Finding New Voicings Through Inversion

Caution: This is not one of those "be a better jazz player in fifteen minutes a day" lessons. If you follow the instructions herein, you may find yourself undertaking a LIFELONG MISSION. Don't say I didn't warn you...

Have you ever thought to yourself: "If I play that same ninth chord voicing one more time, I'll reduce this guitar to toothpicks!"?

Most of us learn chords on the guitar as little pictures; you know, those little dots in the boxes that we see in the chord books. That's a great way to get a few quick chords under your fingers when you're starting out, but it can also be a very limiting way to look at voicings.

Inverting chords you already know can be a real rut-buster. Pick a worn-out voicing you've been playing too much. Then, using the same group of strings, move each note in the voicing up its string to the next available chord tone.

Example 1 shows this being done to a familiar rootless Bb9 voicing. (This voicing and its inversions could also serve as Dm7b5 or Fm6, among other things.)

I encourage students to look at every chord as being the result of voices moving in a harmonic progression. A good way to do this is to view every string under your fingers as though it were a singer in a four-part vocal group. Notice which chord tone in the harmony each "singer" is carrying. Then, when it's time to change to the next chord in a progression, figure out a way to get each "singer's" part to move the smallest possible distance to a chord tone in the new chord. In a nutshell, this is what voice-leading is all about: creating smooth motion for each part in the harmony.


In example 2, I take each Bb9 inversion from example 1 and move it to a nearby Eb13 voicing. Remember, my objective is to keep the motion between individual voices as small as possible. That's not to say that one must always play this way; sometimes wide jumps can be effective! As a general rule, though, smooth voice-leading is more useful. In this example, no voice moves more than a whole step.

The first bar of example 3 shows three more Bb9 voicings. This time, the voices are not all on adjacent strings. (I moved the "tenor" voices from example 1 up to the top of each voicing.) You may find these easier to play fingerstyle or hybrid pick/fingerstyle, as I usually do.

The last three bars of example 3 show possible voice-leading solutions from each Bb9 inversion to a rootless Eb13 voicing. Notice that sometimes close intervals occur within these chords; if your guitar's intonation is off, they might sound pretty bad!

Other things to try:

  • Using this information, voice-lead through a 12-bar blues in Bb. (Hey, I've already done the I to IV move for you!)
  • Take any tune you know that has a Bb9 in it somewhere. Use one of these voicings for the Bb9, then work backwards from the Bb9 and voice-lead your way to the tune's beginning; then play back to the Bb9 and work your way through to the tune's end.
  • Think of the Bb9 voicing as Dm7b5 or Fm6; then try voice-leading to logical destinations from those chords.
  • Find a way to play each voicing on different string groups from the one you started with.
  • Carry out these processes with every chord voicing you know. It will take longer than the rest of your life, so don't feel bad if you don't get around to a few.

Have fun! If you do these things regularly, you'll learn things about harmony no chord book could ever teach you!


2000, Bob Russell.