Inversions And Voicings

Here in our study of chords we will develop a manageable and workable vocabulary of advanced chords and extended harmonies like 7ths, 9ths and 11ths. Our purpose here is to learn and understand the interesting chord forms and practices associated with advanced playing. Jazz, smooth jazz, blues, rhythm and blues and professional level playing all have a rich and interesting harmonic color which is generally created by nice chord to chord movement and interersting progressions. Before we get to the nitty gritty we need to differentiate between two important terms: inversions and voicings.

Inversions refer to the order of the notes in a chord, I have often found it helpful to think of inversions in terms of which note is in the bass, or lowest in pitch. Inversions are simply a reordering of the notes in a chord, simply put, you are mixing the notes up. Below I have illustrated the four basic inversions of a C major seven chord. That chord contains the following notes: C - E - G - B. When those four notes are played in that order, with C being the lowest pitched, it is called C major seven in the root position.  When the C note is moved from the lowest position to the highest position it's called the first inversion, with a new note being lowest in pitch: E. When that E note is placed on top of that chord it's called the second inversion and once again there is a new lowest pitched note, G.  The final possibility is called the third inversion and it is arrived at in the same manner as before: the G note is now the highest pitched note in the chord and the B note becomes the new bass note.  These inversions, as I have illustrated below, are referred to as being in close position, meaning the notes are as close to one another as possible.

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The preceding examples were recorded using a keyboard because playing chords in close position is easy on the keyboard. Generally speaking, close position harmony is quite difficult and impractical on the guitar so it is necessary to play good sounding and practical versions of the chords. These various versions of chords, called voicings, are by and large unique to the guitar and are one of the things that make the guitar such a wonderful and powerful instrument.

Voicings are variations in the order and spacing of the notes in a chord, the way that they are distributed. Below are four voicings of a C major chord, all four contain the notes C - E and G in some order, separated from one another by different intervals, not in close position. As you listen to the example below being playing on the guitar notice how differently these voicings (or versions) sound from one another. One final note; when creating different voicings for a given chord on the guitar, the possibilities are virtually endless.

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Drop 2 Voicings

One of the most common chord voicings for guitar is called a drop two, which simply means that one of the notes in the chord is lowered, or dropped by an octave.  In the case of a drop two voicing, the second note from the top is dropped or lowered by one octave.In the illustration you see below I have started with the second inversion of the C major seven chord, the inversion with G as its lowest note and by dropping, or lowering the number two voice, the second note from the top, the C note, I have created a drop two voicing for a C major seven chord. This drop 2 chord has an interval of a fifth between the bass note and the next highest pitched note in the voicing. To many, large intervals between notes, like fifths, sixths, octaves and sevevths, also sound big. This large interval between the two lowest pitched notes creates a pleasing, full and big type of sound.

Drop two chords are among the first ones most guitarists learn in their pursuit of advanced skills. Although the chord you see below has a beautiful and jazzy flavor, it is not strictly a jazz chord.  This voicing appears in all sorts of songs in virtually any style, there are not any chords that belong exclusively to a particular style. Of course, this chord could also be classified as a root 5 C major seven.

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Common Drop 2 Voicings

Just below you see four well-known drop two chord voicings for a major seven, sixth chord, dominant seven and minor seven, these chord shapes, some of which you probably already know, are among the most popular in modern guitar playing. These types of chords (Ma7, 6, dom.7 and mi 7), in these particular voicings (drop two), should be considered common knowledge, first line of defense chord shapes and should be at the forefront of your thinking when figuring out chord changes or reading through charts.

It is a very small collection of chords but remember, good things come in small packages. You will be surprised at how popular these shapes are and how much you will use these chords in your day to day life as a guitar player. Play all four chords in the diagram over and over studying the shape of them on the fingerboard and also the way they look on the treble clef and in tab notation.

Drop 3 Voicings

The next type of chord we should examine is called a drop three voicing as it is also one of the very first types of chords most guitarists learn when they are progressing from beginners and intermediates to advanced players.  The process used to create a drop three voicing is of course one of dropping, or lowering one of the voices, or notes, in the chord by one octave. In the case of a drop three voicing, the third note from the top of the chord structure is dropped or lowered by one octave. In the diagram you see below, a common knowledge root 6 C major seven, the starting point was the third in version of that chord. The third inversion of a C major seven has a low note of B and the third voice from the top is the root note, C. When this C note, is dropped or lowered by one octave you have created a drop 3 C major seven chord. The version you see below is a guitar players favorite. This drop 3 chord has an interval of a major seventh between the bass note and the next highest pitched note in the voicing. To many, large intervals between notes, like fifths, sixths, octaves and sevevths can sound big. To repeat, this large interval between the two lowest pitched notes creates a pleasing, full and big type of sound.

