) Playing a separate part, ostinato; (7) Playing a separate part, melodic; Etc.

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Now for the “how-to” part: I. Chord Scales

Regarding chord scales, begin with root position triadic chords (root-3rd-5th), barring

chords if necessary to locate each root in the overriding scale of the song (or portion of song). In a normal major key, this won’t be that hard, since the bass notes up the neck will complete a major scale (“do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do”). If the portion is in minor, or something more exotic (like a mode), you will need to revisit how to walk up the neck to

complete the scale, and in the case of minor, double-check for options that make minor so interesting (such a raised leading tone on a major V chord; use of the melodic ascending scale, or Dorian, etc.).

Establishing a chord scale (or more than one: (1.) Taking the scale up the neck with the root located on the same string; (2.) Exploring the chord scale across the neck, letting the root move across multiple strings) will provide your hands and ears with a lexicon of

 

options for each chord, each option profiled by its location on the guitar, its register, and its fingering (if it has open strings or not). Doing this is crucial for beginning the search for differentiated guitar parts.

Here I mention the CAGED method for chords and scales, as searching through the neck for other chords will naturally run into the options this technique will present. Simply put, the CAGED method will supply quick landmark options for each chord, which can be accessed either through using a Capo or playing all chords by-hand. I will revisit CAGED shortly, but these two approaches compliment one another very naturally (no pun intended).

One other strong benefit to establishing chord scales becomes important in the next phase: discovering the notes of the melody within accompanimental chord shapes

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Part II: Voice Leading

While this topic sprawls across all of music and music history, I want to limit our discussion of it to two main concepts any guitarist will appreciate: smoothness of chord change, and supporting the melody inside chord shapes.

Regarding smoothness of transitions between chords, two ideas become important: how close each chord is to one another; how harmonically smooth the change of each chord is one to another, that is, in terms of tension and resolution and stepwise motion between chord tones. Let’s say your chord progression involves going from an E major to a B major (I to V in the key of E), a certain amount of block-iness may be hard to overcome, but let’s try and see what happens:

Our first two options involve moving up the neck to the V chord either to the 7th fret of the low-E string (a barred E major-shape), or to the 2nd fret of the A string (a barred A major-shape). Let me say neither of these is “bad” necessarily, so no guilt here, but let’s analyze each option in terms of voice leading: by opting for the barred E major at the 7th fret, we here a transposition of every tone up a Perfect 5th; now, we have the open E string “do” resolving to “ti” in an oblique way (“ti” is on the G string here, 8th fret); again, the fact that it’s oblique is neither good or bad, just neutral, but if the music called for this motion to be heard clearly, the guitarist using this 7th fret choice of a B major could

simply strum only out to this note on the G string, and not provide the other two strings.

Now let’s compare this option to the second of these, barring an A-shape at the 2nd fret: a similar choice can be made here, taking the strum all the way out to the B string and leaving out the E string. Which of these is easier or better, I leave to you to decide, and they both have advantages and disadvantages, which we will look to presently.

The first of these is that both of these shapes reduplicates the exact same chord tones, except that the 7th fret adds one last tone, the reduplication of the B on the 7th fret of the E string; otherwise, the notes produced (assuming one strums the second option from the A string) are exactly the same (notes given by string, low-to-high):

Option 1:

B – F# – B – D# – F# – (B) Option 2:

 

(F#) – B – F# – B – D# – F#

So, while there is some difference in the timbre of each of these choices (notice the thicker strings resonate a darker quality than the thinner, higher ones), these two options do little to provide any profile between the guitarists. Thus, we may consider another “voicing” of the chord, or even chord shape. Beginning with chord shapes, we might decide to place the Capo on the 4th fret, and use a C-shape chord for our E major (I) and a G-shape for our B major (V). Some very nice changes occur in this scenario: we now

here the 3rd on top of the I chord, and, while we may have a reduplication of the high B on the E string (if Guitarist 1 is using the 7th fret bar for the B chord), we still have some new tones resulting from the G-shaped B major chord.

