My Last Word on Chord Basics


Triads:

Before you learn your triads, it's important you have at least a fairly good knowlege of the notes up and down the fingerboard. It's important for jazz guitarists to learn triads thoroughly since they are a basic building block for more complex chords. Also, when a jazz player is improvising single note lines, it's important to know where the chord tones are of each chord being improvised on; knowing triads all over the neck is an important first step in this process.

I suggest learning close position triads for every major, minor, diminished, and augmented chord in every inversion all over the neck. As guitar players, unless we're playing solo guitar, we're usually going to be playing with a bass player, so the traditional classical idea of thinking of "root position," "first inversion," etc... is not going to be all that useful. What is more important, with most chord playing on guitar, is what note is on the top of the voicing. This idea is useful for playing a melody that's harmonized underneath with chords. Also, even if you're just comping (playing an accompaniment part behind the melody) the ear will tend to hear the top note of any voicing as a melody of sorts.

Let's start with an F major triad. Again, rather than thinking of what the "bass note" is (the bass player will take care of that), we'll think of what note is on top. For starters, let's put the root on top, followed by the 5th and the 3rd underneath:

F: 1st string, 1st fret
C: 2nd string, 1st fret
A: 3rd string, 2nd fret

Next, we can invert the voicing. A piano player will typically invert a voicing downward by moving the top note down an octave. When we invert across strings on the guitar, this way of thinking is useful; bring the F down an octave and leave the other two notes where they are:

C: 2nd string, 1st fret
A: 3rd string, 2nd fret
F: 4th string, 3rd fret

and then:

A: 3rd string, 2nd fret
F: 4th string, 3rd fret
C: 5th string, 3rd fret

and finally:

F: 4th string, 3rd fret
C: 5th string, 3rd fret
A: 6th string, 5th fret

This brings us to an important point about the guitar: on a piano, if you play middle C and want to go up in pitch, you go to the right. To go down, you go to the left. That's it; there's no other direction. On guitar, to up in pitch you can go across the strings OR up the neck, vice versa for down in pitch. This is one fundamental characteristic of the guitar that separates it from most other instruments, and it's an important one to keep in mind when learning anything on the instrument. The above inversions of F major address the "across the strings" aspect of the instrument but not the "up and down the strings" aspect. For that part, imagine that there are 3 singers singing the notes F (soprano), C (alto) and A (tenor) in the triad. If we wanted to invert the triad upward, it wouldn't make much sense to use piano-style thinking and bring the tenor up and octave to the A ABOVE the soprano and alto. He'd probably be pretty upset, actually! In this case, it would make more sense to bring the soprano up to the A, bring the alto up to the F previously sung by the soprano, and bring the tenor up to the C that alto had just been singing. That way, we preserve the order of parts, and the tenor won't injure himself. On guitar, think of each string as a "voice:" 1st string, soprano; 2nd string, alto; 3rd string, tenor. So, to invert the original F triad upward, we'd go along those same three strings to:

A: 1st string, 5th fret
F: 2nd string, 6th fret
C: 3rd string, 5th fret

and then:

C: 1st string, 8th fret
A: 2nd string, 10th fret
F: 3rd string, 10th fret

Then, with each of those inversions, use the "piano method" of inverting to go across all 6 strings (3 adjacent strings at a time, as above). This will give you every possible inversion all over the neck for a close position F major triad. Also, try inverting up and down the neck with the "choir method" on strings 2, 3 ,4; strings 3, 4, 5; and strings 4, 5, 6 from the original F major triad.

When you have that down, do the same thing from the 11 other possible roots and also with the other 3 basic types of triads. To get minor, take the major triads and flat the 3rd. For diminished, flat the 5th of the minor triads, and for augmented, sharp the 5th of the major triads.

Next, I would recommend learning basic shell voicings. This way, you can learn a few chord shapes that can be used to get you through just about any jazz standard. See the Shell Voicings article for an explanation.

Then, I'd work on getting drop 2 and drop 3 voicings together. Figure out voicings for all inversions and chord types. A good way to get started is to take each maj7 voicing up the major scale. Here's a description of what I'm talking about:

Start with a drop 3 Fmaj7 in 1st position:

F: 6th string, 1st fret
E: 4th string, 2nd fret
A: 3rd string, 2nd fret
C: 2nd string, 1st fret

Now bring each note up along its string to the next note in the F major scale:

G: 6th, 3rd
F: 4th, 3rd
Bb: 3rd, 3rd
D: 2nd, 3rd

Repeat the same procedure for all the notes of the scale to get Am7, Bbmaj7, C7, Dmin7, E half dim., and Fmaj7.

