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Becoming Chord Conscious

Posted by jonno on Sunday, October 24, 2010


Sorry for not posting in a long time. I’ve been doing more fiddling than being a good FHO member. 
This past summer I attended Mark O’Connor’s String Camp and it was amazing. I posted the video on FHO and here is the link  – it well done and gives you a very good sense of the camp in under 5 minutes. When signing up I was on the fence about whether to represent myself as an Intermediate player or Advanced. The guidelines were to consider yourself Advanced if you know more than 50 songs in your style and you play regularly with other people. 
The two other camps I’ve been to in the past 3 or 4 years were very generous in how they rank skill level, so I decided to go for “Advanced. “  MISTAKE! When I got there, the advanced were professional and the intermediate blew my socks off. Fortunately, advanced or intermediate classes were open to everyone regardless of how you rated yourself. About half the “campers” were high school age or even younger. Quite a few symphony players were there stretching their classical world to learn bluegrass, jazz, and blues from the masters.  This was some high level fiddling.  Even though technically I was trailing far behind most everyone, I was better than some of the classical players at learning by ear.  The kids were amazing! -- by ear, making up new tunes, theory, sight reading - I was very impressed. 
Okay. That was just a preamble to introduce the point of this posting. A goal I’ve had for several years now is to become more chord conscious. That is, to really know the chord changes of the tune I’m playing. One of the hundreds of things I learned during the week at the String Camp was to focus on the 3rd of the chord when I’m playing back-up (the 3rd and 7th if the chord is a minor seventh). Of course, I can’t do this if I don’t know what chord is being played.
Every Friday night for the past year or so, two guitar playing friends get together and play tunes. Rather than just jamming, we work out vocal harmonies and breaks and such. We have so much fun working up the tunes that we don’t think about playing for others. We’ve done a couple of parties so we’re not averse to it. It just doesn’t drive our boat. 
Today, I was thinking about my goal to learn the chords and build my back-ups around the 3rd and 7th notes of the chord. We have chord charts for a couple dozen of our tunes, so I started writing in the 3rd and 7th notes. It was taking forever and too messy to read, so I turned to the computer.
I use Excel a lot, so I created a template and entered the chord charts. The cool thing was that, once I figured out the formulas, Excel was able to calculate the 3rd and 7ths automatically.  I finished the chord charts pretty fast. Now I’m back to my goal of getting my brain and my fingers to be chord-conscious!
If I can figure out how to do this I will post the file for the FHO community, I’ll do so. Meanwhile, I put an image on my photo page.   If you want a copy of the file, send me your email address. You have to have used Excel to make sense of it. I put some explanations and arrows in there about how to use it. Let me know how it works for you. I’m happy to respond to questions and to act on suggestions for improvements.

11 comments on “Becoming Chord Conscious”

fiddlepogo Says:
Sunday, October 24, 2010 @10:49:52 PM

3rd and <7th> notes???

That doesn't sound right-
backup usually uses doublestops,
and the basic double stops I'm familiar with usually have the tonic (1st)
and the 3rd, the tonic (1st) and 5th, or maybe the 3rd and the 5th.
Basically catch two of the three notes of the major triad that the guitarist is playing.
And 7th notes aren't used all the time anyway...
they're something you throw in for spice now and then,
unless you're backing up blues.

Now, perhaps there's something I'm not getting,
maybe because you didn't include it-
is this jazz, blues or swing backup???
And are you talking about a major or minor 7th???
Those are very different animals.

mudbug Says:
Monday, October 25, 2010 @2:02:53 AM

I'm confused, too, but please count me in. I want to learn more about chords and back-up.

fiddlenbanjo Says:
Monday, October 25, 2010 @2:47:36 AM

I was wondering how many minor 7ths chords you hear in bluegrass and old time. Don't get me wrong, I love that sound, but it sounds very jazzy/bluesy to me. It sounds perfect but it may not be something you can overuse, unless it's a blues song and then wear it out if you like it.

