Voice Leading for Guitarists – An Introduction

Guitarists are often regarded as the redheaded stepchildren of the musical community. There are a lot of reasons why this might be unfair, but it can be both enlightening and humbling to attempt to figure out why other musicians sometimes regard us with contempt. Consider the following generalizations about guitar players:

  • Bad rhythm
  • Can’t sight read
  • Over-reliance on power chords and the pentatonic minor scale

True? Not in every case, but in more cases than you might think. Regardless of how true as the above accusations might be, however, they all pale in comparison to the gaping hole in the harmonic knowledge of many rock and metal guitarists: voice leading. I myself never knew what voice leading was until I studied classical guitar in college and grad school, but now that I know what it is and the incredible power that it can have in making a piece of music sound like… well… music, I can’t imagine that I ever lived without it.

So what is voice leading? Voice leading is the horizontal component of harmony. The notes stacked up within each chord are the vertical component, but each note within each chord is a “voice” and in traditional classical harmony, each voice is supposed to go somewhere. In other words, while the vertical component of harmony moves from one chord to the next in a given progression, the horizontal component creates a set of simultaneously occurring melodic lines. If you’d like more information on this (including some diagrams that may help), check out the old Guitar Noise article Five to One.

Breaking Away From Barre Chords

Let’s take a look at a basic chord progression done in two different styles: one with block barre chords moving around, and the other one with attention paid to voice leading.

Voice Leading Example 1

This first chord progression, as shown in the above “Example 1,” is a typical A Mixolydian rock progression using only E-shaped barre chords, “E” being the most basic six-string barre chord shape. It’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s somewhat boring. It’s boring because we’re taking a single chord shape and moving it around, which means we have only parallel motion of voices from chord to chord. In other words, all the notes move up or down from one chord to the next and every note of every string stays at the same intervallic distance from one another.

Figure two has is the exact same chord progression, except this time we’re using a bit of voice leading to make things more interesting:

Voice Leading Example 2

In the first measure we now have oblique motion, where one or more voices stay the same while other voices move:

  • Both A notes (open 5th string and 2nd fret, 3rd string) remain in place
  • C# (2nd fret, 2nd string) moves to D (3rd fret, 2nd string) and back
  • E (2nd fret, 4th string) moves to F# (4th fret, 4th string) and back

In the second measure things get even more interesting because we’re introducing contrary motion, where two voices move in opposite directions, in addition to oblique motion. For the first chord change from D to G:

  • Both D notes (open 4th string and 3rd fret, 2nd string) remain in place
  • F# (2nd fret, 6th string) moves up to G (3rd fret, 6th string)
  • A (2nd fret, 3rd string) moves down to G (open 3rd string)

Then in the next chord change from G to A we have more contrary motion:

  • D (3rd fret, 2nd string) moves down to C# (2nd fret, 2nd string)
  • G (open 3rd string) moves up to A (2nd fret, 3rd string)
  • D (open 4th string) moves up to E (2nd fret, 4th string)
  • G (3rd fret, 6th string) moves up to A (open 5th string)

Hair Metal With Voice Leading? Vito Bratta says “Yes!”

Here’s another example in the style of one of my favorite players, Vito Bratta. Vito brought fantastic musicianship to what was in most other ways a very average band in White Lion. This passage is in the style of the verse section of one of White Lion’s hits, “Wait:”

Voice Leading Example 3

At first glance this is just a series of double stops with some chugging on the open A string. But look again and you’ll see (and hear) some really cool harmony and voice leading.

  • Measure 1: We start with an A major and via parallel motion move down to a G major over the open A, which creates an open, suspended kind of sound.
  • Measure 2: Here we move the B (3rd string, 4th fret) up to C# (3rd string, 6th fret) to quickly create A7 and then immediately resolve to D major, where the contrary motion of C# (3rd string, 6th fret) up to D (3rd string, 7th fret) and G (4th string, 5th fret) down to F# (4th string, 4th fret) sounds especially cool.
  • Measure 3: A fun harmony trick… we drop the major 3rd of D (F# – 4th string, 4th fret) down to a minor 3rd (F natural – 4th string, 3rd fret) to create a minor iv chord, which produces a melancholy sound in a major key.
  • Measure 4: Resolving back to A major to start the riff over again.

This riff is a perfect example of how double stops and a palm muted accompaniment can be used to define a chord progression. If you’re just playing root/fifth power chords your voice leading options are extremely limited, but if you start using thirds (and even sevenths) when you create your riffs you can do some really cool things with voice leading. It can be a challenge to start thinking both horizontally and vertically, but it will open up an incredible array of harmonic possibilities for you.

Further Study

Want to listen and learn more? Look no further than these two great composers:

  • Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina – A composer of sacred music during the Renaissance, Palestrina’s music is helpful for the study of voice leading because there are actual human voices involved, which makes it easier to pick out a single line and listen to it. I’m particularly fond of Palestrina’s masses. Any one of the 105 masses composed by Palestrina will be both educational and enjoyable, especially for anyone not familiar with choral music.
  • Johann Sebastian Bach – Quite possibly the pinnacle of Western music, Johann Sebastian Bach was a master (some would say THE master) of both voice leading and its musical sibling, counterpoint. Check out the Brandenburg Concertos and the Well-Tempered Clavier for a taste of voice leading and counterpoint nirvana. For music accessible on the guitar, consider Bach’s suites and sonatas for lute, violin and lute.