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.

Guitar Techniques - - Play: Chords -

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!

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