There is already a perfectly good way to name your chords, it already makes perfect sense, and, it describes what notes you are supposed to play, where you might play them on the neck and, in what order you should consider arranging the notes. What’s in a name? Predictability and foresight.
Why do so many jazz-guitar heads go out of their way to make sure that you don’t get it? Why do they smugly use creative license to make what is effectively really expensive jibberish on paper – like their degrees – and pass them off as charts you are supposed to play along with? I thought you wanted people to understand you, that was the whole point of writing it down, so you could show it to other people and, so you could get them to play along with your jam. If you want people to play something specific, you have to tell them what the notes are. There’s no other way around it, and especially if your goal is to get people on your tip.
Lessons and edutainment materials are exactly those things, so why would you teach someone about you guessed? Roll over, Beethoven, there’s a new sheriff in town; you know nothing of writing stuff down on paper for people to understand and play, and nothing of harmony, arrangement, dissonance, or improvisation. My way is super awesome. Nobody gets it though because, they are all dumb squares, and I’m a sphere; a lonely, bulbus, sphere; but it is so easy, I tell them what not to play!
Maybe the goal was actually to ensure their own intellectual high ground by purposefully confusing anyone around them, tossing out a whole bunch of meaningless jargon from their pie hole, thus validating their own feelings of superiority because, they spent $50,000 at a for-profit academic institution to be taught in droves, how to play a guitar at an acceptable level of mediocrity.
That class on the social context of the Simpsons was great though. It was worth every leveraged cent. Please though, don’t make me start addressing Kayne West as Doctor.
I am not out on a witch hunt, I really want to learn. I genuinely seek out information to enhance my own understanding of things. I am a thinker, I enjoy sticking my head down the rabbit hole to see what I can bring back. I weigh the options when I am presented with conflicting information, or points of view, and after deciding I am wrong, I will be swayed. I will always give the person presenting the information the benefit of the doubt, after all, I was the one seeking out the information, and you supposedly held the information I sought. Your job is to convince me with your presentation, otherwise, what was the point?
However, if you have ever been inside a college classroom, you would know how to smell b.s. because you wrote dozens of papers on exactly that, nothing. As a result, you know when somebody is making something out of their rear. So why then, if you are attempting to communicate a musical idea – which is something you are really passionate about and you really want to share with people because you have something important to say – would you go out of your way to make sure that nobody will ever understand what you mean? Doesn’t that defeat the whole purpose?
What would be far more gratifying is for everyone to understand you instead of a thousand smoking monkeys, all sitting around scratching their heads and eating lice. You’re all fired. Can we not organize ourselves to all agree on what was already figured out thousands of years ago? Every other musician in an orchestra (e.g., Sinatra) does not have these problems, so why don’t guitar players have it together yet as a group? Is it because we surround ourselves in bands only with other guitars? – and consequently have never thought about music existing outside of the guitar as long as we are involved? We must be incredibly narcissistic to believe the guitar is the sun, the center of the universe, and that everything else revolves around it.
What is wrong with this picture? I am not going to say where this is from, that is unimportant. I can say however, it is not anybody from this site, affiliated with this site, or anything otherwise controversial. It is merely one in thousands of epic failures from guitar publishing. Everyone makes mistakes, mistakes and errors happen, that is not what I am talking about. If you open your mouth enough times, you will eventually catch foot-in-mouth disease.
What I am calling on people to do is, at least get their stories straight. All the little details should tell the same story about that piece of music. Don’t wipe the lens with Vaseline, clarity is what we need; an unobstructed view of the world being presented before our eyes. Let’s start from the top of the image.
When reading a piece of music, you always start at the top of the page, just like any other kind of document you are reading. There will be information at the top of the page which will guide you through some of the intent the composer wrote. There will be things like: who composed it, where and when, who arranged the composition for this piece of paper and when, what the tempo or tempo range is, what the style of rhythm is, and any special instructions exclusive to the staff in this piece specifically.
Think of all this information at the top of the page as though it is directions for use, the recipe for this dish of food, it will tell you how to read the music before your begin. At the very least, there will be a title, or short description of what is supposed to happen when reading this piece of paper.
So here we have the top of a page from an aloof jazz-guitar book, where we find a title: Close voicings: 3-7-3. So we are going to learn about some chords. Great, but what does that even mean?
