Food For thought
Justin Sandercoe of justinguitar.com lends GT his insight as one of the world’s most successful guitar teachers. This month: Beauty in dissonance (pt 1).
In this article, I thought I’d share with you something that only mentally clicked with my brain recently, but that my ear had figured out some time ago – something of a ‘secret ingredient’ that all the coolest chords have. And that secret is, that beautiful sounds often (but not always) rely on some dissonance.
Dissonance, for those not familiar with the term, means, “a tension or clash resulting from the combination of two disharmonious or unsuitable elements” and musically this would mean adding some notes that don’t harmonise ‘nicely’. We’ll play some dissonant note pairs shortly and you’ll hear them for yourself.
Rather than just tell you about it, I’d like to give you some examples and show you some ways you might start exploring it on your own. There is blank chord box paper to print out on my site (see justinguitar.com/gtmag) and I’d suggest you print out a few pages to write down your discoveries.
Notes that a semitone or tone away from each other (or the octave) are usually notes that create the kind of dissonance that becomes pleasing in chords.
Minor 2nd. Let’s start by exploring the sound of a semitone (minor 2nd) so you can hear the clash – and an great easy starter is to play the note C on the 1st fret of the second string using the first finger; and the note B on the 4th fret 4 of the third string at the 9th fret using the fourth finger. Played together, most people would agree that it sounds pretty ‘wrong’ or ‘off’ and can’t imagine that it could sound nice in a chord.
Now we’ll try adding in a semitone interval (the most dissonant interval) into a minor chord but we can’t just start adding in random notes; they would want to come from a scale related to the chord. You can add random notes if you are a real explorer, and you might find some gems, but it’s a much more haphazard approach and unlikely to bring usable and cool sounding chords as quickly.
In the Dorian mode (one of the most useful minor scales) there is only one semitone option near to a chord tone which is found between b3rd the 2nd and degrees (B and C in A Dorian: A-B-C-D-E-F#-G). The other semitone being between the 6th and 7th degrees which, while also fun to explore, is harder to make useful.
As if by some strange coincidence those notes B and C are the very same ones we now want to get into an A minor chord. So how might we do it? There are a bunch of fun options here to explore.
First, we could try just adding that note to a regular Am chord.
Technically it could have a few names; I’d likely call it Am add2, but more commonly I see it called Am9 (but that name implies the inclusion of the b7 which this chord doesn’t have).
Am add2. You can also swap the places of the C and B notes and play the B on the open string which also sounds cool.
Am add2 v2. And that leads us to another variation which is very easy to play and you could use almost any time you see a regular Am in a song…
Am add2 v3. More advanced players should now go through and play all the Am shapes they know and explore where they can add a B note – in any octave; don’t be worried about the placement of a 2 or a 9, it’s the same in this context. The Am add2 chord is a fun one to explore because of the open second string which you can pop into many chords easily – but look at ‘closed’ (no open strings shapes as well).
Another trick to explore is adding in the G note as well which would make it a true minor 9 chord. For that you’ll want the notes A-C-E-G-B like this super lush shape that, while being a tricky one to jump to, sounds amazing.
Am9. Those with long or flexible fingers might like to try this one which leans on the dissonance created by the intervals of a tone between the G and the A and the A and the B, as well as the low C and B notes (major 7th interval, the inversion of minor 2nd). This one has a whole lot of dissonance going on but I love it, and I just opened another can of worms for you… the dissonance of tones… more on that next issue. Am9 v2. I will add some more related chords on the justinguitar. com/gtmag webpage for you to see as well. Now go and explore your minor shapes and we’ll look at some major chords next month. Happy trails!
There’s blank chord box paper on my site; I suggest you print a few pages to write down your discoveries
Get more info and links to related lessons on all Justin’s GT articles at www.justinguitar.com/gtmag
Justin: not surprisingly smiling with this lovely ’60s Gibson ES-335