When you’re at a party, just jamming with some friends, it’s a given that any request for a song will get exponentially weirder the later it gets. You have to be alert between the hours of midnight (“Hey, let’s do After Midnight!”) and three A.M. (“I do so know all the verses of American Pie!); you have to be ready for anything. So when I heard the guys say “Going To California?” a little after two one Sunday morning last summer, I thought, “I’ve never played this before!” “Hell, I can’t even remember the last time I heard it.” (And no, I’m not schizophrenic – I simply have “conversions” with myself on occasion) “But I have heard it before; I know the song, therefore I can play it.”
And I said, “Sure. What key?”
That particular evening, the song turned out to be in the key of D – the verses simply G and D and a bridge of sorts alternating between Dm and A. Since I was playing my twelve string at the time and there were two guys playing who obviously knew what they were doing, I figured I could experiment a bit with my part. So when they played the G and D in the verses, I played the following:
and it sounded pretty cool. Encouraged by the fact that no one was growling at me for ruining the song, I tried the following chord voicings for the Dm and A in the bridges:
This, too, worked out perfectly fine and I felt pretty good not only about getting through a song I’d never played before, but also about being able to contribute a different voice to the proceedings.
Now, did I just know this would work? Am I psychic as well as schizophrenic (And, no, he’s not schizophrenic…)? The answer is actually quite simple. First, you have to know your chords. Not only the basic chords, but also which variations will work in which instances. And then you have to know your fret board. Armed with this knowledge, and a bit of practice, you can pretty much sit in on most songs, even ones you’ve never played before and sound like you might know what you’re doing.
A Quiet Moment
You may have noticed (even as far back as my second column) that I tend to use the term “chord voicings” quite a bit. What exactly do I mean by a chord voicing? Well, if you also remember that I once told you to think of your guitar as a six-person choir, then this might give you a clue. And no, it is not a multiple-personality sort of thing.
But then again, maybe it is. You recall from our discussion on the formation of chords (Theory Without Tears) that a chord must be at least three different notes. Now, with six different voices at your disposal, these are numerous ways for you to play or “voice” any given chord. Take the simple D major chord. We can play it as we normally do, or we can use either of these (from many other) variations:
You’ll notice that we’ve managed to make these variations simply by using three strings. The A and the D on the lower strings remains the same while we simply rearrange the D, F# and A (the I, III and V) on the high strings. Each of our versions of the D chord has a different note on top. Our normal D has the III (F#) as its highest note, Version #2 has the V (A) and Version #3 has the root note (D).
Now, let’s think for a moment, shall we? What chord do we already know that has its root note on the first string? That answer will vary depending on how long you’ve been playing but almost all of you will answer E or E minor. F, F# and G (and their respective minors) are also suitable answers.
Chords that have their III on the high string include D (as we’ve seen), D minor and C.
C minor cannot be on this list because the third of C minor is Eb, not E. Finally, A, Bb and B and their minors are familiar chords which have their V note on the high E string.
So why even worry about this stuff? I mean, if we know the chords, we know the chords, right?
(WARNING! The following segment is in need of an official disclaimer!)
This file is the author’s own work and represents his interpretation of the song. It is intended solely for private study, scholarship or research.
(Whew! That was close…)
The first time I seriously started thinking about this stuff was when I was trying to figure out Even In The Quietest Moments by Supertramp, shortly after the album came out. I had puzzled out that the opening chords were as follows:
This didn’t sound bad but it didn’t sound exactly like the record either (and at this point in my life I really obsessed about incredibly silly things like that…)(not that I’m obsessive or anything…). So I sat down and really listened. First I noticed that every chord used the D (open D string) as its bass note. Since I knew the chords, by concentrating I could also hear which note of the chord was being used as the melody. Which voice was on the top of the first G? It was the third. So I tried playing a “normal” D chord(since this had the third on top) on the seventh fret (which of course made it a G chord with the third on top) and lo and behold things fell into place. After a bit of scrambling around (and repeatedly slapping my forehead whispering “This is great!”) I managed to come up with the following chord voicings for the song:
Now if you try playing the song with these voicings of the chords, you will hear that they sound exactly like they do on the record. This is particularly pretty since these variations of the chords actually follow the melody line.
Strangely enough, Give A Little Bit, the opening song on the same album, also is an example of the use of chord voicing. If you look this one
up in the Tab files you will find this:
Again, if you play this song using the standard chords you know, it will sound all right. If you want it to sound like it does on the record, then use these voicings:
A Passing Thought About An Old Classic
How does someone come up with this? Why will certain chord shapes work at certain places on the fret board and not at others? The answer to both of these questions is found in simple theory (big surprise there, huh?) applied to your guitar. Before we get to that, we should cover another concept (REALLY big surprise there) that will help you with the explanation.
You all are familiar how most songs are played … someone sings (or plays) a melody line over an accompaniment (usually chords). You’re also smart enough to realize that the melody does not simply consist of the notes of the chord … it can go all over the place. Let’s take that old favorite Happy Birthday. If we play the song in the key of C, here are what the melody notes and the accompanying chords would be:
Notice the A note in the first two sections (and I consider the phrase “happy birthday” the start of each section). The first time it is used over the C chord and the second time it is used over the G chord. Now we all know that A is not a part of either chord, so why is it there? BECAUSE IT SOUNDS GOOD. That’s easy enough, isn’t it? Easy, but hardly satisfying.