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Common Drop 3 Voicings

Below you will see these four valuable and indispensable types of chords (Ma7, 6, dom.7 and mi 7) illustrated as dropped three voicings. Once again these chord should be at the forefront of your thinking and considered your first line of defense when reading chord charts or playing your way through a series of chord changes in most circumstances.  The chords you see below are among the first that guitarists learn when they are advancing their skills beyond basic songs and bar chords. Although they are commonly referred to as ‘jazz’ chords I would remind you know chord voicing, our type of chord belongs exclusively to any particular style. These chords can be used in any type of music if there sound fits properly.

The four types, or qualities, of chords we have examined so far (6 chord, major 7, minor 7 and dominant 7) do a good job of representing the types of most of chords you will mostly be required to play as a modern guitarist. Although we have studied the drug to and drop three voicings of these chords it is a good idea to relate this new knowledge to the root six and route five system of playing chords as this is the way you are probably already thinking and playing and it is a highly effective and useful system.

When I first interviewed for music school the man who was to become my guitar teacher wanted to see me play two versions, or voicings, of these and a few other chords before the interview even began. As I began to study with him he always wanted me to learn two versions of a new chord or scale before diving into the little details and learning all practical and playable versions of the new concept. Not only were we learning them, we were putting them to use in some music I was playing or learning. For me, learning two versions of something is the most practical, applicable and logical approach, it means you're never that far away from the new pattern or shape when you need it. If you only knew one version there is a chance you could be 10 or 11 frets away from something when you need it. If you know two versions, you're never more than a few frets away from something, like a C major seven chord for example, when the need arises. This is a proven way to be morwe effective and fluid in most playing situatuions.

Interactive Trainer

To develop the ability to name play and name two instant and automatic versions I have developed the interactive training exercise you see below. It will teach you a litle more about how to think about and use the chords we are discussing here. It will teach you to find two versions of a Major 7, a minor 7 or a dominant 7 chord quickly and effortlessly. As a reminder, root 6 and root 5 thinking is an incredibly simple but useful and powerful system and one you already understand.

The exercises set up like a chord chart and has a backing track played at a slow tempo, when you follow along with the music, you’ll be learning the sound and feel of the chords but you will also be practicing reading chord charts. This exercise simulates musical situations and is great training for those playing in situations where you are reading parts, chord charts or lead sheets. Watch the introductory demo and use the interactive trainer to play all three exercises that are a part of the trainer. In the first exercise we will play two versions of a major seven chord in all 12 keys without stopping. The second exercise is using a minor seven chord and in the third and final exercise, a dominant seventh chord. This can be kind of a workout and a brainteaser but it is well worth the effort. Because it is more complicated than many of the chord charts you will actually be reading, this exercise make reading chord charts even easier.

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This is one exercise you must revisit until playing all 3 of the exercises flawlessly is easy for you. Try to visualize the shapes in your minds eye and also commit the sound of each chord to memory. Learning the guitar means learning chords and how to use them.

Diatonic Harmony Key Of C

Because we are thinking of these new chords in relation to our root five and root six system of playing, they are easily understood and useful immediately. One of the more interesting and informative diagrams in this course appears below. As you can see, the illustration starts with a drop two voicing of C major 7. The exercise then progresses through the chords in the key of C using drop to voicings, on the same set of four strings for each one of those diatonic chords. You will begin the exercise on fret III and end the exercise on fret XV. Play each of the chords in the diagram below slowly until you really get a feel for them in your hands and sound for them in your ears. Also notice the alternate chord symbols in the bright pink boxes on the bottom of each and every diagram.

Below is a play along exercise designed for you play the chords in time and learn how to transition from one chord to the next. Treat this exercise as if it were chord chart that you using in a playing situation. This exercise is great practice for learning to read and sound good on chord charts because in many songs chord passages called step progressions follow the steps of the scale, making the scale itself the baseline.  In stead progressions are a favorite tool of songwriters and arrangers and can be found in virtually any style of music.

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Key Of Bb

The following exercise transposes what you just learned in the key of C down one whole step to the key of B-flat. The fingerings are all the same just transplanted down one whole step. Memorize the progression in both keys of B-flat and C taking your time strumming the chords, memorizing the sound, calling all the chords by name and visualizing their shapes.

Being able to change key, also called transposing, is a necessary skill if you intend to play with other musicians all the time. Most often, you have to change key to accommodate a singer but they're all sorts of reasons for being able to put songs in the key so I recommend you develop this ability as quickly as possible. The exercise below is a good one for that purpose. You will be repeating the chords you played in exercise one just beginning and ending on a different fret.

