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Lesson Series

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Sam Bell Rhythm Guitar Concepts Part 4: Tonal Aspects Of Chord Voicings

Lesson Notes

** As featured in issue 56 **

Welcome to the 4th instalment of my rhythm column, so far we have looked deep into ways of practicing our timing and sub-division awareness with 8th and 16th notes. In this issue's lesson, I am going to take a more in-depth look at the decisions we can make to improve our chord choice.

I am going to be using a “Motown Skank” to demonstrate some of these concepts. The Motown Skank is the famous back beat guitar ‘chop’ style heard on many early Motown recordings, the style is comprised of a few fundamental elements: A guitar playing on the 2 and 4 tight with the snare drum while also playing higher 2 or 3 note inversions of chords. Often these chord voicings would be chosen strategically in order to create different harmonic spaces, for example, a high up voicing with a very staccato upstroke with the pick might cut more in the mix because the upper strings would be struck first with the pick. This would create a high energy urgency to the sound. Or maybe something more subtle is needed and lower slightly muted voicings might be more appropriate for the song. I want to get into how I like to think when it comes to choosing chord voicings for basic chord sequences, I am going to keep it stuck to the basic major/minor triads, and we’re going to focus on how the voicing we choose effects the tone of our playing and the sound of the band.

How many ways can you play a C chord?

First off I think its fundamental knowledge that every guitarist should know their CAGED system, even if they aren’t using all the shapes, a basic awareness and fretboard visualisation is key to finding other voicings of chords and breaking open the fretboard. I like to be able to split each CAGED shape up into adjacent string 2 or 3 note voicings, each of these 3 note voicings, in particular, will give you various triad inversions. Being aware of what inversion you are using can be key to creating different harmonic spaces with your bass player. If you choose a root inversion with the bass player you will have a stable sound, and depending on where you play this voicing on the neck you can get a very punchy sound. However if you want to really move some air, try using the 5th in the bass and keeping it either near the top of the chord or out of the chord entirely!

If you are looking for a warmer approach, the 3rd in the bass note of the guitar voicing against the root note on the bass guitar can create a very melodic heartfelt sound. Now I am talking in terms of my own perception. However you can make your own parallels in how these inversions feel and sound against the bass note, but I think it’s important to understand how they sound to you. Of course, you may want to change these inversions through a chord sequence to keep the voicings close together or to complement a top melody. Also if the bass player is playing, for example, the 3rd of a chord, you may wish to stick to a root inversion or play that 3rd rooted inversion somewhere higher up the neck to compliment the basses tone, so things don’t get muddy. It’s all about keeping out of the way from each other, but subjectively not too far away! Being aware of any bass register in the band or the arrangement is key to finding voicings that either support, expand or pop out of the texture of the tune you are playing. This will help expand your tool bag for live and recording sessions, sometimes you may want your chord voicings to support and not stick out, or maybe you want to build a section by moving between inversions for the same chord on the 2nd repeat of a verse. How about working with another guitarist? It can be very fun to play different inversions of a chord to the other player; this can really widen the sound and depending on the style of music you are playing, you can go crazy with superimpositions and polychords between guitars heading in an almost piano player direction…but maybe I will save that for another column! How you strum or pick your chosen inversion is also important, sometimes you may want to strum near to the neck joint to help the notes bloom out more and sink into the mix, or you may want to dig in around the bridge whilst doing some ringing out arpeggios of a chord, the choice is yours and a lot of what I am saying here may seem obvious… It’s what sets the pro session players apart from the rest of the world. They have been doing for years on records, and it sets their ‘basic chordal’ to a super high standard.

Next time you are listening to a piece of music with basic chord patterns, there is a lot of production going on in terms of how exactly the part is delivered from the guitarist's hands.  So please keep in mind some of the things I have said here, keep your ears open and enjoy opening up a whole world of fun with your chordal playing.

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