Know Your Chords—In Any Key
It’s about time you really deal with getting around the neck—in any key.
• Develop a deeper understanding of chord theory.
• Learn how to systematically move through each key.
• Create a visual map of the entire fretboard.
The main focus of this column is improvisation. We’ll be looking at things from a jazz improv viewpoint, but you can apply these concepts to any style of music. If you want to know how to sound consistently good when writing melodies or improvising musical lines, you must know your chords. Before we get into the nitty gritty of making your lines sound strong, first I want to make sure you have some things under your belt.
A Chord is a Scale and a Scale is a Chord
Yes, I’m going to argue that the exact same notes you use to build a scale are the same notes you use to build chords. However, it’s how you organize them that makes the difference. Here’s a C major scale (or C Ionian, if you prefer): C–D–E–F–G–A–B.
Now, if we take those seven notes and arrange them into thirds, we get the following: C–E–G–B–D–F–A. Numerically that relates to 1–3–5–7–9–11–13.
Notice that the 9, 11, and 13 (D, F, and A) are the same notes as the 2, 4, and 6. For the purpose of this lesson we’re going to focus on the root, 3, 5, and 7. (Sometimes we’ll replace the 7 with 6.) We refer to the 9, 11, and 13 as extensions that add color to the sound. Most of the definitive harmony will come from the root, 3, and 5, but we jazzbos often include the 7 or 6.
Compare and Contrast
Below, I’ve laid out all the essential combinations of triads and four-part chords using C as our root. Let’s start with triads.
C = C–E–G
Cm = C–Eb–G
Cdim = C–Eb–Gb
Csus = C–F–G
Caug = C–E–G#
Four-part chords take the foundation of the aforementioned triads and add either a 7 or 6. As you can see, adding one note exponentially increases all the possibilities. If you study the first three chords, each one contains a major triad (C–E–G). It’s the fourth note that sets each chord apart: 7, b7, or 6 (B, Bb, or A).
Cmaj7 = C–E–G–B
C7 = C–E–G–Bb
C6 = C–E–G–A
Cm (maj7) = C–Eb–G–B
Cm7 = C–Eb–G–Bb
Cm6 = C–Eb–G–A
Cm7b5 = C–Eb–Gb–Bb
Cdim7 = C–Eb–Gb–Bbb(A)
Cdim (add maj7) = C–Eb–Gb–B
C7sus = C–F–G–Bb
Cma7#5 = C–E–G#–B
C7#5 = C–E–G#–Bb
Whipping off the 1, 3, 5, and 7, à la Yngwie Malmsteen, will get you the desired sound. In a future lesson, we’ll explore strategies for playing the chord tones more creatively.
C = 1–3–5
Cm = 1–b3–5
Cdim = 1–b3–b5
Csus = 1–4–5
Caug = 1–3–#5
Cmaj7 = 1–3–5–7
C7 = 1–3–5–b7
C6 = 1–3–5–6
Cm (maj7) = 1–b3–5–7
Cm7 = 1–b3–5–b7
Cm6 = 1–b3–5–6
Cm7b5 = 1–b3–b5–b7
Cdim7 = 1–b3–b5–bb7
Cdim (add maj7) = 1–b3–b5–7
C7sus = 1–4–5–b7
Cma7#5 = 1–3–#5–7
C7#5 = 1–3–#5–b7
Lay of the Land
Many players visualize the fretboard as a grid, but I also think of it as comprising six individual keyboards—each string is laid out just like a monophonic keyboard. Let’s map the notes of the chords that we have spelled out above. I want you to be able to see the notes up and down your fretboard, not simply learning chord shapes and grips. Why? Because I want you to know what notes you’re choosing. Plus, you’ll learn your fretboard better. We will practice these up and down each string.
Grab Your Guitar
Homework: Start with the triads and play each note up and down each individual string. Start with the lowest note possible of each chord. In addition to announcing each note name out loud as you play it, it’s a good idea to also be aware of that note’s role in the chord: the 3, the b5, etc. Practice slowly at first with a metronome, gradually increasing the tempo. The faster you can play them without too many mistakes, the better you know them. Ex. 1 illustrates the process on the 6th string.
Next, start working on the four-part chords. Remember, you’ve already figured out where most of the notes are. You’re just adding a fourth one. Singing each note as you play all the chords helps get the sounds in your ear. And finally, work through the circle of fourths and fifths so you don’t miss any keys. In Ex. 2, I play all 12 maj7 chords on the first string, while moving around the circle in fourths.
Fretboard Workshop: How to Improve Your Legato Technique
Develop a smoother sound and strengthen your fretting hand with Allen Hinds' look at all things legato.
• Build up strength in your fretting hand.
• Learn how to use geometric shapes across the fretboard..
• Understand how to play with more dynamics.
Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.
Honestly, I never realized I had a legato technique until others pointed it out. I was only trying to compensate for my weak alternate picking abilities. But here I am, a legato player. Now, I’d never suggest that a specific style is correct or incorrect, but I will say that having a variety of techniques at your disposal will only expand your sonic palette and musical vocabulary—and that’s a good thing.
I’ve found that using a legato approach can offer more dynamics than simply picking every note with the same velocity. And legato techniques can seamlessly integrate with flatpick or fingerstyle picking.
Due to my rather soft picking touch, most of my tone is created with my fretting hand. In this lesson, I’ll offer some examples that will not only build up specific muscles required for playing legato lines, but also give you better control over your tone.
We’ll stick to the A Dorian (A–B–C–D–E–F#–G) scale for these examples, but I encourage you to try these exercises in different keys and to experiment with different fretboard locations.