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Key Of G

Here is the drop three,  root six version of the previous chord exercise. These diagrams are excellent training for playing and naming chords, transposing songs and learning the neck in general. If you'll notice the red buttons with the root notes inside of them in the diagram below, as you read the names of those red buttons from left to right you'll notice that it is a G major scale you’re reading. The interesting thing about this diagram is that when all notes in G major seventh chord are moved up by one scale degree, it becomes the A minor seven chord in the second diagram below. The same thing is true of that A minor 7 chord, if every note in that A minor seven chord was raised by one scale degree, the result would be the B minor seven chord as it appears in the third graph below.  In the diagram below, the G major scale appears in order on every string going up and down the neck.

Once again, treat the exercise below as if it were a chord chart.  Make sure you are playing in time, memorizing the shapes and names of the chords as well as their sounds. As you play the exercise make sure you are well aware of the name and location of each chords root note.

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Key Of F

Next, transpose the root six drop three chords to the key of F. Play the chords below slowly as you memorize the names and locations of their root notes as well as you know the sounds of the chords in your ears.

Practice the exercise below until you are playing in perfect unison with the recording and can quickly name and locate each and every chord.

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Chord Vocabulary Builder

As I said earlier, we have just barely begun to discuss the topic of drop to and drop three chords in earnest. But I can tell you that to master it completely involves countless hours of work and you will be surprised at the sheer volume of variations and voicings to be found once you begin to explore these concepts more deeply. It really is a bottomless pit and a never-ending story all rolled into one. It's kind of like those guitar books that boast about having 10,000 or maybe 25,000 are even the ridiculous 100,000 guitar chords, it never ends. Of course you're never done learning guitar chords and studying the instrument but when is enough enough?

You will be surprised to see how useful and effective the handful of different chord voicings you've learned here in this lesson will become to you.  Many guitarists function quite nicely, and do an excellent job in a variety of situations with a surprisingly small vocabulary of chords. Our purpose here in this course is for you to be able to function quite nicely and do an excellent job in a variety of situations, not to become an encyclopedia of obscure chords. 

Illustrated below is a small but useful collection of major chords, minor chords and dominant chords for you to use as the basis of a professionals chord vocabulary. This collection of chords is deceptively powerful because they are applicable to a countless number of situations. Of course, we are learning these chords in reference to our well-established pattern of root six and route five thinking and combining this methodology with the most useful and applicable drop three and drop two voicings.Memorize all the forms you see below by learning how to play them, visualize them and hear the sound of them in your ears.

Major Chords

Our first step is learning the most common and useful chord voicings in the major family. Each neck below contains two versions of a particular chord: one with its root note on string five the other with its root note on string six. Having two instant and automatic versions of any type of chord you will be called asked for represents your first line of defense thinking and playing in locating chords. Slowly memorize the shapes and sounds of the chords below.

Minor Chords

Below are the root six and root five minor chords I'm suggesting you use as the basis for your professional level chord vocabulary. Study the sounds and shapes of these chords and take your time getting to know their grips.  As I said before, the chords you are learning here in this lesson are very effective and highly useful in a variety of situations. The chord vocabulary presented here in this lesson will enable you to function in a surprisingly wide variety of musical settings.

Not So Identical Twins: Root 5 Minor 7 Chords

In the preceding diagram take notice of the two chords labeled C minor seven with their root notes on fret III of string 5. This is an excellent example of how two different voicings of the same chord can create completely different musical effects. The first of the two versions of C minor seven has its root note on string 5, fret II and the remainder of its notes on frets lower than fret III. This version has a warm and full sound and also tends to be laid-back and blend very nicely with other chordal instruments such as guitars and keyboards.  This type of minor seven chord is best suited to the type of gentle strumming or ‘comping’ found in swing, jazz and rhythm and blues.

The second voicing of C minor seven also has its root note on fret three of string five but the rest of the notes in this particular chord are played on frets higher than fret III. This voicing of a C minor seven is the one most rock and pop guitarists become familiar with first. It is full, bright and has a very ringing and forward sounding personality. This type of minor seven chord is best suited towards rock, pop funk, blues R&B, and smooth jazz. And at the risk of being repetitive, no chord or chord voicing belongs to any one style in particular,  although certain chords are suited to certain styles, they certainly have countless more applications. Learn these two sounds by studying and listening to the interactive diagram below.

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Dominant Chords

In the diagram just below are the dominant seventh chords I'm suggesting you incorporate into your personal database of chord voicings. Remember, your job here is to get as many useful, practical and good sounding chords under your fingers as possible so you can get right back to the business of learning to play music and learning how these chords are used in various ways. I've often said that learning the guitar means learning chords small vocabulary are presented here on this lesson should be seen as essential knowledge.

