Guitarist Cameron Mizell

New York Guitarist & Composer

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Smart Voice Leading

For this week's lesson, we're going to look at basic voice leading for common chord progressions. "Voice leading" is a musical term used to describe the movement of notes from one chord to another. When voice leading is done well, there is minimal movement within the notes as the chords change. Smart voice leading is a must when arranging for vocal groups or horn/string sections because it makes the music easier to play and most importantly, it sounds better. Most guitarists have no idea what voice leading is and unless they stumble upon it, are missing out on a great tool for creating seamless accompaniment parts. Many guitarists learn how to play power chords and bar chords early on. As a result they use the bottom two strings to find chords, building them from the bottom up.

When most people listen to music, however, they listen for melody. That's typically the singer, but any good accompaniment part will have a melody built in. I often imagine my guitar is a choir, and the top string is the soprano. The soprano needs to sing a melody while the lower harmonizing notes fill out the rest of the chord. To do this, I build chords from the top down.

This lesson will help you build chords top down and play great sounding melodic guitar parts.

Example 1

Let's start with a simple example using a I-IV-V-I progression in F major.

Click on the image for larger, easier to read notation.

[image width="460" height="" align="left" lightbox="true" caption="" title=""]http://www.cameronmizell.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Voice-Leading-Ex1.jpg[/image]

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Example 1a is very straight forward. Example 1b is a variation. If this was the chord progression to the verse of a song, I might play Ex. 1a in the first verse and 1b in the second verse. The chords stay the same, but it's a little less repetitive.

Triad Scales

Now, how did I come up with those chord shapes? You might recognize them, but let's explore where they came from. If you can learn all of these shapes, smooth voice leading will be a piece of cake.

The idea here is to play a major scale up the neck using chords. I'm going to stick with the key of F because it is the lowest root position chord we can play without using open strings. Because there are no open strings, you can easily start this sequence on any fret to play in a different key (similar to my major scale method)

The first line uses root position, the second line uses first inversion (the 3rd of the chord is the lowest note), the third line uses second inversion (the 5th of the chord is the lowest note).

[image width="460" height="" align="left" lightbox="true" caption="" title=""]http://www.cameronmizell.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Voice-Leading-Chord-Scales.jpg[/image]

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Notice that the notes on the E and D strings are the same, just an octave apart. Because of this, you might choose to not play one of those strings and just play 3 notes. That would still create a completely acceptable accompaniment.

Example 2

Let's examine another popular chord progression. This time, I-V-vi-IV. Just as in Example 1, these two examples are variations. Notice how using different inversions allows your hand to stay in one area on the neck.

[image width="460" height="" align="left" lightbox="true" caption="" title=""]http://www.cameronmizell.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Voice-Leading-Ex2.jpg[/image]

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Example 3

Finally, here's a longer chord progression that starts and ends on F, but in different places on the neck. Notice how the soprano voice of each chord is creating a simple melody that resolves nicely on the final F.

[image width="460" height="" align="left" lightbox="true" caption="" title=""]http://www.cameronmizell.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Voice-Leading-Ex3.jpg[/image]

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Practice further on your own by playing this progression starting with a 2nd inversion F chord. The soprano voice should never move more than a whole step from one chord to the next.

Applications

Smart voice leading is the basis for great sounding guitar parts. I often play arpeggios using these voicings when I'm playing alongside a singer/songwriter strumming on a guitar. You can also use them to harmonize with a vocal melody.

Along with accompaniment parts, I use these chord shapes during solos. They outline the chord tones I want to target in a solo, the "dots" if you will, then I simply play passing tones and enclosures to connect those dots.

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.