Recycling Chord Shapes

Posted on Posted in All Posts, Lessons
chalk drawing and photo by the lovely Roopa Lee - @roopseydaisy
chalk drawing and photo by the lovely Roopa Lee – @roopseydaisy

Joe Pass is one of my favorite guitarists.  One reason I love his playing is that he does so much with so little.  There’s a great teaching video series in which Joe explains the importance of not overthinking in music.  He wants to make it as simple as possible in his mind.  Here’s my favorite quote from that video.

I don’t believe in playing anything that’s real hard.  If it’s real hard, forget it! – Joe Pass

[featured-image single_newwindow=”false”]Chalk drawing by the lovely Roopa Lee – @roopseydaisy[/featured-image]

I love that!  I hate working harder than I need to.  If it works for Joe, maybe it can work for us.  In this post I’m going to show you how to increase your chord knowledge 5x, not by working harder, but through recycling chord shapes you already know.

We tend to think about chords on a one-to-one basis, meaning one chord shape has only one use.  However, if you start thinking of each shape as a fragment of many different chords you’ll get a lot more mileage out of them.  The immediate benefit of this is increased chord vocabulary.  Thinking this way can also improve other parts of your playing, such as:

  • Better voice leading.  When you recycle chord shapes, you tend to move a lot less up and down the fretboard leading to more natural sounding transitions from chord to chord.
  • Greater understanding of fretboard harmony.  Seeing the same chord shape in different contexts allows you to make new connections between the harmony and how it looks visually on the guitar.
  • Better ensemble playing.  Your bass player will appreciate you staying out of the way of the low notes.
  • Sophisticated sound with less effort.  You don’t need to play every chord tone every time.  Recycling allows you to easily play the most important parts of the chord.

Recycling Chord Shapes

To get started, simply start experimenting.  Start by imagining any given chord shape over every possible root note.  Then give each resulting chord a name, even if some notes are missing.  Not all of them will work, but you’ll discover many different options you can start using immediately.  Remember, you won’t always be playing every chord tone, and that’s perfectly fine.  Even shapes that leave off the 3rd can work well in many settings.

Start with the examples below and see how each diagram can be used for at least 5 different chords.  Some of these might be obvious, but I bet something new jumps out at you.  I’ve included some tips for implementing this concept in your playing below as well.

Example 1 – Major Triad Shapes

Screen Shot 2015-01-20 at 3.26.20 PM

 Example 2 – Minor Triad Shapes

Screen Shot 2015-01-20 at 3.27.57 PM

Example 3 – “sus” Shapes

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Ideas for Implementing Recycling

  • Leave off bass notes.  Take 5 and 6 note chords you already know and start leaving off the bass note so you only play a piece of the chord.
  • Think of 7th chords as “triads over a bass.”  Em7 = G/E, Emaj7 = G#m/E, E7 = G#º/E, etc… This will get you in the habit of playing the “top” of the chord.
  • Think of 9th chords as “7th chords over bass.” Em9 – Gmaj7/E, Emaj9 = G#m7/E, E9 = G#m7b5/E, etc… again, forcing you to play the color notes on the “top” of the chord.
  • Stay in position.  Practice playing chord progressions on the top 4 strings without changing positions.  This is great voice leading practice as well.
  • Pick a chord shape and analyze it against every possible root.  Keep the ones you like and leave the rest!  You’ll also make connections between chords that you may not have seen before.

Wrap Up

To me this concept is one of the most important I’ve learned.  It really helps me get the most out of everything I’ve learned over the years.  What do you think of the idea of recycling different chord shapes?  Is there one that surprised you?  Let me know if the comments.

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