The first thing to get the legato concept in your head (and hands) is to play your well-practiced major scale fingerings, but only pick the first note on each string and try to generate enough tone by slurring the rest. We want to create simple ideas that convey that legato sound.
The main point here is the motif—that geometric shape your fretting hand will generate—not any particular scale or lick. As a rule, only pick when moving to a new string and concentrate on keeping the time even and steady. You’ll notice immediately how this technique can navigate you around the fretboard with several patterns.
Let’s start with Fig. 1. Although it might look easy, keeping the time even and giving each note it’s proper due can be deceptively difficult. It’s a bit of a stretch moving from the 5th to the 9th fret, but this will not only get your pinky in shape, but also give you a better understanding of what it takes to make your tone sound even. Some of these patterns are easier to play at faster tempos, but we want to build enough strength in our hands to make them sing at a slower tempo. For variety, I’m creating a triplet feel with accents, but staying strict with the eighth-note pulse.
Remember what I mentioned about geometric shapes? Well, in Fig. 2 we take the same shape from the previous example and alternate between two adjacent strings. It’s not about speed or licks (yet), it’s about building strength and creating an extremely even sound and feel. You want to make the picked and non-picked notes sound exactly the same.
We take things a bit further in Fig. 3. Again, we keep the same shapes but now we are adding a string-skipping element to the mix. One slight variation on this will be to start with Fig. 1 and move to Fig. 2 and then to Fig. 3 without stopping.
The lick in Fig. 4 really helped me stretch out my fretting hand. Check out how the notes repeat when moving from one string to the next. This is a valuable perk to becoming comfortable with stretching your patterns out. The doubling effect emulates the false-fingering techniques a saxophonist might use.
The phrase in Fig. 5 is based on a pattern you probably are already familiar with. The main point here is to focus on the fingerings. You’ll notice that now we’re using all four fingers as we move across the neck. As always, this example is probably harder to play at slower tempos. I have many students who can rip through this lick at a frantic pace, but we want to milk every bit out of each note. Practice it over slower grooves to build up strength and control.
We incorporate some slides into the mix in Fig. 6. For this example, we’ll use the middle finger for all the slides. Each one will move you into a new position. Finally, we have Fig. 7, which is a little more involved.
Pay special attention and experiment with different fingerings—this can be the key to getting your legato phrasing to sound right. Be curious and creative when you practice and don’t be afraid to change the rhythm or accent different notes in the phrase in order to get more mileage out of these examples. They can open many doors to creatively maneuver around the fretboard.
Learn how to take some basic triad shapes–both major and minor–and turn them into a compelling, melodic solo.
• Learn major and minor triad shapes on the top four strings.
• Use smooth voice-leading to connect the triad shapes over a chord progression.
• Construct a melody using the triad shapes over the chord progression.
Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson\u2019s notation.
Great guitar solos, and especially the most memorable ones, are much more than a bunch of licks strung together. In fact, the memorable parts of these solos tend to be melodic and singable—easy for any listener to remember. In this lesson we’ll learn how to start playing stronger melodic solos by using triads shapes as a guide.
In the simplest terms, solos—and melodies in general—consist of chord tones and non-chord tones. As the song moves along and the chords change, notes that were once chord tones might now be non-chord tones and vice versa. You’ve probably noticed this when improvising over a chord progression: Sometimes a note feels right, but four beats later it can sound dissonant.
The first step in learning to play better, more memorable solos is learning how to hit chord tones. Lucky for us, we can use chord shapes up and down the neck to find those chord tones.
Fig. 1 and Fig. 2 show three shapes for major triads on the top four strings. You may recognize these as the higher part of a chord voicing you already know—a common barre chord, for example. Most guitarists tend to learn chords from the low strings up, usually because the bass note is the root. For this lesson, and soloing in general, start thinking about chords from the top down.
I like to think of these four note voicings as a choir with a soprano, alto, tenor, and bass part. Each voice gets it’s own string. You’ll notice that the bass and soprano are always the same note an octave apart. This means that in root position, the first voicing in Fig. 2, the root will be on the 4th and 1st strings. In 1st inversion, the second voicing in Fig. 2, the third of the chord is on the 4th and 1st strings. And in 2nd inversion, the fifth of the chord is on the 4th and 1st strings.
In Fig. 3 and Fig. 4, we have the same series of triad voicings, but for minor chords. Keep in mind you can move these shapes up and down the strings to get different chords, but the space between any two voicings of the same chord will always be the same.
Now let’s apply these shapes to a chord progression. Using a popular I-V-VIm-IV progression in G major, Fig. 5 includes all of these shapes to create smooth voice-leading. Voice-leading is a trick used by composers and arrangers to make sure no voice jumps too far from note to note when a chord changes. For example, play just the alto part, which are the notes on the 2nd string. Notice how they either stay the same from one chord to the next, or move only one step? It’s only every four measures that they move more than a step, and even then it’s no more than a third.
As you play the progression, you’ll also hear the soprano part playing a simple melody because you never play the progression the same way twice. The chords are also voiced higher with each pass—an easy way to add interest to a repetitive progression.Fig. 6 is a solo I composed using the chord shapes in Figure 5. This solo uses only chord tones exclusively!
Chord tones alone do not make the most interesting solos. However, restricting yourself to just those notes as an exercise will make it easier to target them as you do add non-chord tones, which we’ll cover in another lesson. Meanwhile, learn this solo and practice your own over the rhythm track as it continues to play.