It isn’t always necessary to play “full” chords. Very often you muddy the mix by doubling the bass part. When working with a bass player try playing chord forms that don’t have the root note as the bass or leaving out the root note all together. To do this you will have to change the way that you look at chords. Instead of thinking of them as “finger shapes” learn to see them as harmony to the melody and the bass line.
A brief lesson in harmonic structure
In every key there are 3 major, 3 minor and 1 minor flat 5 a.k.a. “half diminish” chords that “naturally” occur. In the key of “C” the major chords or “triads” for “C” are C F & G. The minor triads are D minor E minor & A minor, and the half diminish is B diminish (B minor flat5). The triads are formed by harmonizing or playing 3 notes together. The formula for a triad is simply every other note of the scale up to 3 notes. Think of “tri” meaning three, and “ad” …as in to ad together; equals adding three notes together, and you’ve got the idea.
For example the “C” scale is C D E F G A B C. You create the first triad (chord) by harmonizing the notes C E & G (the C major chord). The second triad would be D F A (the D minor chord), and so on. The first note of the triad names the chord. For example the triad E G B is called the E minor chord.
You can play any triad three different ways, The first is Root Position meaning the root note (the note that names the triad) is the lowest note. For example the notes low to high for the “C” major triad would be C E G. The second is First Inversion meaning the second note of the triad is the lowest note ex. E G C. The third is called Second Inversion with the third note of the triad being the lowest note ex. G C E.
Learn the inversions for the major chords in all twelve keys. The best way to do this is to learn songs in all twelve keys. Chord charts and books are fine for reference, but not worth the paper that they are printed on for actually learning chords. Pick some easy tunes. Songs like “Shenandoah”, “Amazing Grace”, and “Pay me my money down”, etc… are good for this exercise. You can find these songs in most beginning piano and guitar method books. Usually they will be written in the key of “C” as in no sharps (#) or flat (b) notes. Most of these songs have no more than three chords.
Now that you have some back ground in how the chords are structured and you’ve taken some time to learn a few different voicings it’s time to put the theory in to practice. But how do we know what inversions will work best? What works best is very subjective. Keep in mind that most things in music tend to flow better when you have notes in common. If you study the melody of most songs you will find certain notes and note patterns repeated over and over. When you were learning the various ways of playing the triads did you notice that all of the major chords have notes in common with each other? For example The F Chord (FAC) and the C chord (CEG) both have a C note in them. The G chord (GBD) and the C chord both have a G note in them. This will help to give a good starting point. When moving from chord to chord look for those common notes and try to keep them in the same place as you move. For example when playing the progression (C to F ) use the same “C” note and simply change the other two notes.
Observe the movement of the individual notes as you change chords. For instance when going from C(CEG) to F(FAC) while the C note stays the same you raise the E note a half step to the F and raise the G note a whole step to the A. Being aware of these movements will help your chord playing to sound more melodic, and interesting.
Remember to keep your voicings small, no more than 3 notes, and stay out of the bass register as much as possible. You will notice that your parts now seem to “leap” out of the mix. You may even find your self turning your volume down!
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