Play Better Chords!
Jacob Quistgaard explores a myriad of ways that you can add colour to your chords, play more interesting progressions and even create classier compositions.
This feature will explore a string of useful concepts that you can apply to your chord playing. Whether you are looking to add more colour and versatility to your vocabulary, to come up with new chords, or even experiment with your own progressions, you should find some genuinely practical hints and tips over the next few pages.
First, we will look at inversions. Inverting your chords is a simple way to tweak any basic chord or progression. The idea is that you take a chord, let’s say an E major triad containing the notes E, G# and B (1, 3, 5), and ‘invert’ the order of these three notes, so that the 3rd goes in the bass (3, 5, 1 - E/G#) or the 5th goes in the bass (5, 1, 3 - E/B). The common terminology to use here is ‘E over B’ or ‘E with B in the bass’. Jon Bishop’s excellent transcription of Tears In Heaven (p26) shows inversions in action, perfectly.
Secondly, we will look at extended chords. Here, rather than simply using triads (three-note chords) and the common four-note major 7th or dominant 7th, we continue up through other extensions and include 9ths, 11ths and 13ths as well. Even in a purely diatonic setting (all notes being drawn from the same scale or key), adding extensions can instantly create colour and interest.
Then we go even further into the land of extensions, looking at altered and more ‘spicy’ chords you don’t necessarily see and hear everywhere. Common alterations include #5, #9, #11 and b9 intervals, but you can also make up your own chords from a scale like the symmetric diminished scale. This scale is particularly handy for creating cool chord sounds, because if you are using it on any functional dominant (V chord), you can move your chosen shape around the neck in minor 3rds and it will ‘fit’ anywhere!
Tricks like that are second nature to any seasoned jazz player, who will be able to play hundreds of chords even if the progression only has two chords in it! A good example of this is Miles Davis’ famous modal tune, So What, which stays on Dm for 16 bars, goes to Ebm for eight and then back to Dm for another eight. No jazz guitarist worth his salt would just play Dm for ages: for a start, he’d be able to play every possible inversion of Dm, Dm7, Dm9 and so forth, which already provides a plethora of options. Furthermore, he would take chosen shapes and patterns from the scale (D Dorian mode in the case of So What) and move them around like chords, even taking them chromatically ‘outside’ the context of the scale. A common way of creating moveable chords like that, is by
A useful tip for when coming up with your own chord progressions is to look out for what the top line is doing.
stacking three or four 4th intervals on top of each other, thus creating a hip sounding ‘chord’ that will fit in the context of a musical situation that might only have one or two actual chords at its heart.
We will also look at changing a given chord type, in order to see what results we can cojure up that way. Take for example the V chord in G major - D7 - you could try changing it to Dm7 for an unexpected little harmonic twist.
Another fascinating topic, and one with which our jazz guitarist would be very familiar, is chord substitution. Tritonesubstitution is popular in jazz - this is where one chord (commonly the V chord) is substituted for another chord a b5 (three tones) away. For instance, replace a G7 dominant V chord with C#7 and it will sound great. We will dig into this and also examine the harmonic phenomenon that is ‘modal interchange’ - using chords that are ‘borrowed’ from a parallel key.
Experimenting with your own slash chords should definitely be on your agenda if you are serious about coming up with some new chords for your vocabulary. Inverted chords are in fact slash chords – C/E for example – but slash chord don’t have to be inverted; you can take any chord and stick any bass note underneath it (who hasn’t done this when messing around on a piano?), so I highly recommend you spend time experimenting with doing it on guitar.
A canny tip when devising your own chord progressions and pursuing that extra bit of colour, is to look at what the top or bottom line is doing. In any progression you can take the top note from each chord and play that as a single line. If what you hear from singling out these notes sounds strong, you’re onto something. If it makes little sense on its own, it could mean that your progression lacks cohesion or strength. Exactly the same goes for the bass line; isolate it and see if it makes musical sense; if not you could try inverting certain chords, substituting others and perhaps altering or extending some. It’s not like we haven’t given you enough alternatives!
And to show you all these ideas in action, Example 6 mixes all the aformentioned concepts together into on piece. I hope you enjoy it, and take your time to experiment with all these ideas on a daily basis - and remember the backing tracks are there for you to practice with. Have fun!