Guitarists tend to think of chords in
terms of fretboard grips. But remember,
the concept of chordal harmony has
been around a lot longer than the guitar.
Harmony began eons ago as the result of
people singing different notes together
that sounded naturally sweet to the ear. As
chords move from one to the next in vocal
music, the music flows most naturally when
each singer sings a smooth melodic line,
connecting the notes without awkward
leaps. This is called voice leading
, and we
can approach chordal movement similarly
on the guitar, for similarly smooth results.
Play Fig. 1
, a simple I–IV–V–I progression
in the key of C major. You can think
of the starting C major chord as four voices
(C–E–G–C, low to high). Note that as we
move to the F major chord, the top voice
remains on the same note (C), the voice
below that moves just one whole-step (G to
A), and the next voice below moves only a
half-step (E to F). Tallying just those three
voices—and overlooking the movement of
the bottom voice for now—we could say that
the cumulative movement is one-and-a-half
total steps (G to A, plus E to F). To hear the
voice leading most clearly, try playing Fig. 1
again, but sounding only the top three voices.
Note that the bottom voice leaps more than
the others. The bottom voice in voice leading
is often allowed more independence in order
to define root motion clearly (in this case,
I–IV–V–I) or to follow its own melodic logic.
As we saw in the first example, voice leading
takes care of itself, more or less, when we
play in open position. However, when we get
into keys where open-position chords aren’t
available, most guitarists default to using barre
chords, and smooth voice leading is given up
in favor of common memorized grips.
Try this: Play a I–IV–V–I progression in
the key of Bb major using common barre
shapes with no regard for voice leading.
There’s nothing wrong with this, yet you
can get a more lyrical flow by applying
voice leading to this progression. The first
step is to settle on a clear melody.
Check out Fig. 2
and start by playing
only the top voice of each chord (the notes
D–Eb–C–D). As in Fig. 1, the most direct
voice leading can be seen in the top three
notes, while the bottom voice moves more
freely. Go back and play the barre-chord
version of our Bb I–IV–V–I progression
and then Fig. 2 once more. Can you hear
the difference voice leading makes?
Now play Fig. 3
, which is a variation
on Fig. 2, with same the melody on top,
slightly different chord voicings, and a less
adventurous bottom line.
While I–IV–V–I progressions are fairly
common in pop music, voice leading can
be used to streamline chord progressions
that might otherwise sound herky-jerky.
Take, for example, the intro to George
Harrison’s “Something.” The song is in
the key of C major, and the intro chords
are F–Eb–G–C. That Eb chord doesn’t
belong in this key, and going from Eb to
G is not the most natural chord movement.
As a general rule, chords move
most smoothly by a fourth or fifth—say,
from C to F or G—or by stepwise root
motion—from C to Dm, for example.
We can use voice leading to sweeten the
sound of this chord progression, as shown
in Fig. 4
. Notice that the top voice inches
upward in the last three chords as the bass
line steps downward.
Eric Clapton’s “Bell Bottom Blues” is
another classic song built on a progression
that contains an unexpected chord. In the key
of C major once again, the verse chords are
C–E–Am–C–F–G–F–G. That second chord,
E major, is the odd man out, not belonging
to the key of C. On the original recording,
from the 1970 Derek and the Dominos
album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs
Clapton uses open-position chords and a
descending bass line to gracefully connect the
dots. Fig. 5
is similar to his approach.
It may be tricky to appreciate the voice
leading here, as the chords are broken into
arpeggios. To focus on the harmonic motion
without any rhythmic distractions, try playing
each chord without arpeggiating it. Now
we can more easily see how the top voice
in the first three chords goes chromatically
upward while the bottom voice goes downward
scale-wise. Smooth move, Slowhand.
We can use the same sort of voice-leading
strategy on even thornier chord progressions—
such as Kurt Cobain’s “Lithium”
from the Nirvana album Nevermind
song is in the key of D major, and the verse
chord progression is D–F#–Bm–G–Bb–C–
A–C. The chords D, Bm, G, and A belong
in the key, while F#, Bb, and C do not.
Played as full barre chords, or as root-and-fifth
power chords (see Fig. 6
), the progression
has a punk-rock edge.
It takes on a breezier, almost Beatlesque
quality in Fig. 7
, when we use voice leading
to string the chords along. Of course, sanding
the rough edges off of Nirvana may seem
heretical to some, but that’s not the point
here. The point is that harmony is universal,
and its laws apply across borderlines. Thus,
voice leading can be applied to virtually any
chord progression, regardless of musical genre.
Now it’s your turn to take voice leading
for a test drive. Apply it to the chords in
your own songs, or even just one section of
the song, so that the effect stands out. You
might also try re-arranging a cover song
with voice leading in mind. As with any
musical skill, voice leading gets easier the
more you work at it, so get at it and keep at
it until it’s second nature.
Adam Levy is best known for his tenure as the
featured guitarist in Norah Jones’ Handsome
Band. He played on her breakout 2002 CD, Come
Away with Me
, as well as her subsequent two
albums. Levy has also recorded several albums
on his own. His latest is The Heart Collector
for more information.