Pro Shop: Carl Verheyen - Your Own Chords Print
Wednesday, 18 February 2009 15:49
Carl Verheyen – GJD Contributor

I believe the longer you play the guitar, the more defined your style becomes.  This is not only true as it applies to improvising, but when it comes to chords as well.  Most of us began by playing all the open position “cowboy chords” on an acoustic guitar.  In my case this was exactly what the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Stones and The Who were playing and therefore exactly what I wanted to learn.  This vocabulary is also essential for country music, bluegrass and many styles that fall under the banner of rock.  No matter how advanced you become on the guitar, you’ll still need these rudimentary chord forms.

At 12 years old I was shown the barre chord, and the world opened up a bit more.  I was in a band that played “Just Like Me” by Paul Revere and the Raiders, so I had to learn to play them fast.  This chord family gave me a working knowledge and the ability to play major, minor and dominant 7th chords in any key.  I felt I had arrived!

At 17, I got a job playing and singing 5 nights a week in a restaurant/bar, but when they found out I was under age they asked me to come back when I turned 18.  Of course I did, armed with a bunch of singer/songwriter material.   I had a good 18-month run there that solidified my time and groove and started me down a path of solo acoustic instrumental material to save my tired voice.  My knowledge of chords increased again as I learned to accompany myself and play some simple chord melody.  I was on top of the world making good money and playing every night.

One day I took my Les Paul to jam with an older guitarist in my hometown of Pasadena. He pulled out some music to read and the first chord in bar 1 was an FMAJ7.  The second chord was a Dm7b5, something I’d never seen before. I followed the D minor scale up to the 5th note, which is A, dropped it down a half step to Ab and asked, “Is this it?”  His answer still echoes in my memory today. He said, “Sure, that works but have you ever thought of this? Or this? Or this?”  He then showed me around 20 other places to play Dm7b5, a chord I had never heard of until a few seconds before.  It was like looking over a very tall fence and seeing a giant field of knowledge I didn’t know anything about.  Besides the m7b5 voicings, he showed me that the vocabulary of jazz chords was deep and wide.  Chords like Fm11 and A13b9 were completely foreign to me but I was compelled to learn them and understand the theory behind them. 

I immersed myself in songs for the next 5 to 6 years, learning chord melody and jazz improvisation until I completely understood harmony and theory.  I asked piano players a lot of questions.  For me this was the best way to learn music theory.  Instead of books or classes at a music school, the self-taught through practical experience method sustained my interest and served me well for many years.
My musical evolution continued as I began to work in the studios. I soon found that rhythm guitar was the way the studio guys made a living.  In LA I got the vibe that the studio guitar players were rock players, jazz was a “New York thing.”  Having been immersed in jazz for a while, I realized how much I enjoyed all kinds of music and how much I missed it.  I turned a corner on my musical focus.

I began to learn everything I liked: Country guitar, classical guitar, blues, heavy metal, rockabilly, bluegrass…. you name it.  If I enjoyed listening to it, I had to learn it.  Eventually as a working guitarist I began to play all the styles; and slowly but surely my own style began to emerge from the thousands of sessions and live gigs I did through the years.

After years of emulating others and copping styles you want the guitar to sound like you want it to sound.  It’s a natural progression that begins to shape the way you hear chords as well as your lines. 

Here are some things that are important to me:
•  If you think of your sound as an image in the speakers from the bass to the midrange to the highs, where do you want your voicings to fall?  In my band, which is guitar, bass and drums, I prefer chords that aren’t clustered in one particular range.

•  First inversion chords are built in 3rds.  I talked about this in my last column (Pro Shop: Where Chords Come From, 22 Dec 2008).  But 3rds are very rudimentary in the spectrum of intervals.  Try building chords that contain intervals like 5ths and 6ths for a more modern sound.  This opens the chord up. A nice C2 chord can be voiced in 7th position like this: E on the 5th string; C on the 4th; G on the 2nd and D on the 1st.  Mute the 6th and 3rd strings.

•  I work out a series of chord inversions so my typical Am voicing is not static, but instead moves melodically under the melody or vocal.  I’ve worked these out for all my major, minor and dominant chords. Below are a few examples.

•  You can check out an improvised version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” that I played at a music school in Palermo, Sicily to see what I mean on this Youtube clip:

Until next time… thanks for listening.
Carl Verheyen