According to a few different sources, the term originates in jazz piano, and 3/7 means the chords are framed with the third and seventh intervals, adding at least one more notes that is not the root, or, two sets of framed pairs, but the bass note is either one of the, third or the seventh, intervals. You could break it down simply: two note chords created by one fifth interval fifth and, neither note being the root note of the chord.
CMaj7, as a 3-7 voicing would be two notes, E-B, third and major seventh; which kind of looks like a power chord, doesn’t it? That makes it easy to think about, when you put it that way. We have all been through power chords already, it was one of the first things to learn on electric guitar so, it provides a familiar backdrop for this concept. 3-7 for CMaj7 = E5. Check.
We now know what those numbers, 3-7-3, stand for. The other words here are, close voicings, which means just what you might think it does: they are close together on the fingerboard, all the notes are on adjacent strings, the shape of the chord is not a long stretch for your fingers to reach, i.e. the chord has a width of four frets or less. Check.
Next reads, 1234 string set, which is intuitive, right? The adjacent strings for the close voiced chords will be exclusive to the top four strings. Great, we don’t have to worry about the bottom two strings. The title and description are been pretty informative so far, it is a good thing we chose to read it. We can already predict what is going to happen when you read the music.
What can be gleaned from the information so far is, that in order to completely hear what is going to happen with these chords, there has to be at least a bass player accompanying the guitarist. There needs to be an interaction with the other notes, otherwise, you will be playing power chords all day long, as well as telling people they are different chords than what is really going on while soloed.
Piano players can play upwards of ten notes at once. Guitars can play up to six notes at once. Bass has up to four simultaneous notes. One guitarist and one bassist collectively cover the capabilities of one pianist. The full effect of 3-7 voicing leading would be arpeggiating CMaj9 on bass during the overlapping measures where the guitarist arpeggiates Em7(add 4), and vice-versa. Added together, the two arpeggios summate to create an inversion of the G13 chord; now we are playing jazz piano. In a jazz quartet with a drummer, the bass and guitar would cover that spectrum of notes while the pianist solos, then all will switcharoo.
So now moving down the page, we see the next piece of information is a progression in Roman numerals: IIm7 – V7 – I or Im. The chords we are going to be learning about on this page are arranged in a II-V-I progression. Got it. IIm7 – V7- I or Im, is vaguely specific but also something safely assumed in most cases, adding sevenths onto what is just a standard chord progression. Dorian minor seventh, mixolydian seventh, tonic or the tonic as the relative minor. Including the extra information of sevenths is, a specific instruction.
If the intent was not to guide you specifically into playing minor seventh and dominant seventh chords, as such for this progression, why would someone go to the trouble of adding that instruction there? After all, we would have gotten along just fine with the plain label of, II-V-I, but now that this has been included, there must be a reason for it; so follow the directions, that is the intent of the author.
Now glancing below the Roman numerals are chord names, beneath which are, chord shapes presented as though you are holding the neck vertically, directly in front of your face- do we ever hold or look at a guitar like that? Only in the store – and below those are, the notes displayed on a treble cleff staff. Before even attempting to find the first chord on the figerboard, the brain has to trip over itself for a second because, there are conflicting names piling right on top of each other; Gm9, right underneath where it says IIm7.
Why did you bother prepping me for a minor seventh chord, if you were just going to do something different anyways? Less is more; redundant information will only help confusion grow, and I thought you were showing me 3-7 rootless close voicings? First you told me 3-7-3, then you said ii-m7, and now when you say, Gm9, I am to naturally come to the conclusion of second inversion? Are you nuts? How would I possibly come to that conclusion in the absence of a music staff?
There is the entire rest of the page left to show us what a mad scientist you are, but for right now, help us understand. Take my hand and show me, write out exactly what you mean. Be specific. If you are not going to be specific, be wildly unspecific by letting the music speak for itself.
Looking at the notes on the staff below where it says, Gm9, we can see the notes being commanded, from low to high, bottom to top, they are: Bb-D-F-A. The lowest possible position you can play this sequence of notes, as a chord on the top four strings with a close voicing is at, the fifth fret.
If you wanted me to play Gm9 with no root, why didn’t you tell me to play, F-Bb-D-A? A close voicing, on the top four strings, with no root. F-Bb-D-A, is the first inversion and is what your first guess would have to be, given the chord name and especially, when having the foresight to be exclusive to the top four strings.
