Lets take a moment to talk about sound. What are some of the earliest sounds you can recall? My earliest childhood memories are from living in West Haven, Connecticut. The first house I remember living in was downtown right off of I-95, so the sounds of trucks on the highway and your average city ambience of sirens, dogs, and other noise lulled me to sleep every night. I remember the sound of seagulls mooching for bread in a Stop and Shop parking lot, the sound of waves from Long Island (pronounced “Lawn Guy Land”) Sound crashing on the beach when we would go walk on the wharfs. Sounds, or sometimes even the absence of sounds, dominate our lives and they help to inform us about our environment. A knock at the door means someone’s there, my son cries from his crib to let me know he’s awake.
Take a minute to appreciate and be grateful for your ability to create and manipulate sound with your instrument or voice. It’s pretty magical, isn’t it? When people talk about a musician having a “voice” or having “something to say”, to me it means how they chose to express themselves musically, whether in relation to a rhythm section as a soloist, or as a member of the pocket establishing their take on a groove; all players either falling into line and playing their part, or undergoing the ultimate hostage negotiation of musical ideas: improvisation. Music allows us to alter the moods of the audience, create conversation that fosters the exchange of ideas, and express everything from our deepest pains to the heights of joy. Practicing and performing from a mindest of thankfulness helps to keep a mindset of humility that will overtime lead to Ego-less playing.
When I say Ego with the capital E, I mean it in reference to the internal conflict between the Ego vs Self that’s described in psychology and religion. I first learned about it from the Hindu text The Bhagavad Gita. There are many ways to interpret these two terms, many lenses to view them from. Here’s my interpretation in regards to sound and music, and let me preface this by saying I’m drawing these definition from my own personal experiences and mental hurdles I’ve had to get over to explain what I’m talking about to folks unfamiliar with these terms.
That being said:
A player tapped into the Ego is attached to the results of his work and playing. Musicians like this tend to play to impress the people in a room and are more focused on their own individual flash, not to serve their greater role as part of an ensemble playing together. They’re insecure about their gear compared to what the hottest players in their scene have and stack up their playing against others, knocking other players or talking themselves up all in an effort to inflate their little e ego. They derive their self worth and sometimes even sense or morality solely from their playing.
Contrast this with a player trying to satisfy the Self. Musicians like this serve the song, playing dynamically and with an awareness of their role. They look for what they have in common with other players and work to build up and support the people around them. Someone with this attitude derive their self worth from how they treat others and try to foster authentic connection between themselves and others.
The struggle of the Ego and Self spills over into every aspect of our lives and isn’t just related to music or spirituality alone. It’s important and is worth exploring, and I encourage you, the reader, to seek out this information for yourself and view your inner actions in relation to which of these you are nourishing and building.
Today, I want to talk about a different approach to building chords, the end result of which is a sound that I think sounds more “open” than traditional voicings we learn early on. This is a new texture for one’s pallet that I tend to draw from when comping underneath a soloist or trying to find voicings to stay out of the way when playing with a second guitarist or keyboard playing and the chords they might use.
Chords in Western harmony and they way they’re constructed is called often referred to as being a part of tertiary harmony, meaning that chords are analyzed and built from intervals of thirds. For example, a major triad is a major third stacked with a minor third (C-E-G). All triads and 7th chords are derived from thirds and then inverted or not per the composer or player’s taste.
But what happens you substitute other intervals into the triad?
The common other interval used to construct chords are fourths. This is more of modern sound that’s typically found in modern classical music or jazz. McCoy Tyner particularly is known for using voices based on fourth. The “open” sound of his voicings combined with his rhythmic approach helped him fill and create space in a brilliant way on on John Coltrane’s record My Favorite Things, particularly on the title track. Miles Davis used a mixture of fourths and thirds to construct the “So What” chord.
My theory behind how to apply different voicings is that people really only hear the bottom and top of chords and what takes place in between is where you can make little tweaks and create voicings unique to you. To me, this was one of the big innovations Wes Montgomery brought to the guitar. He moves up and down the neck playing sick chords during his solo as the climax and it’s all driven by the super melodic voice leading of the voicings he is playing. In his case, the bottom of the chord is really the bassist, leaving Wes even less harmonic obligation; the top note is now what jumps out of his voicing. With that, here’s a simple quartal voicing to work with.