In music theory, we refer to this as a “passing tone.” This is a note in the melody (or the chord) that is taking part in the transition from
one chord to another. Passing tones help to create “tension” between the melody and the accompaniment that is released when the melody and the chord are “resolved.” You might remember us discussing “resolution” back in our examination of seventh chords (Happy New Ear). Good music, much like art, theater, literature, or relationships and life, for that matter, tends to be a series of tensions and resolutions (or releases) of varying intensities. Listen to the B hovering over the F chord in the third section. This is my favorite part! You can amplify this tension on your guitar by playing this part of the song with this voicing:
Can you feel the incompleteness of the first voicing? It’s practically begging to be fixed, to be put at ease. When I tell people that music is a palpable thing and they laugh at me, I simply use this as demonstration. No one laughs twice. It’s no wonder it’s such a popular song.
The most common use of a passing tone is one with which you’re probably very familiar … the suspended fourth chord. Chances are that when you see Dsus or Asus on a chord chart you know exactly what to play. Let’s look at a few suspended chords and the actual notes that make up the chords:
Looking at the notes we see that every chord does indeed contain its fourth … C for the Gsus, G for the Dsus and D for the Asus. In fact, the Dsus and Asus do not contain any third at all. The fourth hangs over the missing third, creating a brief pause before the chord is resolved to itself. If you prefer, think “suspended” as in suspended from school … a brief interruption of normalcy. If you use suspended chords a lot, you know that nine times out of ten the following chord will be the root chord without the suspended part (G after Gsus, D after Dsus and A
after Asus). This again resolves the tension created in the use of the suspension in the first place. Another typical use of the suspended fourth is when you’re playing a song where the chord doesn’t change for a long time. Squeeze Box by the Who is a great example of this. The verse stays in G and to keep it from sounding too boring the guitar alternates between G and Gsus on every beat.
A quick note … it has become relative commonplace to simply understand that “sus” is shorthand for “suspended fourth.” But like just about everything that we’ve ever covered in music theory, this is not a universal truth. Occasionally you may run into a chord marked Csus6, for instance, or Gsus2. This means that just that particular note in the scale should be suspended on the chord (in this case A is added to the C chord or A is added to the G)(just like in Happy Birthday). It really becomes a question of semantics and/or how you were taught if the first place.
Are There Voicings In Your Head?
Once the concept of passing tones has settled into your brain, making the next step to plotting out a chord voicing is a fairly easy one. We’ll go back and use Going To California as an example again. As we’ve already noted, the song is in D major and the verses are and D. We’ll deal with the D minor in the bridge shortly. Now I’m going to map out the notes of the D major scale on my fret board (exactly as we did in Open Tuning Part 2 only, obviously, my guitar is in standard tuning). Since the song is in D, I’m going to totally ignore my sixth (low E) string, which is my option. Had I taken the time, I would have used “dropped D” tuning for this song, but that is a topic for an upcoming column. Anyway, here’s what we’ve got with D major:
Okay, something to remember: if you’re going to use an alternate voicing that incorporates a passing tone or two, think about why it’s called a passing tone. Don’t dwell on it. For instance, if everyone is playing a straight strum on a G chord, then if I use any of the following configurations:
I am more likely than not going to come up with an arpeggio pattern that enhances the rhythm strumming. The idea is to add, not to distract. I am both by nature and in spirit a rhythm guitarist and any rhythm guitarist will tell you that they rarely sit on any chord or pattern for very long.
Another important point is overall sound. Personally I love the droning effect of open strings, so I tend to infuse my voicings with them. Fortunately, most music on the guitar is geared to keys (G, D, A, E) that this easy to do. Let’s look at some of the many different variations we can come up with just for D major:
Here are three that I like to run together in a slow arpeggio (usually one beat each left to tight and then back again):
Now it may not be limitless, but as you can see, we’ve barely scratched the surface of the many possibilities open to us.
To come up with the D minor voicings, we simply go through our map and mark out the places on the fret board where the F note occurs (the F being the minor third of D) (a true D minor scale is a bit more involved than this, but trust me, this will suffice for the time being). Having replaced our F#s with Fs will make our map look like this:
And here are a few D minor variations. You may recognize the first two as the opening to Jim Croce’s Time In A Bottle while the third one is used a lot by Neil Young (most noticeably in Old Man)
The more you know and the more comfortable you get with alternate voicings, the more fun you can have with them. When I was learning The Dutchman (the Michael Peter Smith song that everyone thinks is a Steve Goodman song) I had figured out that the song started out like this:
Simply by using these (really simple) variations for the Am and the D, I was able to make the verses much more interesting (to me anyway … certainly much more fun to play!):
I should warn you, though, just like anything that’s new you can develop a real tendency to overuse altered voicings. That’s why practice is important. See what works. More important, see what you like. Everybody’s taste and style varies and something that might appeal immensely to me might merely get a shrug out of you.
Just as I try to learn two new songs a month, I try to make a concerted effort to rearrange two songs I know very well. Sometimes it might involve a rhythm idea (I play a mean ska version of Someday We’ll Be Together) but very often simply coming up with a new voicing will keep me smiling for days.
And this is a subject that we’ll be revisiting a lot, especially when we start dealing with finger picking and altered tunings and basic soloing and such.
Remember, please feel free to drop me a line concerning any questions that you might have or simply visit the Guitar Forums here at Guitar Noise. And, if you haven’t had the chance yet, read the new articles your fellow guitarists have written. So You Want To Be A Songwriter is full of great advice and ideas for inspiration.
Oh, and for the record, David says to say he isn’t schizophrenic either.