By Darrin Koltow and David Hodge
NOTE from David: This piece originated in two parts. Darrin had written a “Guitar Tip” for the newsletter while I had written a piece on ninth chords for what was to be a weekly newspaper column (don’t ask). It just made sense to combine the two…
“Bluesifying” Your Chords
Ever notice how some chords and riffs just have this sound which can only be described as “blues-y?” There’s something about what you hear that puts the blues into your head and doesn’t let it go.
It’s not that hard to make a chord progression sound more like the blues. Most of you are aware of how chords are formed from thirds, stacking every other note on the scale one atop the next. The simplest chords, triads, come in four “flavors:” major, minor, augmented and diminished. You can find out all about this in The Power of Three.
Add another third on top of a triad, and you’ve got a seventh chord.
Here’s a quick guideline to “bluesify” any major chord: add a flat 7 on top of the basic triad. This will give you a dominant 7 chord, which lies at the heart of the blues.
Too simple, you ask? Well, check it out. Here’s your twelve bar blues pattern in A:
A for four bars
D for two bars
A for two bars
E for one bar
D for one bar
A for two bars
(If you want to learn about the 12 bar blues, check out our Easy Songs For Beginners Lesson, Before You Accuse Me.)
Now let’s simply change each major chord to its dominant 7th:
A7 for four bars
D7 for two bars
A7 for two bars
E7 for one bar
D7 for one bar
A7 for two bars
Here are common open position seventh chords, plus some moveable shapes:
Another thing that sings out the blues is toying with the third note of the major scale. The note is a major third up from the root, which is our tonal center. When you change that major third to a minor third, you are making it a “blue note.” Toying with the third, by making it minor and then making it major again, gives you a great blues sound:
This is especially effective when used in finger-style play:
Playing with the third of a major chord, especially if you’ve made it a dominant 7th (as in the last two examples) is an extremely powerful way to communicate the blues feeling.
Dressed To The Nines (or Jazzing Up Your Blues)
Jazz is not as far removed from the blues as people might think. Certainly the open structure of blues lends itself quite well to the improvisation of jazz. There are many jazz guitarists with roots firmly embedded in the blues.
But most beginning or intermediate guitarists shy away from jazz while they have no problem whatsoever in embracing the blues. Intriguing, no? This phenomenon is often a matter of perception – we think of jazz as being full of difficult chords and strange scales. Jazz is exotic. Blues is down and dirty.
As with anything, you form such perceptions based on what you know and how you put it into practice. We’ve just seen and heard how simply adding the seventh to our major triad gives us a blues feel. What you throw on top of the seventh – ninths, elevenths and thirteenths – puts you in the realm of jazz.
The ninth is a particularly fun (and easy!!) chord to play. It is important to remember that your chord has to have both the seventh and ninth. If it only has the ninth with no seventh, it will simply be an “add9” chord. Here are some open position ninth chords, plus a moveable shape (with the root on the A string):
Ninths can be used in most cases where you’d use a seventh chord. So, in the blues, which is often loaded with seventh chords, you can have a field day. Have you ever heard a really slow, almost seductive, twelve bar blues song but couldn’t quite figure out what the chords were? Chances are that the guitarist was using ninths. A popular technique is to slide down to the ninth chord from one fret above. Give this a try:
Finally, let me give you a quick exercise to use all the things we learned today. If you need to give it a name, call it Darrin and David’s Blues:
We are playing our A7 in a shuffle pattern (where you can also play the open G string if you like) when we make use of a couple of passing chords in the middle of measure four. This brings us to an Eb9, which we’ll use to chromatically slide down to the D9. If you want to impress your friends that you know some jazz chords, the first passing chord (x0456x) is a D7#9 and the second (x0567) is an A7add6.
Another thing that jazz players like to do when they play the blues is substitute the tenth measure (D or D7 in this case) with a chromatic climb and return. Here we show the last four bars of our blues song as E9 followed by a step up to F9 before returning to E9 and then finally back to A. I also thought it would be fun to include a jazz style turnaround that holds the A as a sustained tone while chromatically descending from B to A.
Even if you play folk or rock, experiment with things like seventh and ninth chords. No, they won’t work every time. But more often than not, you will find yourself with a great sound that you’ll want to use again and again.