Q&A: Playing Chords
Brian S. asks:
Do you find string spacing to be an issue with your chord playing? Meaning do you want smaller string spacing or wider string spacing when you go into a gig where you are expected to play outside the normal bass role? Do you have separate basses you use for chord work and other basses for more traditional bass roles?
Thanks for the question, Brian. I usually use my six string for my duo (where I am playing chords a lot), so yes, different basses for different jobs for me. For grooving gigs I pull out my five or four strings, but for chords the high C string rounds out the sound beautifully, and with the extra string I have access to more notes (although a six string has only 5 more unique notes than the five, but the layout benefits!)
A few general tips for embarking on your chord journey:
- For Jazz, in any ‘voicing’ consider leaving out the fifth; for rock and pop styles, experiment with powerchords (roots and fifths).
- Avoid muddy sounds through spreading chords apart (for example instead of a voicing of ACE on the upper three strings, play AEC, porting the C up the octave, this would be an example for an open voicing.) This is also the place to experiment with chord inversions.
- An easy place to start: try tenths! The root plus the major or minor tenth (octave plus a third) on top make for a beautiful and easily accessible voicing.
- Experiment with leaving out the root, especially with common chord progressions. Thirds and sevenths define a chord, so try with those sounds, and forget about the root, the ear is so used to certain chord combinations, the chordal sequence will be clear, even without the root spelled out.
- Check out extensions and alterations (even if the chord in the chart doesn’t list any) – they add beautiful colors:
- for major chords: add major 9ths, major 13ths and #11ths.
- for minor chords: add major 9ths, 11ths and b13ths or major 13ths.
- on dominant chords: add b9ths, #9ths,#11ths, b13ths (or major 13ths, for a HalfTone/WholeTone sound). The major ninth or major 13th also work and go together well.
- on diminished chords emphasize the flat five; a good extention here is the 11th.
- on augmented chords think whole tone scale, for example, and use extensions from this pool of notes.
- The above means you often have to stretch over wide distances; to enable that, I like to bring my left hand thumb into the equation (Steve Bailey is my inspiration for that), or use two handed tapping to really allow for access all over the bass.
I totally recommend a separate bass for your chord work. If you don’t want to take the plunge to switch to six, consider stringing your chord bass ADGC (or EADGC, respectively); use lighter strings. You may prefer a lower action than for grooving as well. Your chord bass also needs to be perfectly in tune with itself in the higher ranges. Basses with 24 frets are handy!
Also a great piece of equipment: fretwraps by gruvgear. They help you mute unwanted string ring in situations where you are not using open strings.
I like all my basses to roughly be spaced the same so I don’t move from one to another and it feels differently. On Marleauxs you can adjust the spacing, so I have a lot of freedom there. When I talk about stretching for chord voicings don’t assume that closer string spacing will solve the ‘problem’ of stretching, as the difficult stretches are happening over 5 or more frets – stretching across the strings is fine with pretty much any spacing, I think. (Actually having more ‘room’ to space the fingers out can be nice, especially for folks with loong fingers, which is not me!)
A few more tips for playing chords and situations that ask for chords:
- Work with the sound on your bass and amp, emphasize mids, take back the lows, bring in more highs.
- Great excuse to get some pedals 😉 …. reverb is very nice for example; I use the EBS Dynaverb, but there are many options out there and TC has a great one!
- Incorporate open strings; they make for great pedal points (root or fifth of the chord works great)
- Think of all the sounds you can make with the bass: harmonics, percussive effects with dead notes, slaps, pops etc. It will add variety in a situation where bass is up front.
- Here is a compositional/arrangement trick: keep the top note (or notes) of a chord the same, move the bottom note (or notes). Or the other way around: move the bottom, keep the top.
- Don’t think you have to play chords all the time (block chord style). A chord here or there and a few melodic or licky bits in between sounds great! Always serve the song!
- Don’t play chords in a band situation, unless the arrangement really calls for it, and the rest of the accompanying instruments are in on it. Intros work great for example: try working out a rubato intro with a singer… very nice!
If there is enough interest in this topic, I can make a video series on the topic. Let me know.
If you need explanations on chords, extensions, alterations and other theory terms in this article, check out my book.
I’d love to get some videos from you all giving some of the above a whirl. Even if you are strictly a groover, give it a shot. It’s fun 🙂
PS: Here is a video of me playing Stella by Starlight with my duo partner Paul Hanson. We have never shared this one before, recorded at the Empress Theater by Bob Hakins, February 2015; enjoy!
If you’d like to study with me, click here.
I use Marleaux Basses and Dean Markley Strings. Fretwraps by Gruvgear, pedals, amps, cabs by TC Electronics. (Official endorser of all these fine companies).
Thanks to Wolftrackaudio.com for audio post production.