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- G. Eddins, mom

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Creating Cool Chords

Cool chords. How do we learn them? From a teacher, book, or the Internet? Yes to all. However, one of the most intriguing ways to find new chords is to create them yourself. While the theory can come later, it’s exciting to discover new chords and sounds by pure experimentation. I remember the first time this happened for me as a kid. I was playing a basic D chord and decided to add my 4th finger on the first string, third fret. I thought I had discovered the greatest sound in the world and even wrote a song with it (so did Tom Petty, but his was actually good). I now know this as Dsus4 and found it also goes great with Dsus2, with the first string open. What’s great is that these sounds are so basic and easily found with a little trail and error.

A few years ago, Grammy-winning guitar legend Eric Johnson gave a workshop at our Studio. He was asked how he finds the unique chords that he his so known for. He responded by giving the following example of cool chord creation: He started with a basic E chord. He then removed the 3rd finger from the 4th string and added the 4th finger on the 4th fret, 4th string, calling the chord E2, or Eadd9. He then replaced that finger with the 3rd finger and moved the 4th finger to the 4th fret, 2nd string and called it Emaj9. Finally, he moved his 2nd finger from the 2nd fret, 5th string to the 4th fret and called it Emaj13. On each variation, he was narrating his thought process as, “I wonder how this would sound?” or, “What would happen if…” It was just a series of experiments with chord colors. And again, the names of the chords didn’t matter at this point. It’s all about finding sonic shapes that please the ear.

For some other ideas on exploring new chords, try taking a chord shape you already know and move it up the fretboard or to a different set of strings. The juxtaposition with the open strings can create some phenomenal sounds. Also try familiar shapes in altered tunings for a similar effect. Combining (overlapping) two chords that you already know will create a brand new chord also. One example is an Am with an F bass note (Fmaj7). Another is a power chord starting from another power chord (sus2 sound, think Police and Dave Matthews).

Harmony has two basic aspects. If you look at a chord vertically, as we have been doing, you are referring to the formula of a chord. It is the color of the chord, how it’s spelled and how it’s played. If you look at a chord horizontally, you are referring to the function of the chord. That is how the chord is used and its relationship to others in chord progressions. For example, a C7 is spelled 1-3-5-b7 (formula), and it is the V7 (dominant seventh) chord in the key of F (function). Once you have found cool chord voicings and colors, you can create new chord progressions by linking it all together. Music theory, which is all related to the basic major scale, may then be studied to open the door to many more unique chords and chord progressions.

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