Open-String Chord Voicings
Open-string chords are one of the more distinctive elements of this style and are used by many progressive rock guitar players, Alex Lifeson being the most notable. The CAGED system and standard barre chords are still used, but adding open strings and arpeggio patterns can lead you to some new sounds. You can take an existing chord and lift up a finger, move shapes up the neck, or use your knowledge of theory to generate these voicings.
One approach is to start with an existing open-string voicing and move the bass note in half- or whole-steps. Fig. 5 starts with Bmin11 voicing that contains an open 4th and an open 1st string. The bass note then moves up a half-step to C and then down a whole-step to Bb. Keeping the notes the same on the top four strings creates a pedal of sorts—a common thread between each chord.
Fig. 6 takes a different approach in that the entire chord shape is moved around the neck. I started with a trustworthy C major (adding another fifth at the 3rd fret, first string) and moved it up the fretboard to find chords that I liked. This can add extensions and alterations to chords and is an easy way to add a new flavor to stock chord progressions. You should try this with every chord in the CAGED system!
Another voicing technique is to take the full 6-string major barre chord and un-barre it, opening up the top two strings. Fig. 7 uses the same brute-force method, moving the chord shape up and down the neck to find some interesting voicings that have extensions or alterations.
I’ve got two words for you—“Long Distance Runaround” by Yes. All right, that’s three words, but Steve Howe’s harmonized guitar intro is a pretty good lesson in itself on how to harmonize a guitar line. Harmonizing two guitar lines is a crafty way of creating a chord progression without actually playing chords. To harmonize, you need to know scales and intervals (which are pairs of notes). Fig. 8 uses the A major scale (A–B–C#–D–E–F#–G#–A) and the intervals of a third and a sixth.
An interval of a third occurs when you pair every other note in the scale, or a third away (A–C#, B–D, C#–E, etc). Sixths are pairing of notes that are a sixth away (A–F#, B–G#, C#–A, etc.). Notice that when you flip a third upside down, you get a sixth (D–F# is a third and F#–D is a sixth). It’s theory magic!
So, why do we use thirds and sixths but not other intervals? Chords are traditionally built in thirds, so intervals of a third (or sixth) will sound like chords as well. For example, a D major triad has the notes D–F#–A. If you play only D–F#, it will sound like D major. If you play F#–A on you guitar and your bass player plays D, it will still sound like D major—nifty. You can harmonize with other intervals too, but they sound less like a traditional chord. Sometimes that’s good.
Back to Fig. 8: The first line is the melody by itself. The second line is the melody harmonized a third above. The last line is the melody harmonized a sixth below.
Guitar solos in most types of rock tend to use pentatonic scales and blues-based vocabulary. Bends, hammer-ons, pull-offs, and slides are not foreign to progressive rock guitarists and are used frequently. Combined with modes, sequences, and motifs, these techniques are used to create a more compositional and expressive style of soloing.
Fig. 9 is a Gilmour-esque example that mixes some extended chord tones and triplets with a couple of fairly common guitar bends in E minor. At the end of the first measure, the half-step bend/release on F# brings out the #11 of Cmaj7 and the 9 of Em7. The whole-step bend to B at the beginning of measure 3 (also a regular occurrence in the E minor pentatonic system) is the major seventh of Cmaj7. Also, the rhythmic structure of the phrase creates a “mirror” effect—you move from triplets to bends and longer notes (measure 1 and 2), and then reverse that by moving from bends and longer notes to triplets (measure 3 and 4).
Fig. 10 is inspired by Alex Lifeson’s playing from the early 1980s. This G Phrygian (G–Ab–Bb–C–D–Eb–F) example has three four-measure phrases and is a mash up of a few techniques. There are hammer-ons and pull-offs that incorporate the open 3rd string. When the scale or mode contains an open string note, it’s easy to create ideas using that string (measures 3, 4, 6, 11, and 12). Wider intervals (measures 9 and 10) are a nice way to balance the overall phrasing. They are near the end of the solo and balance out the 16th-notes of the previous phrase.
There are motivic sequences (measures 3 and 4, and measures 11 and 12), repetition (measure 5), half-step bends that emphasize the mode (measures 1 and 2), and even a homage to Mr. Lifeson’s “YYZ” solo (measures 7 and 8).
The topics covered in this style guide will hopefully provide some insight to progressive rock guitar playing. It’s not an exhaustive list of techniques, but will hopefully give you an understanding of what to listen for and an approach for learning and creating songs in this style.