Guitarist Cameron Mizell

New York Guitarist & Composer

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Chord Alchemy

This week's lesson we're going to look at a few ways to get more mileage out of some chords you already know by using them in different situations. We call this "chord alchemy" because it's a little like chemistry. Just like a science experiment, we keep one variable constant, change another, and produce different results. Chord alchemy tends to create rich, dense chords--sounds typically associated with jazz--but can also be used tastefully in many other genres. I use it frequently when writing multiple guitar parts for rock or pop music because it helps me avoid doubling guitar parts.

Finally, don't be turned off by the dense music theory-speak or science metaphors in this lesson. Pick up your guitar and play the examples below, learn how they sound, and don't worry too much about what the chord is actually called. Once you get the sound in your ears it's easier to grasp the theory behind it.

Constant Chord Voicing

In Example 1, we'll use a chord most guitar players should be familiar with--Amin, or the first chord in "Stairway To Heaven." This Amin voicing is our constant variable (Ex.1A). Now let's see how many different uses we can get out of that one chord voicing.

Click on the image for a larger, easier to read size.

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If the Amin voicing stays constant, we're going to create new chords by changing the bass note.

In Ex.1B, I've added an F in the bass. If F is the root of the chord, the notes in our Amin chord shift to new chord tones: A becomes the 3rd, C the 5th, and E is now the Maj7th. As a result, we've created an FMaj7.

Do you see what we've done? We found a new way to use a simple Amin chord! Like any good science experiment, let's write the equation:

Playing a minor triad built on the 3rd of a major chord = Maj7

Similarly, in Ex.1C-E let's try different bass notes under our Amin voicing to create other chords. Can you write the equations for each of those examples?

Constant Bass Note

In Example 2, let's reverse the process and play different triads over a constant bass note. To make it easier to hear each chord on the guitar, we'll use the open D string as the constant bass note.

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In Ex.2A, we're looking at a common DMaj chord. Slide the chord up 3 frets, leaving the D string open (Ex.2B). Now we have an FMaj triad over a D bass note, resulting in a Dmin7 (D-F-A-C). Slide that chord shape up and down the neck and listen to each chord.

In Ex2.C, we'll use another common triad shape to play a CMaj triad over a D bass note. This time we get a D9sus4. The C triad covers the 4th (G), dominant 7th (C), and 9th (E) of the chord. Again, move this chord shape around the neck to hear other chord possibilities.

Ex2.D and Ex2.E use yet another common major triad voicing for more options. Next, try the same exercise using minor triad voicings.

This second example is also helpful in jazz soloing. Using triads is a simple way to bring out the most interesting chord tones, especially in long, one-chord vamps or over pedal tones.

Advanced Applications

Once you understand the basic principles of chord alchemy, start experimenting with chord voicing you know. In Example 3, let's start with a frequently used jazz voicing for an Emin7(b5) (Ex.3A).

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The same voicing could be played for a C9 (Ex.3B) or a Gb altered dominant (Ex.3C). The advantage to using this approach in jazz comping is that you don't double the root of the chord. Leave that to the bass player and hit the chord extensions that create richer sounding harmonies.

For more chordal inspiration, I highly recommend checking out my friend Gary Melvin's Voicing of the Day for guitar. Start with his chord voicings over different bass notes to create your own applications.

If you found this post helpful, please see my other guitar and mandolin lessons on this blog. I am also available for private guitar and mandolin lessons in NYC or via Skype.