How to use alternate chord voicings for guitar

How to use alternate chord voicings for guitar

Alternate chord voicings are an often overlooked element of the guitarist’s style. Using them effectively gives the guitarist a wider range of expression, a deeper source of invention, and an ability to better adapt to the demands of different styles of music.

Creating Harmonic Motion in Chords

Knowing several ways to play a certain chord, or a basic variant of that chord, allows the construction of chord patterns whose movement can have a melody of its own. There’s no reason you have to hold that powerchord every time you need a G major, for example, nor does your only option need to be the “cowboy chord” variation in first position if you’re looking for a little variety.

If you’re playing a simple I-IV-V progression in G , for example, you can get a different sense of movement if you play the G, C/E and D/F# chords shown below.

Don’t be fooled by the names of the C/E and D/F# chords; these are simple major chords. The slash in their names tells you that a different note is functioning as the “bass” note, specifically the third, as in the third note of their respective major scales.

What a progression like this does is give you movement on the bass note that is independent of the movement of the tonic. It’s sort of a submelody, if you will, but you can also use voicings to create movement on any string.

Creating dynamic impact with openings

Sticking with the major chords for now, remember that each one is made up of a root, a third and a fifth based on the major scale that corresponds to each one. So, for example, G is made up of G, B, and D, the first, third, and fifth tones of the G scale. Since these notes can be played across the entire fretboard, any combination of them counts as a G chord. See the diagram below for a great G/B voice that makes use of the low strings.

This is just one of many, many different possibilities. This opening is constructed using the third note of the G scale as the lowest, followed by the fifth, the root, and then the fifth and root again, each an octave higher.

Of course, only the first three notes are needed to make this a complete major chord; you can add or omit these or other octaves, depending on which chord degrees you want to emphasize. For more ideas, you can use the chord calculator at to create other voicings that will help expand your chord vocabulary.

More than just creating alternate melodies, voicings allow you to form complete chords anywhere on the guitar. You can play this I-IV-V as a series of chords using just the lowest three strings, for example, to create a sultry sound, or the highest three strings to create a bright sound. This gives you dynamics control completely independent of the actual chord you are playing.

The Harmonic Freedom of Alternating Voicings

Especially in a situation where there are a smaller number of instruments, using alternating chord voicings can allow the guitar to play a larger and more expressive role in a song’s arrangement. Of course, there’s always a place for simple voicings: bar chords, basic fifths, or just single note lines completely devoid of chords, if you will. The thing is, there’s no need for guitarists to limit themselves; you can approach the guitar like a piano, combining chords and melody lines, counterpoint bass lines, pedal tones, and more.

You can also build voicings without any idea what you’re doing, just for the fun of stumbling upon some bizarre group of notes that inspires you. The theory behind why something sounds the way it does may or may not interest you, but chances are the more you discover, the more you’ll want to know why what you’re playing sounds so good.

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