Building a chord vocabulary is a lifelong
journey for many guitarists. From open
to barre, rootless to power, chords take on
all shapes and sizes. In this lesson, we’ll discover
how the same type of chord voicing
can perform different harmonic functions.
Let’s use the 12-bar blues form (both major
and minor) as our starting point.
First, we need to brush up on our basic
chord-voicing knowledge. I’m sure most of
you have played the voicing shown in Fig. 1
at one time or another. We describe this as a
“drop 2” voicing.
In order to create this type of voicing, we
first start with a close-position voicing. A
close-position voicing means that all the chord
tones are as close as possible to each other.
From there, we move the second note from
the top down an octave. In Fig. 2
you can see
how this makes otherwise impossible chords
more playable. This also works when you
move the third note from the top down an
octave. We call those “drop 3” voicings.
Next, let’s add tension to these voicings
and apply them to a few different harmonic
situations. We’ll start with a couple of major 7
and major 7(#11) substitutions. Once we have
our drop 2 voicing, we substitute the 9 for
the chord root. You can see how we applied
this to a Cm7 chord in Fig. 3
. The resulting
voicing looks like an Ebmaj7 chord, but will
function as a Cm9. We can add even more
tension-filled extensions by substituting a few
altered notes. If you replace the root of a C7
chord with a #9 and raise the 5 by a half-step,
you end up with a voicing for Emaj7#11.
Sticking to this maj7#11 concept, we will use
an A%maj7#11 voicing for Dm11(b5) and a
Bmaj7#11 voicing for G7#9#5.
Now, lets take some of our newly shaped
voicings and apply them to a minor blues.
In Fig. 4
I’m using both drop 2 and drop 3
voicings with these substitutions. These chord
voicings are pretty rich and normally you
wouldn’t comp using this many upper-structure
sounds. Some of the first-inversion major
7 and major 7(#11) drop 2 voicings can be
a little tricky to execute. Notice that I stayed
away from third-inversion major 7 voicings.
These voicings create a minor-second interval
between the outer two voices when converted
to drop 2. However, such guitarists as Ben
Monder and John Abercrombie make them
work—it just goes to show that sometimes
rules are made to be broken.
or download example audio
There are lots of other chord substitutions,
and mixing them up instead of using only
major 7 and major 7(#11) voicings lets you
create much better voice leading and play a
variety of sounds. In Fig. 4 the chord substitutions
are above the TAB and the blues changes
are above the notation.
In Fig. 5
I’m using the same chord substitutions,
but this time in the key of F. Here is
a quick and easy chart for keeping track of the
chords we’re using.
or download example audio
I hope you enjoyed some of the sounds
you found here, and I encourage you to
experiment with them in other keys and
tunes. A great resource for digging deeper
into this concept is Mel Bay’s Complete
Book of Harmony, Theory & Voicing
Willmott. When dealing with substitutions,
the theoretical side of things can get pretty
deep real quick. Just take it slow and don’t
feel like you need to use a fancy chord for
Bruce Saunders is an award-winning guitarist,
composer, author, and educator. He has
recorded, performed, and toured with some
of the world’s best jazz musicians, including
Jack DeJohnette, Dave Holland, Bill Stewart,
and Peter Erskine. Saunders has been a faculty
member at the Berklee College of Music
since 1992 and has also taught at New York
University and The New School, and conducted
clinics and concerts in many countries. Visit
for more information.