I use my index finger to get the 2nd fret on the D and G string, putting most of the pressure on the “pad” underneath my finger. I do the 3rd fret of the B and E strings with the same “pad” on my ring finger. Starting from the root, we have E-A-D-G, perfect 4ths stacked on top of each other. Analyzing this voicing with the E as the root of the chord, the note on the top is a minor third plus an octave away from the root. My ear hears the top and bottom note and deduces that this voicing is doing something strongly resembling an E minor chord. In the middle we have A and D, which are a fourth and minor seventh away from the root. Since there’s no naming system for analyzing quartals, lets treat it like a normal chord from tertiary harmony land and call this an Em11. This is a GREAT chord to add to your vocabulary, I personally use it a lot when in a static vamp over a minor chord to add a slightly more “open” sound to my comping under a soloist. A keyboard player I used to play with told me once that minor eleven chords are everywhere when you’re playing with keyboard players coming from the Robert Glasper school of modern jazz and that tip saved my ass on a jam session once not too long ago. You could also use it doing an Wes Montgomery style chord solo, filling out the harmony differently than you would using a typical triad or seventh chord.
Lets look at a few different bass notes and see what this same voicing turns into. A former instructor of mine from Belmont University had a hilarious way to think of chord voicings that may help you with the practicality of some of the chords I’m about to show you. To him, being a guitar player is like being a photographer for a swimsuit magazine. Some of these chords are bombshells, drop dead gorgeous, 10/10. Some of these chords, however, are dogs. Hit every branch of the ugly tree on the way down. Your taste and my taste in chords may be different but a dog’s a dog.
With C as our bass note, you can voice this pretty easily compared to the Em11, just put your middle finger down on the 3rd fret of the A string. You now have a C69, voiced Root-3-6-9-5, a beautiful chord for playing in a major key, especially a ballad. Your highest note is still G but now it’s a perfect fifth plus an octave away from our new root of C. This is a very confident and beautiful color for playing the tonic chord of any key and makes a great sub for a major 7 chord. Gypsy Jazz cats LOVE this chord.
If we move our bass note to G, using our middle finger to get the third fret on the low E string and mute the low A, we get a G69, voiced Root-6-9-5-Root. The top note is two octaves away from the root note and both are G, so this is a great voicing to use if you want to keep the root note of the chord as the highest voice but want to fill out the voicings underneath with more space than a triad.
Here’s where we start to get into outer space. Moving our bass note to A yields A7sus4, voiced Root-5-Root-4-7. This chord is problematic and begs to be resolved to an A7. You couldn’t use this over any A major chord because the fourth, D, clashes with the third of an A major triad, C#, very harshly, especially when played in the same register. To resolve it, move the D on the 3rd fret of the B string down to the 2nd flat.
Making F the root via an imaginary bass player gives us Fmaj13, voiced starting from the D string major 7-3-13-9, a quirky voicing that runs into another clashing issue, the E on the 2nd fret of the D string clashes hard with the root of an F triad, so this chord only works under an Fmajor7 chord. The 9 on the top is a real modern sound heard a lot in modern r&b, but I find that if I’m trying to emphasis the 9 as the melodic note on top of my chord, I prefer it be built form thirds, but your mileage may vary.
This last one is playable, but doesn’t have much practical usage. You can play this one by placing your index finger on the 1st fret of the A string, middle finger on the second fret of the D and G strings, and ring finger on the 3rd fret of the B and E strings. This gives you Bbmajor7(#11)13, voiced Root-#11-major 7-3-13. Yikes. The only purpose for a chord like this that comes to mind is on the final beat of a song, where you really need more of a percussive hit from the guitar than a chord and only to add to the wall of notes coming out of the group. If you’re in a power trio with a bassist and drummer, I’d probably find another chord.
If you’ve made it this far, you now have a few new voicings under your fingers and ultimately, a new way to relate to your instrument and players around you. Now go get weird with it!