Guitar 1 (Open)                                                   Guitar 2  (Capo 4, or 4th pos.)

E-shape                                                                       C-shape

E (I):  E – B – E – G# – B – E                                   (G#) – E – G# – B – E – G#

E-shape, barred, 7th                                                                              G-shape

B (V): B – F# – B – D# – F# – (B)                              B – D# – F# – B – D# –  B

As you can see, now we have more harmonic variety, which may be what you’re going for. If it isn’t, then we need to look at our last few options, but at least we see how many more choices are possible with only exploring one other position on the neck.

In terms of the voice leading, we also see that our “do”/”ti” motion is accomplished with much greater ease in the Guitar 2 part (the 5th fret resolves to the 4th fret). Let’s assume one further possibility: the “do”/”ti” motion is actually part of the melody. In this case, the notes of the melody could be synced with Guitar 2’s voicing with much less effort than Guitar 1.

The final layer of considering voice leading in your guitar parts is considering how you can support, or directly represent the bass and melody of your particular piece. In terms of support alone, when choosing a chord voicing, you may want to lean towards voicings which contain the melody note(s) somewhere in the chord. I often try to keep the melody going continuously on the High E and B strings while providing the rest of the chord in the middle strings, and also providing a bass line in the Low E and A strings.

That may be a bit much to bite off right now, but it gives you an idea of what the guitar is capable of, as well as how different guitars can complement one another in musically practical ways, such as one guitar strumming simple chords, while the other supports or provides melodic elements.

Let’s look at a few other considerations to conclude this brief exploration in creating guitar parts.

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Part III. Other Options: ostinato, counter-melody, inversions, strum patterns

Ostinato

An ostinato is a musical idea that obstinately stays part of a musical texture (ostinato is Italian for “obstinate”). Several musical examples come to mind: think of Ravel’s Bolero, or the high electric guitar from Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” the main riff to “Kashmir” from Led Zeppelin, or any Ratatat song, for that matter. A great deal of popular music, whether classical, rock, or EDM thrives on repetition (and often transformation) of small musical ideas. Depending on the context, an ostinato may be created that doesn’t conflict with the melody, or even supports it. One favorite of mine is the melodic ostinato  (or riff) that accompanies the song “Release” from Pearl Jam’s Ten record. Another beautiful, but radically different (much “heavier”) version can be heard in “Tempting Time” by Animals as Leaders, at 2:51”.

Counter-Melody

Somewhat similar to an ostinato is a counter-melody, a melody that wouldn’t be considered the primary melody, but that weaves about more independently than a simple harmonization.  In the chorus of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” we here a counter-melody in Slash’s guitar part against Axl’s vocals. Another well-known counter-melody occurs half- way through J.P. Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” in the high piccolo/flute part, against the main theme. Melodic descants are yet another type of counter-melody, When constructing a counter-melody, take care not to step on the main melody too much. Inversions

As you become acquainted with all of the methods above, you’ll find chord inversions lend themselves readily to voice leading, most especially for bass motion. For instance, an E/G# (in the key of E, a I6 ) goes to an A (IV) smoothly, since the bass note only has to ascend a half step (G# to A). Once you’ve mastered your chord scales, experiment with trying them again in first and second inversion (first inversion puts the

3rd in the bass; second inversion puts the 5th in the bass).

Strumming Different Patterns

Quite a lot can be gained simply by strumming similar or even the same chords in an entirely different way. For instance, consider letting one guitar strum eighth-notes in a palm-muted fashion, while another guitar fingerpicks, or strums only on strong beats (like the downbeat of each measure). This method is especially effective when one guitar is acoustic and another is electric, but is useful in almost any situation to create a new texture.

I hope you found this Blog lesson useful! Good luck fishing for guitar parts, and have fun while you’re at it!

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