This article is not about learning lots of new chord shapes. For that, you could check out any number of books – Jon Damian’s Chord Factory is a great start, and books by Ted Greene, Chuck Wayne, Mick Goodrick and Scott Henderson are just a few others that spring to mind.
You might then approach developing your chord vocabulary the same way most people work on soloing vocabulary – by transcribing great players. These might be other guitar players (Pat Metheny, Mick Goodrick, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Ben Monder, the list goes on). But don’t forget to transcribe piano players (Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hanock, Chick Corea, Brad Mehldau etc). Even if you can’t play every note, getting the essence of what theyre doing will do huge things for your chord vocabulary. All of which is very well, but it’s what you do with the chords that counts, and that’s the idea behind this article.
There are a lot of chords to learn. In fact, I hope that you’ll never stop learning new ones. The secret is to apply new chords to songs you are learning. So, if you’ve learnt a great new way of playing the chords for a II V I from listening to Keith Jarrett, then apply it in different keys and use it in standards that you’re working on. You could also write your own compositions using some new chords you’ve learnt.
Find as many ways as you can to use a particular chord. Remember that any chord structure you play could potentially have one of 12 root notes. Part of the trick to expanding your chord vocabulary is to find as many uses as possible for the chords you already know, and to continue this exploration. A simple A minor chord, for instance, could be part of Fmaj7, D9 or G13sus (amongst many other things).
It’s great practice to take any new voicing that you learn through scales along the neck. See Exercise 1 for a Cmaj7 voicing that is then played through the C major scale – for each of the four strings in the voicing, go up to the next note in the scale to create the next chord. You’ll learn new ways of playing other chords in the key, and it’ll also help you in learning your scales along the strings rather than just across them.
How do you know which chord shape to use? Voice-leading is a key principle in creating smooth chord movements – moving to the next chord with the minimum movement. The simplest way to begin this process is just to look at the movement of the top note of each the chords. In Exercise 2A, the top note remains the same, whilst there is descending movement in the top notes of Exercise 2B.
Remember, learning new chord shapes is just one step in the process. I hope this article has given you a few more ideas about practising and developing your chord vocabulary.
Dylan Kay is a professional guitarist and teacher based in Auckland. He can be contacted through his website www.dylankay.co.nz