But Then Again… (or, Lost My Shape…)

Last week we discussed the importance of learning to finesse your guitar, of developing the ability to play selected strings and not just strum all willy-nilly. Today, in typical fashion, we’re going to throw all that out the window and look at chord shapes that encourage you to flail away on all six strings. Yeah, I know, when will I make up my mind about anything?

Well, as I’ve been saying all along, the best way to become a well-rounded guitarist is to be versed in as many styles and techniques as possible. You are the one who decides what works best for you. And unless you experiment with different styles and techniques, how on earth are you ever going to know what works, period?

There’s no end to the benefits of familiarizing yourself with the different things you and your guitar are capable of doing. And we’ll be going through a lot of examples today, so I might as well get through the disclaimer right here at the outset:

These files are the author’s own work and represent his interpretation of the song. They are intended solely for private study, scholarship or research.

The Shapes Of Things

If you were just starting out playing the guitar and knew the basic rudiments of theory (what notes come where and the intervals that lie between them) then I would tell you to learn the E major and E minor chords. And I would tell you to finger them in such a way that leaves your index finger free. Armed with this knowledge, you can now play with virtually any song you’d like. You will not, of course, sound just like “off the record,” but you will be able to play just about all the chords that you hear in most songs.

Impossible? No, and most of you already know this to be true. This is the basis of barre chords. Suppose you want to play a G minor chord. Start out with the E minor chord. I would recommend that you use your ring finger on the second fret of the A string and your pinky on the second fret of the D string. Okay, we know that G is three half steps higher than E, so we shift our E minor chord “configuration,” or “shape” if you will, up the neck three frets. This means that our fingers are now on the fifth fret of the D and A strings. But, of course, we now need to compensate for the nut of the guitar, so we press, or barre, our index finger across all the strings at the third fret. This gives us a full G minor chord. You can do this all up and down the fretboard. Here’s the breakdown for barre chords using the E shapes, both major and minor:

E shaped chords (major)
E shaped chords (minor)

And once we’ve made this “discovery,” it’s a simple thing to deduce that one can also use this barre technique on other chords that we’ve learned. After the E shapes, the most often used shape is that of the A major and A minor:

A shaped chords (major)
A shaped chords (minor)

But believe it or not, we not interested in barre chords today. What we are going to discuss is the use of the shapes themselves and how to apply them in order to create new chord voicings and interesting progressions. First we’ll look at some specific examples and then we’ll apply what we’ve learned to improve upon an original song. It sounds like we’ve got a lot on tap for today, but you’ll be amazed at how quickly you’ll pick this up.

Drone, Drone On The Range

The first thing we’ve got to do is agree about something important. As you’ll soon see (and hear), we’re going to be using a lot of what I call “modified” chords. This will be the result of our use of open strings. Initially I will explain, or try to explain, what these chords are but I am sure I will then lapse into calling it by an abbreviated name. Worse, this name may exist simply for the duration of a particular example. Please bear with me. Many of you already know how I tend to prepare you for the worst and then when we’ve gone over something your reaction tends to be “I wonder what all the fuss was about.”

All right, then. If there’s any real “trick” to this technique, it lies in knowing two simple things. First, you have to be aware of the notes on your fretboard. Second, you have to be able to hear what you’re going to be able to “get away with” in terms of using your open strings.

Let’s begin, as always, with something very simple. Dave Mason’s Feeling Alright is a great song with which to start. The whole thing is just two chords, E and A, each played for one measure. Here are the first two lines:

Feeling Alright

What I want you to do here is to only use your E shape. When you play the A, simply slide your E chord up the neck five frets. This is what it should look like:

Two chords

You can hear that while this sounds different than playing it “straight,” it still sounds good. Let’s look at our “A” chord. If we examine the notes being played, we see from low to high that they are E, E, A, C#, B and E. It’s actually an A add 9 with the fifth (E) in the bass. That’s not too outrageous at all.

And before we move on, let me note that we will soon be covering this song in much greater detail, complete with more modified chords, in “Feelin’ Alright” on the Songs for Beginners page. Be certain to check it out!

The reason this particular chord voicing of A will (almost) always work well is due to the droning of the E strings. Now don’t ask me about droning. We’ve covered this at least two or three times in the past. Off the top of my head (and please, no comments about there being nothing on the top of my head for years), I don’t even remember where. So do me a favor, if you need to refresh your mind, just put the word “drone” or “droning” in Guitar Noise Search Engine and see what comes up, okay?

For the time being, let’s move on and expand upon what we’ve just done. I’m sure that many of you are familiar with the Who’s I Can See For Miles. Believe it or not, this is a great song to use this style of playing. Even a beginner can do it and you’ll sound just as good (if not better) on an acoustic as on an electric.

Initially we are going to do this songs using only E shapes. But a word of warning: the song changes key from E to A close to the end (at the lyric “the Taj Mahal…”), which I have conveniently labelled as “Part II.” Here you will need to go from using all six string to just the first five. While it is possible to continue to playing this song with just E shape chords, I think it sounds better to switch to A shape chords at this point. Those of you who are really into the theory aspects of things should note that the new chord progression is done in the same intervals as in the first part of the song.

