Chord Theory Part 2
Chord Theory II
Extended Upper Voicings
As we saw in the last installment, chords are formed by stacking thirds. The root is the home note. The third indicates a Major or minor harmony. A perfect fifth gives the chord backbone and heft. A seventh tends to indicate how the chord is going to resolve itself.
As you may already know, we don’t have to stop there. We can keep stacking more thirds to get 9, 11, and 13 chords.
If you stack yet another 3rd on top of a 7 chord, you get a 9 chord. Because there are only 7 tones in a conventional key signature, with the octave being the eighth, you leapfrog over the root to get to the 9th. It’s the same tone as a 2nd would be, but it’s called the 9th to indicate that you’re playing it as the top of a heap of thirds. Also, it’s a reminder to play it high in the voicing, where it sounds less dissonant.
By far, it’s most common to play the Major 9 regardless what’s going on in the rest of the chord. This avoids forming a dissonant minor 2nd with the root. Also, the Major 9 can be thought of as two stacked perfect fifths. This causes it to sound sturdier and more consonant than most beginners would otherwise believe. The 9 is commonly added to the three basic seventh chord types.
These 9 chord shapes can be used anywhere the corresponding 7 chord is called for. Most guitarists choose to play them more often because of their convenient shape on the A string.
The minor 9 is very dissonant. It is written as b9 at the end of a chord. It is most commonly added to a dominant 7. It sounds strange or “out.” This sound is known as “altered.” Altered tones are b5, b9, b13. Up till now, the m3b5 chord is the only altered sound we’ve dealt with. They are considered ambiguous, and can be used interchangeably unless the altered tone is part of the melody.
Don’t play a m7b9 over a b5 in the melody. Play the m3b5 that’s written. However, if the melody note is the m3, and written chord is m3b5, you could play m7b9, m7b13, or m7b5b9b13, probably without too many ill consequences. Any of those chords provide a similar uneasy feeling. They can be used based on which is most convenient in a comping situation, or tailored to closely follow a complex melody.
Adding yet another third to a 9th chord, we get an eleventh (11th) chord. The eleventh is what would otherwise be the 4th of the scale. Since the 4th is a perfect interval, there’s no such thing as a b11. A #11 would more commonly be called b5.
11th chords have a rigid, even brittle, power chord quality. As previously mentioned, when playing upper chord voicings, it’s advisable to omit the 5th as sort of obvious. To keep 11 chords from getting muddy, it’s also common to omit the 9. The voicing you’re left with is 1, 3, 7, 11.
The 11 is dissonant against the 3. Since we’re studying 11 chords, we have to drop the 3. This gives us 1, 7, 11, or 1, 4, 7. There is a name for a chord without a third: suspended. We will discuss these below.
A full 11 chord has six notes: you can play a different note on every string. Suffice it to say the fingering possibilities are dizzying. There is no such thing as a standard voicing.
This is the grand-daddy of them all. All seven tones of a diatonic scale organized in thirds and played at once. Since there are seven tones in the chord, it’s not possible to play a full voicing on an unaccompanied conventional guitar. As with the other extended chords, drop the 5. It’s also usual to omit the 9 and 11.
This is one of the preferred dominant voicings in jazz.