Options On The Guitar
Guitarists often learn chords by reading “box” diagrams. If you’ve ever had a lesson in your life (or even if you haven’t) you’re probably familiar with these: essentially a drawing of the guitar
neck held vertically, with six vertical lines representing the strings and horizontal lines representing the frets. Fingers are shown by either dots or numbers on the notes you cover to create each chord.
Now, this is a useful tool….once you understand how to read these boxes, learning a new chord is as simple as looking at the picture. The problem is that many players never get beyond the concept of chords AS boxes: as fixed objects instead of a collection of notes.
A chord is any sound formed by more than two notes simultaneously. Some on my young students like to grab random collections of notes and ask “is this a chord?” The answer is always yes, no matter how dissonant the sound might be…but the primary language of popular music is major and minor chords, and almost every other type of chord can be derived from this basic foundation.
Major Chords – Minor Chords
A quick definition. “Major” and “minor” are different qualities a chord can have, with two different sounds. (We’re using “quality” to mean a characteristic, as opposed to a judgment of good or bad). Every type of chord has a distinct quality and emotional association to the listener: to be very simplistic about it, major chords are bright and uplifting while minor chords are more dark and moody. Try playing a sequence of minor chords and end with a major…it sounds (and feels) like the sun breaking through the clouds. (As an aside, one thing I love about great country music is how sad major chords can sound with the right melody, lyric, and delivery. Think of George Jones singing “He Stopped Loving Her Today”).
A little simple theory. Major and minor chords are made up of three notes, the first (root), third, and fifth of the corresponding scale; these three notes together form a triad. This is a simple enough idea to understand if you just start from the letter that names the chord, call that note 1, and count letters to find notes 3 and 5. So if we start from A and call that note 1, notes 3 and 5 would be C and E.
To work with this major and minor concept, strum a simple C chord followed by an A minor. Listen to the different qualities of these two chords…the bright chime of the C, the major, and the darker sound of the A minor. Then reverse the order and listen to the emotional lift that accompanies the change from A minor to C.
Both the C and Am chords as we usually first learn to play them are 5-note chords, which means that some notes must be doubled. A simple C triad is C-E-G, while our 5-note C chord on the guitar is C-E-G-C-E. That’s 1-3-5-1-3, for those who are keeping track. The A minor has a similar form: the triad is A-C-E, and the guitar chord is A-E-A-C-E or 1-5-1-3-5. Again, note that the numbers are always counted from the root, or note that names the chord: so C is note 1 of the C chord while A is note 1 of the A minor.
New Versions of Guitar Chords
Now here’s where we leave the box behind. You’re probably accustomed to playing all five notes of both these chords. Try holding the shape of either chord and playing just three strings at a time. You can extract three different versions of each chord this way: striking the three lower, three middle, or three upper strings. Notice how this brings out different notes, and adds an element of melody when you change chords or even just parts of the same chord.
Playing the same chords as arpeggios gives us even more options. To play an arpeggio, hold the chord form with your fretting hand and strike or pluck the strings one at a time. Notice how this also brings in a melodic element even without changing chords, and even more so when we put a series of chords together.
This is a large topic but a simple one. Try applying these ideas to other chords, bringing out different notes. As you change chords notice how melodies are created in this way: now, instead of a series of “blocks” a chord progression becomes a series of simultaneous melodies. This is a great way to create signature parts that help define the song musically before the vocal even begins.
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