I Can See For Miles part 1
I Can See For Miles part 2
I Can See For Miles part 3
I Can See For Miles part 4
I Can See For Miles part 5
I Can See For Miles part 6
I Can See For Miles part 7
I Can See For Miles part 8

Now that was fun, wasn’t it?

Stretching Out A Bit

Beyond the E and A shapes, things can get a little strange. But if you keep your wits about you, it’s still pretty easy to deal with it. Last time out (along with several other times) we once again touched upon power chords. Well, if you were to go back to the E and A barre chord charts we created earlier you would make an interesting discovery. By playing only the 4th, 5th and 6th strings of the E barre chords (please observe that these three notes are the same whether you use the major or minor chords) or the 3rd, 4th and 5th strings of the A barre chords, you’ve got your basic power chords. That’s easy enough, no?

Now let’s use our heads. Because of the way the guitar is tuned, it would be fairly natural (not to mention right on target) to assume that you’re bound to find a lot of chord shapes centered around chords in the key of E major. As you’ve already seen in the two examples we’ve examined, the low E string along with both the high E and the B create not only a natural drone, but also a nice framework within which to build new chord voicings. Now let’s combine our knowledge of primary and secondary chords to the mix and see what we might come up with.

In the key of E major, our primary (I, IV and V) and secondary (II, III and VI) should look like this:

E major chords

Agreed? Good. We’ve already used the A and B in I Can See For Miles, so we’ve covered as far as the primary chords are concerned. How about the secondaries? Well, if we go waaaay back to the beginning of the article and look at our E minor shaped bar chords, we can see that in order to play them on the same strings as our primary chords, we need merely finger the third (G) string one fret lower than we have been. Do you see this?

The Counting Crows certainly did when they came up with this arrangement for Angels Of The Silences. We’re only going to annotate the first verse, since the second and third verses are the same, structure wise. Do feel free to find the rest of the song via the Guitar Tab pages:

Angels of the Silences part 1
Angels of the Silences part 2

As you might imagine, knowing these various chord shapes can add a lot to your playing. You can toss in different voicings when you’re playing with others in order to give a more layered and textured sound to the proceedings. But it can also help you in other ways. In 1990, I was working on an original song that was going nowhere fast. It sprang up, believe it or not, from hearing the bagpipes of a marching band at one of Chicago’s numerous parades. I really got hung up on the sound and wanted to come up with something that I might be able to use them in. There’s no need to mention that I couldn’t play them (still can’t but I’m working on it), didn’t own any (still don’t but I’m working on it) and had no one among my friends who might be of use. I just tend to obsess about sounds sometimes…

But with some work and experimentation, I was able to come up with a guitar part for my “bagpipe song.” And I did this by using these chord shapes that we’ve been working on. I came up with the following chord progression:

Chord progression

and set to work at it. Initially, I used the same chords that I showed you in the Counting Crows song. But I really wasn’t happy with the C#m and the B. So I thought, “Why not use the A shaped power chords?” and it did the trick. To give the bridge(s) a little variety, I play the A and B chords in E shapes again. Here is a transcription of the song:

Johnny Still Believes part 1
Johnny Still Believes part 2
Johnny Still Believes part 3
Johnny Still Believes part 4

Those of you with good ears will hear that these C#m and B chord voicings are the same ones that Pearl Jam uses in Nothing Man, although I believe that they’ve tuned their guitars down a half-step in that now classical Seattle way of doing things.

A few words and announcements: First off, if you’d like to hear Johnny Still Believes, A-J Charron has been kind enough to put a number of my songs up on MP3 format on his site. There are (or will be soon, I’m told) six of my original songs, all of them very old – five recorded by me on a Tascam four track back in 1993 and one, Waiting For Nancy that was recorded by Balance of Power back in 1982 (!) at Soto Sound Studio in Evanston. That’s NOT me playing guitar on that one. I’m on the piano and organ and Mike Sexton is the man on the Les Paul. Anne O’Neil is on drums while Roy Wogelius contributes the stunningly beautiful bass lines. A-J is also being nice enough to allow me to put up more stuff as it comes about (which admittedly these days is verrrrrrrrry sloooooooow) (and gee, I wonder what else could be taking up my time?), maybe even a live digital version of “…Nancy” that was recorded at the now infamous Riverside Jam 2000 that was hosted in August by Dan Lasley.

Second: I have a new email @ddress (a term I’ve picked up from the esteemed Mr. Lasley). You can still reach me at the old one or you can write to me using my new @ddress at [email protected]. I am trying to do much more work out of my home now, mostly since I seem to be up all hours writing these days…As always, please feel free to write in with any questions, comments, concerns or topics you’d like to see covered in future columns.

Finally: owing to popular demand, I am trying to regularly contribute more to the Songs for Beginners page as well as put together a few (some much overdue) projects of my own, so if I am not as great at answering my email as I’ve been in the past, I wholehearted apologize in advance. Those of you who have corresponded with me in the past know that I’m (usually) pretty good about this stuff.

Next time out we’ll cover an interesting musical phenomenon which we brought to life in this column. See you then.

Until next week…