What you are telling me to play, by the notes on the music staff is, Bb-D-F-A, which is what would be called in most cases either, Dm/Bb– a triad over a bass note, a T/B. N., a slash chord or BbMaj7. We know however, it is a minor chord, so BbMaj7 would not be the best choice.
When a chord is to be played in a way where, the root note is not the lowest note in the chord, it is written out as a slash chord so, the reader is able to determine which note to place on the bottom when there is no music staff available. The name should tell the order of notes. Slash chords are like fractions- III/I – so by this decree, it would seem that all 3-7 voicings are slash chords. That is how we can determine if the chord has a 3, or a 7, on the bottom. If there is no such indication, the reader can’t be expected to be psychic.
If you limit a chord to four notes and four adjacent strings, there becomes four different strings on which you can play the root note in one octave; not just arpeggiating low to high over four strings, but also arpeggiating low to high up the neck on one string at a time.
1-3-5-7 3-5-7-1 5-7-1-3 7-1-3-5
What were we talking about anyways? Oh that’s right, someone was telling us what notes to play, but we still haven’t got past the first chord written on our piece of paper. This is taking forever. ARRGGGH! At least now that we are completely up to speed on the topic of 3-7 close voicings, we can call our Gm9 chord, in what was supposed to be an exercise about two specific chord voicings, by one of its apt names:
- Bb Maj7/F
- Gm 9/F (no R)
The last, of the names above, is exactly the same position and shape as the name prior, so in reality there are but two names; one for 3 on the bottom, one for 7 on the bottom. Labeling chords this way poses no confusion whatsoever over which is which. There is only one possible way to arrange those particular notes on the fingerboard, put in that particular order, to play that chord.
Now that we are armed to the teeth with information, after completing just one chord, after only 1200 man-hours into the exercise, before even climbing up onto the treadmill, we couldn’t possibly screw up the second chord in the proud progression we are presenting, could we? Let’s find out.
! @@#%&! What happened to 3-7 voicings? What about the dominant V chord? WTF? Don’t you remember the rules laid out in the description you gave at the top of the page? The 7 is on the bottom now, which is not a 3 this time, but most importantly, this chord is another triad over bass note.
- A sus4/Bb
- D sus2/Bb
- C(6/9)/Bb (no R)
Yes, you wrote C13, but we are all by ourselves here on the guitar. We are not wanting go to the trouble to figure out which of the three notes to be eliminated from a 13 chord, it is like you want the reader to make the choice for you, a little more specificity would be useful, and considering we are using only four strings, how about keeping it to four note chords because after all, we are trying to figure out what to play and not, what not to play. We need to be using slash chords because we are playing voicings of seventh chords where the root note is not the lowest note in the chord. That was the whole point of the exercise!
While the name of C13 is technically a correct name, it is not the most correct name; like a multiple choice exam trying to trick you by including many possible correct answers, but only one answer is absolutely the most right. If you don’t weigh all of the options and jump to the first thing which registers in your mind as correct, you will get the question wrong. A plain Jane name of vanilla C would keep things simple by presenting the greater context of the notes you are being asked to play, and not presenting conflicting information which can hamper the reader’s ability to translate quickly.
So what happens next?
Owwww. Holy crap, my fingers hurt, my wrist is sore, and I’m ready to quit. That is a long stretch. You want me to go full reverse spread eagle position? Save some for later, cowboy, you wanted to keep it close, but now you want me spread out farther than the Bunny Ranch? Make up your mind, man! Can we please just do one lap dance from a very short program in which we follow the guidelines carefully laid out for us- by you! -, only a few seconds ago?
OK, FMaj9 it is.
If the music staff, were the only thing provided here, I would be reading: Am7. The only possible way I had any idea that you wanted an FMaj9 is because you wrote it there, but, if you wanted me to just play this four note chord as FMajor 9, without having to write the chord name down as well as the music staff, you are going to have to write it down as a slash chord because, going by only the chord name, assuming you have limited yourself to four adjacent strings and frets to work with, what I would have to play instead is: E-A-C-G.
