Discover how the same type of chord voicing can perform different harmonic functions.

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.

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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.



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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 by Bret 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 every change.

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To keep things simple, we are going to investigate how to combine major triads a whole-step apart.

In this lesson, I’m going to focus on some of the interesting sounds you can get from hexatonic scales. A hexatonic scale—which can also be thought of as a combination of two triads—is a six-note scale. To keep things simple, we are going to investigate how to combine major triads a whole-step apart, but there are a number of other commonly used triad pairs. If you are interested in learning more about triad pairs, I can recommend Hexatonics by Jerry Bergonzi (Advance Music Press).

Fig. 1 shows an example of a hexatonic scale constructed from C and D major triads. There are a few ways you can conceptualize these scales. The first is to view it from the lower triad. For instance, in Fig. 1 you can see this as a C Lydian scale without the 7th scale degree. The other way of looking at it would be from the upper triad—a D Mixolydian scale without the 6th. I hear this scale as somewhere between a scalar sound and an arpeggio, although it doesn’t have as much of an arpeggio sound as a pentatonic scale. It’s an angular, edgy sound I associate with musicians such as trumpeter Woody Shaw and pianist McCoy Tyner. If you check out Kurt Rosenwinkel’s intro to “How Deep is the Ocean” on his wonderful recording Intuit, you can hear how he uses this idea over an altered-dominant chord.

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Next, we’re going to look at the application of this scale over both a minor and major jazz-blues progression. Fig. 2 is an étude I wrote based on a blues in the key of C minor. Over each chord, we focus on the notes from major triads built on two neighboring scale tones, depending on what type of sound we want. For example, over Cm7, we’ll use the Eb and F major triads, and for Fm7, we’ll use Ab and Bb major triads. On the altered-dominant chords in measure 4, 10, and 12, we use triads built off the b5 and the b6 scale degrees. The same concept works over minor 7b5 chords, as you can see in measure 9.

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The minor blues in the jazz repertoire has a long history. John Coltrane (“Equinox”), Grant Green (Duke Pearson’s “Minor League”), Joe Henderson (“Granted”), Jim Hall (“Big Blues”), Dizzy Gillespie (“Birks Works”), and many other jazz giants have all written and improvised on a minor blues.

In Fig. 3 you can see how this works over a major (or dominant) blues. Over the dominant chords, we’ll use triads built on the root and b7 of each chord. As you can see, we outline an Eb major triad with the first three notes in the first measure and then move to a first-inversion F major triad. Hear how this creates a big, bright sound?

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If you like the sound of these scales, pianist McCoy Tyner would be a good choice for transcribing, especially his great recording The Real McCoy.

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