With a few simple tweaks you can take the prettiest of chords and move them to the dark side.
• Understand how to manipulate the intervals within standard chord voicings.
• Create dark and ambiguous sounds by mixing dissonant and consonant intervals.
• Learn how to weave open strings into your chords.
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Ever wonder why the major scale sounds like the major scale? Why does the minor scale sound like itself, even though it’s similar to other scales? What’s the variable that defines the sound of a scale, chord, or melody? Obviously, there’s always more than one variable working inside of any context and one could argue for several of them being the answer to this question. I’m choosing to argue for intervals. The intervals separating a series of notes allow me to hear or identify a scale as Dorian, Lydian, or whatever. In other words, it’s the specific sequence of intervals that makes up the sounds we are familiar with, and as soon as we’ve changed even one note it turns into something else.
Based on this theory, I could argue that a major triad sounds the way it does because there’s a minor third stacked on top of a major third. A minor triad sounds the way it does because of the major third stacked on top of a minor third.
Big deal. Who cares about intervals if we can’t apply them toward something musical?
Well, I started caring about this when I looked at how I could manipulate this idea to create different sounds out of the same chord qualities I use all the time. If intervals affect how something sounds, then we should be able to change the character of familiar chords by messing with the component intervals. For example, many people are introduced to the sound of various seventh chords by associating them with adjectives. Major 7 chords might sound “calming” or “dreamy” while dominant chords could be “bluesy” or “ambiguous.” You get the idea.
But here’s the thing: What if that’s not the full picture? With the goal of creating new voicings, let’s explore the intervallic possibilities of the typical chord inversions we already know. Would a major 7 chord still sound “calming” at every turn, or could there be some other possibilities there?
Ex. 1 is a short vamp that moves through the various sonic possibilities of a major 7 chord. We start with one of the most common voicings for Cmaj7 to illustrate the “standard” sound of this chord, and then go through a few voicings that progressively get darker. When you play them for the first time, isolate each voicing, strum, and let it ring for a while to hear how the intervals create different sounds (some of the nuances may get buried when you play rhythmically). We can already see how the intervallic approach can change the sound of the chord quite a bit.
If we analyze the intervals responsible for the darkness, several stick out. In the final voicing, the b9 created between the B and the C along with the b6 (E-C) make for a rather ominous major-7 sound. If this is too dark for your taste, take this chord an octave up to see how the register can affect the overall sonic feel. As you can see, since there’s an E in this chord, I use a lot of open strings. To me, open strings in voicings are like bonus points—they add a nice open ringing that sounds very “guitaristic” to the ears of untrained listeners.
You may now be wondering what happens when we take this further and incorporate tensions into the equation. When you introduce tensions into the chord, you may find that you don’t have enough fingers to play everything (as you’re already covering a four-part chord). Therefore, one (or more) of the notes must be omitted to make room for tensions. The first note that’s omitted is the 5 of the chord. This chord tone can be let go because it doesn’t tell you very much about the chord. Because several types of seventh chords share the same fifth degree, it gives your ear no help in differentiating between those chords.
As illustrated in Ex. 2, I get rid of the chord’s 5 (G, in this case) to free up space for the 9 (D). The first voicing is, once again, illustrative of the familiar “sweet” sound that a lot of people associate with a major 9 chord, and yet most people would likely describe the very next voicing as fairly dissonant. If you like this voicing and would like to transpose it to another key (or don’t care for the open string), check out measures 9-12 for a similar voicing that also includes the 5 of the chord. One last thing to notice is that the register plays a role: for something slightly dissonant, such as this last voicing, try it an octave up to see how your ears might find it a bit more acceptable.
Ex. 3 shows the effect of a different tension over the same chord quality. To make room for the #11, we leave out the 5 again. Once we hear the typical sound of this chord established in the first voicing, we move on to darker options. I especially like the effect the intervals have on the last voicing. This chord is particularly moody due to the flat seventh between the F# and E, and the minor sixth between the E and C. Also, check out how spread out it is. Remember, there are more intervals living in a chord than the ones between the adjacent notes, and the fact that spread voicings often cover more than two octaves can contribute to the sound.
A minor 7 chord is another chord people often categorize as “pretty,” especially when it contain some tensions such as a 9 or an 11. In the following two examples, listen for the large spectrum between consonance and dissonance that’s created using different voicings—all with that same minor tonality. In Ex. 4, the last three voicings get progressively dissonant. The voicing in measures 9-12 are already slightly dark due to the half-step created between F# and G, but is still somewhat pleasing to our ear because of the consonant intervals that are in place (such as the perfect fifth between G and D).
Measure 4, however, is much darker with the first three notes we hear (E–G–F#) creating largely dissonant intervals between them, as well as the fact that it is quite spread out. If you’d like to transpose this chord, just omit the open-string root and have another instrument cover that. The last one is my personal favorite of this series, with an extremely ambiguous sound for a minor 7th chord thanks to the fact that we’ve started on the 9th and included a mixture of dissonance and consonance within it. Additionally, you can add an 11 to this voicing if you just barre your first finger to include the A on the 5th fret of the 1st string.
I particularly like adding an 11 to a minor chord because it opens up a few more sonic possibilities than just darkening the chord (Ex. 5). When the 5 is taken out of this chord the remaining notes can be organized using a lot of fourths and fifths. This yields a bright yet ambiguous sound, as in the second and third voicings. Also, when arranged in a more typical fashion, one can see how unbelievably pretty this chord can really be—check out measure four for my all-time favorite m11 voicing.
Now that we’ve covered both major and minor sounds, let’s look at dominant chords. When dealing with dominant 7 chords, many times the sound tends to stay ambiguous even when messing around with intervals. That’s one good reason to introduce tensions. Not only do dominant chords take a variety of tensions that add different colors to the chord, they really have the potential to work nicely with certain voicing options.
In Ex. 6, we take a look at how different voicings affect the sound of the popular 7#9, which many of us know as the “Jimi chord.” The typical voicing (1–3–b7–#9) has a sound that many people would probably categorize as bluesy (most likely because of the major and minor thirds). The intervals can particularly affect the sound because we have several opportunities to use a minor second (G and G#), flat seventh (E to D), major second (D to E), and major seventh (G# to G). These are all very dissonant options that could be worked into our new voicings, turning them from bluesy to … well, you pick the new adjective of your choice.
As you can see, many possibilities open up simply by exploring a few chord qualities and a couple of tensions. Keep in mind these are just some suggestions, and when trying this out you’ll likely come up with many more possibilities that suit your personal taste. The whole idea is to experiment with different configurations even if the process seems almost random at times. Listen carefully and try out your favorites in a musical context that speaks to you. You never know how you might spice up progressions that you play all the time, simply by playing alternative voicings.