- A minor 7
- F Major 9/A (no R)
All the mental energy in this first round of 3 chords is having to go towards hunting for the missing, or conflicting, information. We are too busy cramming a fourth note in everywhere to really hone in on what was supposed to be learned from all of this. Before bringing any attention to a fourth note, we should really figure out where 3 and 7 can be found for each chord on the D string. Once we get a handle on that, then maybe we can think about being Bill Evans‘ left hand.
Let’s rewind to start again, this time by identifying first where those intervals are on the fingerboard for each chord.
Laying it out visually, we can see that for every chord in the progression, each of the two voicings are on side by side from one another on the fingerboard, and, the binding width of four frets meet in the center. Combining the space of both voicings together, makes a total span of 8 frets. So if you know where one voicing is located, you will know how to find the other voicing because, it is always on the other side of the divide. There are only two locations for each chord, because we looking only for: 3 & 7 from the arpeggio, R-3-5-7, on the D string.
When referring to chords by Roman numerals, declaring II as minor is redundant because, we already know that II = Dorian, and Dorian is a minor-dominant position, which shares some parallel harmonic properties with the Lydian mode. Unless it is absolutely necessary, you do not need to declare VI, II, or III as minor because we aready know they are the relative minor to I-IV-V.
To differentiate with more clarity, use lowercase Roman numerals for indicating minor relationships on the triad level – vi-ii-iii = i-iv-v– as the relative minor. Except while using the 6/9, or, the diminished seventh chords, or while harmonizing upper extension chords in an ensemble by omitting notes, four note chords will always be built from the “triad + extension” model.
For example: 3 + 1. 3/1. 1/3. (3 – 1) + (3 – 1). (R+3+5) + 7, etc. and etc. forever.
Extensions can be whole numbers or, extensions can be fractions, for example:
Em7 – (E-G-B-D)
Em/D – (D-E-G-B)
G6 – (G-B-D-E)
D11 – (D-G-B-E)
C9/B(no R) – (B-E-G-D)
All five of these chords have exactly the same content (E-G-B-D), but a slightly different order of the notes, a different place on the neck, a different name, a different sound, and a different function. If every order of notes has a different name, then you can always tell exactly which inversion – i.e., voicing – of the chord you are supposed to play in that measure without having to read the complete music staff.
Now because you know that, Em7 = G6, and that G is three frets up from E, we then also know that C6 = Am7! Learning chords just got a lot faster because, now we know which ones are the same; and now we can build a small translation program for our brain to run in real time as a fast way to trigger memory. You can learn one chord at a time, or, you can learn 5x as many chords in the same amount of time. Your choice.
By using these new powers of deduction, in conjunction with the system for apt chord naming, you will always be able to orally dictate music to other musicians on the fly, and with fewer translation errors on your behalf. Mistakes will always happen, and that’s OK. Without mistakes, there is no learning, so don’t be afraid to make one here and there; and don’t be afraid of the unknown because, when you look closer you might find that you did know after all.
Download this attachment to learn ten different ways to play: the major seventh, the minor seventh, and the dominant seventh. Thirty different ways to play a seventh chord, all on one page!
Learn one chord once, and you have learned twelve chords because, all you have to do in order to play the other eleven roots of the same shape is, slide the shape up and down the fingerboard using the red note as the root note. Don’t worry about any other names for the moment, only the root note. Until you get comfortable following the root note around, and where you can find that note on the neck, just use the root note as the chord’s name, and only where necessary, use minor.
You can get away with a very simple naming scheme for most practical purposes, and for many interactions with bass players in certain styles of rhythm and progression as well. Only when you are completely comfortable identifying all the root notes as they pass in real time do you then start calling chords by their apt names. It is a simple qunatum leap when the time comes because, along with identifying the root note- as you have been doing all along- you identify the lowest note in the chord.
Rough it out first, work big to small, then come back for detailing; always keep building.
Happy jams for all! Below, you will find a II-V-I jam in the spirit of the failed exercise.
Thanks for watching and stay tuned for upcoming chapters including “Mash Chords: Oops, I Did It Again, I Stuck It Inside.”
About the Author:
Dealey is a Vancouver, Canada based guitarist, songwriter, recording engineer and producer. He is the author of the forthcoming independent book, The Relative Nature Of Chords: A street-smart field guide for guitar. Watch for exclusive excerpts on Ultimate-Guitar! You can support his ventures by buying his music here or talk to him about collaborating on your project by email to: info(a.t.)aurora-studios.ca.