Now go back to the first chord, but this time instead of the F on the sixth string, play on the first string. Now bring this chord up the F scale.

Now go back again to the first chord. This time bring each note over one string so that the voicing is transposed up a fourth:

Bb: 5th, 1st
A: 3rd, 2nd
D: 2nd, 3rd
F: 1st, 1st

Now bring this voicing up the Bb scale (Bbmaj7, Cmin7, Dmin7, Ebmaj7, F7, Gmin7, A half dim., Bbmaj7). Remember to keep each of the four notes on the same string the whole way up and to go up one note in the scale for each successive voicing.

Next, bring the F on the first string in the Bbmaj7 voicing down to F on the fourth string to get this voicing:

Bb: 5th, 1st
F: 4th, 3rd
A: 3rd, 2nd
D: 2nd, 3rd

Take this up the Bb scale as well.

Now go back to the first voicing again. This time, invert the voicing by moving each note along its string up to the next highest note in the Fmaj7 chord:

A: 6th, 5th fret
F: 4th, 3rd fret
C: 3rd, 5th fret
E: 2nd, 5th fret

Invert the voicing twice more to get these inversions:

C: 6th, 8th
A: 4th, 7th
E: 3rd, 9th
F: 2nd, 6th

E: 6th, 12th
C: 4th, 10th
F: 3rd, 10th
A: 2nd, 10th

With each of these three other inversions, you can do the same process: up the scale, bring the sixth string to the first string, bring the first voicing up a fourth, then bring the first string down to the fourth. Since you'll run out of room on the neck, you can move each successive inversion down as low on the neck (without getting any open strings) as possible. This will yield these keys:

1st inversion: Eb and Ab
2nd inversion: C and F
3rd inversion: Ab and Db

This exercise will give you every inversion of every maj7, min7, dom7, and half dim., drop 3, and drop 2 (except for the drop 2 voicings on the bottom four strings).

In addition to practicing these up and down each scale, try also taking each chord type and inverting it up and down the neck. Also try doing the "alter the note(s) to get a new chord" thing mentioned before. Also, practice playing II V Is using each voicing type and using good voice-leading. Then try playing some standards, sticking to one voicing type and one area of the neck. Then try replacing certain notes with color tones: roots with 9ths; 5ths with 13ths or 11ths. Then take a much-needed vacation.

An arranging teacher of mine, Gary Lindsey, had a pretty logical set of rules for adding color tones to 4-part 7th chords, which works pretty well for adding color tones to drop 2 guitar voicings as well:

-------------Maj7-----7-------m7------m7b5

Root-------9---- 9,b9,#9---9--------9

3rd-------------- 4(sus4)---(4)-------(4)

5th-----#11,13---13,b13----------------

7th----6(maj6)--------------6(m6)--------

The idea here is that you replace one or more notes in the drop 2 voicing with one of the color tones listed above. For example: for a Dom7 chord, you can replace the root with a 9, b9, or #9. For m7 and m7b5 chords I put 4 as a replacement for the 3rd in parentheses because this would somewhat obscure the minor tonality, depending on the context. Notice also that in 3 cases, subbing one note for another will change the fundamental name of the chord: replacing the 3rd in a dom7 chord with the 4th will make the chord become a 7sus4 chord, and replacing the 7th in a major or minor 7th chord will give you a major and minor 6th chord, respectively.

I mention drop 2, and not drop 3 because drop 3 voicings often have the lowest note far enough in the low register that it will sound like the bass note. For example, look at the first voicing in the chord scale exercise, the drop 3 voicing for Fmaj7:

F: 6th string, 1st fret
E: 4th string, 2nd fret
A: 3rd string, 2nd fret
C: 2nd string, 1st fret

Here, if I replace the root with the 9th, I'll get a chord that doesn't sound like F major anymore; G, the 9th, is so far in the low register that the chord starts to sound like some sort of a G chord.

Here's one more idea for coming up with chord voicings using the "chord scale" approach:

You can take any voicing, determine a scale that it is diatonic to, and bring it up the neck in a similar manner. You can do this with voicings containing any number of notes: just two or all six.

As an illustration, take:

D: 4th string, open
G: 3rd string, open
C: 2nd string, 1st fret

and try bringing this voicing up the C major scale. Voicings like these have a more "open" sound that don't define a specific chord as much as a general tonality. You can play up and down the neck with these voicings while droning an open low E, and it will sound like E phrygian. Sustain an open A, and it'll sound like A aeolian. You could use these voicings over a II V I in C (or any other progression diatonic to the C scale) to get a more open "modal" type of sound as well.

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