We’re in the process of exploring ways to make three-note voicings
sound bigger than typical triads. In our
first installment of this three-part series
(“Hybrid-Picking Pals,” January 2011 PG),
we took the middle note of a root-3rd-5th
triad and lowered it an octave to expand
the chord’s component intervals. This simple technique converts a triad that occupies
a single octave (a close-voiced triad) to one
that spans more than an octave (an open-voiced triad).
When you’re alternating between a hybrid,
flatpick-plus-two-fingers technique and full-on strumming, the trick is to balance the
sound of plucked three-note grips against the
jangle of strummed five- and six-note chords.
Because open triads claim a larger sonic territory than their close-voiced siblings, they
hang better with strummed chords.
Let’s hear what happens when we take the
middle note of a close triad and raise it an
octave. Fig. 1 begins with a root-3rd-5th G
major triad. By moving B, the middle tone,
up an octave, we get the second chord—an
open G triad that’s voiced root-5th-3rd. This
voicing has a cool, spangly sound.
Staying on the same string set, we shift
up the fretboard to play a 1st inversion G
triad (3rd-5th-root) in both close and open
forms. Notice how the open triad rings
more, thanks to its larger intervals. Finally,
we move up the fretboard again to play a
2nd inversion G (5th-root-3rd), first as a
close triad, then as an open one.
Fig. 2 repeats the process with a Gm
triad. As you play through these voicings,
listen closely and compare the close and
open structures. Take time to visualize the
octave jump—watch that middle note and
track its movement on the fretboard.
In Fig. 3, we strip out the close triads
from our previous examples to focus on
the fruits of our labor: three pairs of open
major and minor triads. Because they don’t
use open strings, these forms are moveable,
which means you now have dozens of new
chords at your fingertips. To claim them,
simply slide these grips up and down their
respective strings, keeping an eye on the
root and calling out each chord’s name as
you pluck it.
Open-voiced chords can be slippery
little buggers, as shown in Fig. 4. When
you play the two G chords, for example,
you’ll see they contain the same chord
Setting up the Five-Fret Stretch
Tal Farlow, Merle Travis, Richie Havens, and Jimi Hendrix showed us the many wonderful ways
we can use our fretting-hand thumb to grab notes on the bass strings. But there are times when
this “thumb wrap” approach just doesn’t work. Some open-voiced triads involve stretches of
five frets, and to play them, you must firmly plant your fretting-hand thumb behind the neck.
To manage big stretches, the trick is to find a position where your thumb provides both maximum strength and reach. Fortunately, that’s easy: With your fretting hand off the guitar, open
your hand wide and then bring your fingers and thumb together. Stay relaxed and move slowly.
When your thumb and fingers gently touch, as in Photo 1, notice the relative placement of your
thumb and fingertips. Everyone’s hands are a little different, but you can see that my thumb
naturally closes against my first and second fingers, with the second finger resting on the center
of my thumb.
Open and close your hand several times to clearly visualize how your fingers naturally come together and draw apart. Finally, open your hand again, place it around the guitar neck, and—easy
now—try fretting the second G chord in Fig. 4. In Photo 2, you can see that although my fingers
are spread way out, the relative positions of the thumb, first, and second fingers remains pretty
much the same as when they were relaxed and resting together. This provides the optimal mix of
strength and reach I need to nail the gnarly five-fret stretch. Photos by Tedra Walden
tones, despite the change in fingering and
string set. (For tips on how to handle the
alternate grip, see “Setting Up the Five-Fret
Stretch” above.) There’s a subtle timbral
transformation caused by the D migrating
from the 3rd string to the 2nd, but the
pitches themselves are identical: G–D–B.
This also holds true for the two Am
forms—same pitches, different strings and
Fig. 5 illustrates why it’s handy to know
alternative fingerings for the same open-voiced triad. If you look carefully at bar 1,
you’ll see that by using the alternative Am
grip, you get to stay in the 5th position
while shifting from G to Am. The Csus4 in
bar 2 proves you can momentarily substitute the 4th for the 3rd in an open triad—
the same way you can with a close triad—
to create harmonic tension and release.
Whenever you learn a new progression,
it’s a good idea to explore it in different
keys and fretboard regions. One quick way
to do this is to move the entire operation
to a different string set. In Fig. 6, we drop
When you learn a new
progression, it’s smart to
explore it in different keys
and fretboard regions. One
quick way to do this is to
move the entire operation to
a different string set.
our previous two-bar progression to the
next lower set of strings. Yes, there’s some
rhythmic variety to keep things interesting,
but fundamentally, we’ve simply moved
the progression down a fourth. Watch the
accents in bar 1 and emphasize the slide as
you come off those sixths at the end of bar
2. A little slapback echo? Yeah, that might
sound nice with this example.
Let’s shift string sets again by dropping
down a fourth one more time. Fig. 7 takes
our open-voiced progression down to the
lowest four strings for a wiry, dark sound.