Cadences

A competent musician can recognize things like chord patterns, key centers and cadences when looking at sheet music. In turn, when a company musician practices he will practice things like well-known chord patterns and cadences so that when he is called upon to play them there are no surprises. He is merely returning to familiar territory. In this lesson we studied major scale, or diatonic harmony as a series of guitar voicings. This in itself is a very useful exercise because many songs derive their chord progressions from this very type of root motion, making the scale itself the baseline and the harmonizing the scale tones appropriately, with the correct chord for that key. Most chord to chord movement however can be categorized as cadences, which is a sound of resolution and rest produced by arriving at a particular chord, usually the I of whatever key you are playing in. Below is a study in two of the most common major key cadences found in rock, pop, blues and jazz music: the II – V – I and the I – VI – II – V.

II – V – I

All songs in every style are based on cadences, the concept of tension and release. Below you see a II – V – I cadence in the key of C played in two different ways: the first example uses chord voicings suitable for a warm, elegant and understated jazzy sound while the second example has a more upfront, ringing and driving sound because it uses a different set of chord voicings.   Think of the chords in the first example as the jazzy way to play a II – V cadence and think of the chords in the second example as the more pop or rock way to play the cadence.

Finally, as a guitar player you should look at the chord changes in the first example below and categorize them as so:  a II –V cadence in the key of C, resolving to a root 5 C major chord.  Although there are three chords in the cadence, the most important one of course is the C major 7, or the I chord.  For purposes of mental organization, transposing and memorization, the D minor seven chord and the G7 chord are linked to the I chord, they ‘belong’ to the I chord.  All three chords are linked together because they are part of a very important and iconic cadence.

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I – VI – II – V

Below is another common knowledge cadence essential to the understanding of modern music, the I – VI – II – V.  This chord progression can be adapted to different styles but it requires a slightly different approach each time you do. The first example below uses a pop or rock feel and has the appropriate bar chord voicings to create a bright, driving, modern rhythm guitar sound.  The second example uses the warmer, more advanced are what some may call jazz chords.  In this lesson we have learned to label these chords as drop 3 and drop 2 chords.  No matter what you call them, it is amazing have different chord voicings and inversions can create a completely different musical style.

As a guitar player, think of this as a I – VI – II – V chord progression in the key of C resolving to, (or ending on) a root 6 C major seven chord.  Although there are four chords in the progression, the most important one is the C major chord, the I chord. For memorization and transposition purposes, think of all of the chords in this cadence as belonging to that root 6 C major. The I chord.

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Sample Progressions

To finish the lesson up there are four sample chord progressions below.  These chord progressions these chord progressions are based on common, well-known standard songs improvisational vehicles that are favorites of professional musicians and stage bands.

The example below, Swing Blues In C, is an embellished blues progression in the old school jazz style. In terms of music theory, the IV chord in bar two is called a ‘fast four’ and keeps things moving. In bar six, chromatic bass movement leads from the I chord, C 13 to the secondary dominant, A 13, the V of V.  It’s beautiful, and it's one of the oldest tricks in the book. The bottom line finishes up with standard jazz cadences a II – V and a I – VI – II – V.

Finally, note the roman numerals in blue appearing under each chord, they are there to indicate fret numbers NOT the harmonic analysis, the theoretical meaning of the chord.

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Slow Blues In G is based on the famous blues standard Stormy Monday.  The progression of also employs a fast IV but in bar six in modulates briefly to a brighter and more major type of key making the major scale itself the baseline and playing chords drawn directly from the major scale foregoing the funky blues harmony for a few moments. This example finishes up with standard cadences in the key of G, a II – V and a I – IV – I – V.

Remember, note the roman numerals in blue appearing under each chord, they are there to indicate fret numbers NOT the harmonic analysis, the theoretical meaning of the chord.

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The example below, Minor Blues In G, is based on a jazz standard called Comin’ Home Baby. Written in a 12 bar minor blues style, the really brilliant part of the chord progression is heard in the final four bars of the song. The root movement from the I chord is a minor third, to B flat, which is a great and well-known bluesy sounding change. The resolution back to the I chord, the G minor is done by descending from B flat down to G minor by half step, by chromatic movement.

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The final example in this lesson is written in the style of a rhythm and blues classic called Just The Two Of Us. After analyzing the tune you will see that songwriters heavily rely on basic cadences, halfstep resolutions, chromatic movement and step progressions. The material you have studied in this lesson makes negotiating these types of interesting and professional sounding chord progressions easy. These four songs charted out here are sort of a good concluding statement to this lesson because these four tunes sort of encapsulate and summarize the most standard in useful applications of the new concepts you have learned here in lesson 20. These four songs would be great to study, play over, thoroughly learn and take with you to jam sessions.

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