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Rhythm & Grooves: Open for Business

In this third and final part of our series, we’ll integrate some of the different forms we’ve discovered thus far and continue to blanket the fretboard with fresh chordal colors.

We’re in the process of exploring ways to make triads sound bigger than typical three-note voicings. The trick, as we’ve learned, is to turn close-voiced triads into open-voiced forms. This simple technique converts a triad that occupies a single octave (close-voiced) to one that spans more than an octave (open-voiced).

In the first installment of our series (“Hybrid-Picking Pals,” January 2011 PG), we expanded a root–3rd–5th triad by dropping its middle note by an octave. Then we saw what happens when we raised that middle note an octave (“Going Up?,” February 2011 PG). In both lessons, we generated a fistful of major and minor forms that sound bigger—and arguably more intriguing—than standard-issue triads. If you missed either of these lessons or want to refresh yourself on the two voicing techniques, they're linked above.

In this third and final part of our series, we’ll integrate some of the different forms we’ve discovered thus far and continue to blanket the fretboard with fresh chordal colors. But first, let’s look at one more voicing technique in which we raise and lower notes in a close triad to generate yet another set of major and minor grips.

Fig. 1 begins with a root-position, close-voiced D triad, D–F#–A (root–3rd–5th) on strings 5, 4, and 3. If we raise the bottom note up an octave and simultaneously drop the top note down an octave, we get the second voicing in this example, A–F#–D (5th–3rd–root). Whoa! Now instead of a chord that covers a mere fifth, we have one that stretches an octave and a fourth, yet still only contains three notes. Notice how this second voicing falls on strings 6, 4, and 2. When playing a chord voiced entirely on non-adjacent strings like this, attack it using either a hybrid pick-and-fingers or pure fingerstyle technique.
Download Example 1 audio...

The next two chords in this example illustrate how the process works identically with minor triads. Here, we start with a root-position, close-voiced Dm (D–F–A) on the same string set and then propel the lowest and highest notes respectively up and down an octave to create an open Dm (A–F–D). We began with a root-b3rd-5th voicing and converted it to a 5th-b3rd-root structure. Make sense so far? To finish this example, let’s apply the same technique to root-position, close-voiced G and Gm triads on strings 4, 3, and 2. By doing so, we generate open G and Gm triads on strings 5, 3, and 1. Again, these new chords fall on non-adjacent strings and span an octave and a fourth.

Fig. 2 shows the open chords we just generated—D, Dm, G, and Gm—stripped away from the close triads that spawned them. The last two grips, D and G, are simply refingered versions of the major chords that preceded them in this example. It’s handy to know several ways to fret the identical voicing, because sometimes one grip works better than another to link to neighboring chords in a song.
Download Example 2 audio...

If you’re up for a five-fret stretch, you can convert grid 5’s D to Dm by simply lowering the 3rd (on string 4) to a b3rd. But, unless you have exceptionally long fingers, grid 6’s G doesn’t offer this flexibility because this form already incorporates five frets, and dropping the 3rd to a b3rd would yield a whopping six-fret stretch.

Okay, now we’re ready to put our open triads to work. Even the most mundane progressions— ones you’ve played and heard a million times—take on a fresh, new life when you arrange them using open-voiced triads.

For instance, how about D–G–C–G? Rather than grabbing conventional chord forms, let’s play this progression using voicings and concepts we’ve covered in this and the previous two lessons. Fig. 3 puts a new twist on the I–IV–bVII–IV workhorse, giving it a soul-jazz flavor. Add some rotary speaker emulation and you’ll be grooving and grinding like a Hammond B-3 player.
Download Example 3 audio...

As you work through this four-bar phrase, notice how we’re playing different voicings for the C and G chords that occur in bars 2 and 4. You can spice up even the most basic progressions by alternating inversions of open triads as you navigate the changes.

The fun begins when we melodically embellish open triads to create chords that go beyond major and minor tonalities. Fig. 4 offers a taste of this, with its add9, major 6, and major 7 sounds. As you work out these arpeggios, notice how each chord is based on an open triad that we then color with one extra tone. Also, pay attention to the let ring markings—the goal is to have the chord tones sustain and overlap to create rich harmonic textures.
Download Example 4 audio...

The madness—sorry—the adventure continues in Fig. 5. Thanks to open triads, we’re able to generate min11, sus2, and add2 chords with minimal effort. Pretty cool, huh?
Download Example 5 audio...

Once you get a feel for open triads, you’ll discover many ways to use them to create sophisticated harmony. With its diminished, minor 7, sus4, and major 7 colors, Fig. 6 offers a glimpse of the possibilities. This example also underscores open triads’ elasticity—especially compared to big, clunky barre chords—and how easily these grips let you move selected notes while holding others. This type of harmony lets you sound more like a string trio or horn section and provides a welcome alternative to simply strumming block chords.
Download Example 6 audio...

We’ll begin exploring the fascinating world of quartal harmony in next month’s lesson. See you then.

Andy Ellis is a veteran guitar journalist and Senior Editor at PG. Based in Nashville, Andy backs singer-songwriters on the baritone guitar, and also hosts The Guitar Show, a weekly on-air and online broadcast. For the schedule, links to the stations’ streams, archived audio interviews with inspiring players, and more, visit