The chordal side of the guitar is a relatively uncharted area; students spend hours whizzing through solos at intergalactic speeds but some may have difficulty explaining what, for example, an A minor 6th is, or demonstrating more than one voicing of it. One reason is that chordal playing means holding down several notes at once, and placing our fingers in unfamiliar patterns; everyone remembers the pain and frustration of learning to play barre chords or their first open G major! Mainstream electric guitar often focuses on being able to play chords well enough to play songs and builds up to taking solos with the scales learnt. Contrast this with Brazilian styles or Jazz guitar where harmony is a flexible tool used for backing a singer or soloist and for solo sections in its own right; it is clear that an understanding of a harmonic approach to the guitar is a valuable asset for any student. Experimenting with cadences and unusual shapes can be helpful to anyone who enjoys writing their own music and wants to forge their own sound.
As with many areas of education, there can be a tendency among guitar students to view what is written in a book or on a tutor’s worksheet as gospel, a box they are not permitted to move out of. The purpose of these exercises is to illustrate that chord shapes and voicings are not set in stone; they are, especially in the arena of improvised music, simply a suggestion of what we could play, and a starting point for chord substitution.
To illustrate this, we could break a chord into bits and then reassemble it, modifying it as we go along. Students expand on the basic shapes by playing a little game based around one simple chord: I ask them to play an open C major and then get them to either add or remove one note to/from the chord - in other words they are either lifting away or pressing down an extra finger. A common response to this is to lift away the first finger, resulting in an open C major 7th chord. We then continue from there through the scale (and outside it!) by adding another note, or moving a note up or down by a semitone or whole tone. If pursued, this will eventually take us through many types of C chord. That is, unless we change the bass note to an A! Now all the shapes we have just tried will have a completely different sound. This provides the tutor with an opportunity to explain that a root note is the foundation of a key centre, and that by changing it we can alter the sound of a chord shape we already know, turning it into something new. The activity also gives us the chance to explain scale tones - what a 9th, 7th or 13th actually means. If we are teaching chords from an electric guitar exam syllabus, we could use it to highlight the similarities between, for example, a C major and an A minor, or how a D major becomes a D major 7th, then a D dominant 7th, with a demonstration of the different scales from which these chords are drawn.
Another approach is to use pedal tones – we pick a drone note – say, an open A, and, starting on A major, explore what happens when we move the shape up the neck one fret at a time, with the bass note left as open A – it gives us eight or nine new chords. Now repeat with an A major 7th, and A minor, an A minor 7th, A minor 6th, and so on. Once you’ve tried it with all the A chords you can think of, try it with the Es and Ds! Then introduce any of the three treble strings as pedal tones too – with just a few basic shapes we have quickly built up dozens of new voicings, any one of which might inspire a new chord sequence, composition or song.
In his book ‘the Advancing Guitarist’ Mick Goodrick recommends trying to play a solo on just one string, to help break out of the box of a scale shape: we can use this strategy to expand our knowledge of chords. We move up a scale along one of the bass strings, staying on the same string and try to ‘pin’ a chord on each root note using scale tones from the other strings. A Fretlight guitar, which lights up all the notes of a selected scale on its fretboard is an absolutely brilliant tool for illustrating this, but we could get a similar effect with a few well-placed stickers. Perhaps we could take the same one string scale and try to harmonise it with the adjacent strings – first in thirds, then thirds and fifths, then thirds and sevenths and so on, asking the student if it sounds right. We could use these patterns as a way to spice up solos or to build harmonised lines; this is commonplace in certain styles of African guitar, particularly where bands have more than one guitarist: they each take a different bit of a chord and work it into a line together, like a brass or string section.
Pianists are familiar with the concept of inversions - stacking the notes of a chord in a different order to obtain a different effect. We can get students to try this on guitar; take a simple E minor barre chord at the seventh fret. Find the minor 3rd. If we take this note down an octave, we free up the B string for other purposes; for example we could flatten the minor 3rd (G) by a semitone, turning it into a 9th; this gives us a nice minor 9th chord. A piano player might refer to this as ‘inner movement’ - the concept that we shuffle the heart of the harmony around to give us different textures.
In bossa nova guitar, the bass note mimics not only bass guitar or double bass but also the deep drum in samba. As such, players tend to stick to playing bass notes mainly on the sixth string as this gives the deepest sound; this type of voicing is also common in gypsy jazz guitar. It means that many of the chords played will have the 5th rather than the root as their bass note, which is why learning Brazilian songs by ear can be so confusing! For example the E minor 9th chord mentioned earlier might well have a B natural bass note, or a bass line that alternates between E and B, dancing across the bottom two strings. A more basic example would be the ‘folk’ voicing of open C major, which has a G on the bottom. It’s worth trying all the chords rooted on the A string and switching the bass note over the E string to see what it sounds like.
To me, this experimentation is the key. We can expand it to all chord playing - try anything, and if it sounds nice, do it again! If it doesn’t, don’t!