I think the 6th is the great underappreciated note for both bluegrass and old time. It's the very first decorative note outside of the 1,3,5 chord triad.

jonno Says:
Monday, October 25, 2010 @5:35:49 AM

You're right that the 7th is seldom used, as I understand it. I included it only for playing when the underlying chord is a 7 chord. A lot of the tunes I'm working on have a few of these chords spicing them up. The tonic and 5th are also anchor notes when playing back-up, but often the bass has these notes covered. The 3rd is important because it has such a strong role in shaping the sound quality of the chord (as in the major/minor). That's a good point about the 6th chord, that's a great interval! There is so much more to backup than what I put in my post. The chord charts are just a narrow ledge that I chiseled out as a fingerhold to help me learn the chords.

Cyndy Says:
Monday, October 25, 2010 @5:42:15 AM

Well, you've combined two things that intrigue me--theory and technology. Very cool. I don't play backup but I keep coming back to the the idea of improvising (thanks to my teacher) and it seems really helpful to be able to think of the chords from the perspective of the third or seventh (or whatever) rather than always thinking of them as a linear triad. Last lesson my teacher tossed in the ninth in the A7 chord we were playing with and so I've been thinking about that this week. Fun stuff, huh? Glad you posted.

Rene Says:
Monday, October 25, 2010 @8:29:25 AM

Interesting, I've been trying to do some backing and it seems I always use the 3rd note of the chord..i.e open D when they are playing G chord. For whatever reason this seems to have the best sound to me. But that's just me.

jonno Says:
Monday, October 25, 2010 @9:50:23 AM

Rene - I should clarify the terms I was using. When you say the open D when playing the G chord - that is the 3rd note in the triad (G, B, D), but D can also be described as the 5th note in the scale of the G Chord (G, A, B, C, D).
When I refer to the 3rd note of the chord, I mean, the 3rd note in the scale (in otherwords, the B in a G chord). In major chords, the 3rd note is a major third (B) and in minor chords it is a minor third (Bb).
The reason the open D sounds so nice played with a G chord is because it is a perfect fifth above the root of the chord (G). The perfect fifth is about the most stable interval there is (other than the octave).

Humbled by this instrument Says:
Tuesday, October 26, 2010 @7:43:33 PM

Thanks Jonno. I've been doing just this thing for a while, hitting whole note thirds with just a bit of vibrato whilst backing up vocal or other instruments, especially on the G or D strings. Over an E, for instance, it's nice to just hold the G# on the G string or double stop it with the E on the D string, etc. Good stuff.

tboudre Says:
Wednesday, October 27, 2010 @2:33:49 PM

I play 'celtic' music and had a lesson a couple of mos. ago from a teacher just finishing up her music degree at university. She's also 1 of only 2 (I believe) approved Mark O'Connor violin method teachers in Canada (she went to his camp last summer). To get to my point she advised me when I asked her how to improvise while playing with other people - when I don't know the tune - to play the 3rd and 7th. note of the key being played in. I had been trying to play the 3rd and 5th but it wasn't sounding right.

Humbled by this instrument Says:
Thursday, November 4, 2010 @8:18:08 PM

The third and seventh? Okay. So if we're playing G, C, D, then I'd play B and...probably often a flatted 7th here and there over the G chord, the F natural. I cannot fathom honing in on the F# whilst the rest of the band plays a G chord! That's a minor second and a no no unless you want to be Mr. I Play Jazz and Will Hurt Your Ears. Over the C chord I'd play the E and a B? Again, I don't think so. It's also a minor second diad! Over the D, okay, the F# and the C, the normal flatted seventh. Hmmmmmm. I don't get it.

jonno Says:
Friday, November 5, 2010 @6:20:47 AM

You got it - when tboudre says the 7th I'm sure she is referring to the flatted 7th, otherwise, it IS ear agony. I just learned that the reason the flatted 7th has that characteristic flavor is that it sounds the tritone interval between the color tone (3rd) and the minor 7th to set up a tension that resolves to the next chord.

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