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The Surprisingly Complicated World of Chord Voicings

by Harvey Reid

A chord is made up of 3 or more notes, and when you play them on a 6-string guitar, there are in theory a large number of options. Something like an E chord, which is made up of the notes E-G#-B could possibly be played hundreds of different ways on the guitar. At first glance, you might think that since each string contains each of those 3 notes once in its 12 fret span, that there would be 3x3x3x3x3x3= 729 ways to make sure that all 6 strings were sounding one of those notes. But when all 6 are B or G# that's not an E chord, for example, and a lot of the remaining ones don't pass musical muster, like G#-G#-G#-G#-B-E. And because the pitches of the strings overlap, you might end up having a number of unisons where multiple strings sound the identical pitches. This is also a gray area, and probably reduces the total number of voicings, because a B on the 4th and 3rd strings, for example, sounds the identical pitch as the open 2nd string. They are the same notes, but often sound different to our ears because of the timbre of the individual strings. Unison strings on the guitar can sound really interesting, because they can phase a little bit and behave like the pairs on a 12-string.

You can't really draw hard lines, but the total number of ways you could theoretically voice a major chord on guitar is probably in the hundreds. It's more than dozens and less than 729, and it's probably safe to wrap your mind around the idea that there are one or two hundred musically distinct ways you could play an E chord if there were no limitations to what your fingers could do. (You also have to accept that not all E chords in the real world sound all 6 strings, so again there is no clean way to count them all up.) And no doubt different people would have different conclusions as to what were "good" or "acceptable" voicings of a chord.

In standard-tuned guitar, there are about 8 ways you can play an E chord:

With a partial capo and/or tunings, you can access many more of those theoretical hundreds of voicings, and they all have slightly different sounds. In the popular Esus configuration alone, there are 37 easily playable E chords. Here is a free PDF of 24 of them. (In my 2010 chord book for the Esus capo, I present 55 voicings of the E chord and 42 of the A chord.) It is quite surprising to listen carefully to some of the more "exotic" chord voicings that arise from using partial capo, and to realize how much better suited some of them are to different musical situations. The inversion and spelling of a chord determine its "color" and which notes are doubled (repeated) or omitted make a big difference, as does the order. The lowest-pitched note in the chord is the most important one, and generally a chord with the 3rd in the bass is called a "1st inversion" chord and when the 5th is in the bass it is known as a "2nd inversion."  When a chord is more than just major or minor, such as a 6th, 7th or 9th, then the complexity goes up fast. There are more notes in those chords that just 3, and thus many more theoretical voicings. Because you only have 4 fingers and six strings, more notes have to be omitted, and because of the way music and the human ear works, you can't really use all the inversions of a ninth chord, for example. You sort of need a 1 or 5 on the bottom, but not always, and musicians always find ways to break any rules anyone writes down. The "gray areas" pile up fast, and it's really unclear what to call certain combinations of notes. (It is of course not necessary to name things, but it's understandable to try to describe what is going on when you play certain chords.

The point of all this is to bring your attention to the fact that using a partial capo opens up a large new world of nuances of guitar sounds, not only in the new chords we find, but also in the many new choices for how to voice many of our basic chords. When we are writing a guitar piece or accompanying a song, these differences are real, and when I have a lot of choices I find myself always drawn to certain chord voicings at certain places in certain songs. It's a new kind of guitar feast to indulge in, and I encourage anyone to do so.