IN LAST MONTH’S TUTORIAL ON THE ART OF VOICE LEADING, I DELVED INTO THE BASIC TENETS of creatively moving from one chord note to the next. In this follow-up lesson, let’s examine more advanced concepts like slash chords, inner voice movement, the blues, vamps, and more.
Ex. 1. Slash Chords
Ex. 1a is a chord progression commonly found in singer/songwriter fare such as Joni Mitchell and her multiple generations of disciples. This progression illustrates the basic voicings to a ii-IV-bVII-V progression in the key of C. While this is a totally valid way to play these chords, Ex. 1b demonstrates good voice leading practice by using slash chords, shown here as triads in the right hand and roots in the left. Using different diatonic triads (three-note chords from the C scale) while paying careful attention to the movement of the top voice creates a new voice leading scheme. Ex. 1c shows the diatonic triads in the key of C. Practicing them in all 12 keys will give you the keyboard command to create your own slash chords and voice leading options on the fly. Ex. 1d is another progression played with simple whole notes, while Ex. 1e shows the same progression using diatonic slash chords.
Ex. 2. Inner Voices
Let’s look at voice leading notes that are between the top and bottom notes. These are known as inner voices, and they can add depth and drama to your music. Ex. 2a is a III-VI-II-V-I progression used in jazz and popular songs. Ex. 2b takes the same progression, but leads the inner voices. These are five-note voicings, so there are five lines created by this style of voice leading. Notice that the notes below the top note are moving down chromatically, while the notes just above the bass notes are moving as well, adding new color and identity to the original voicings: Moving inner voices create counter-melodies. This type of leading sounds great when played by horns, strings, or even vocals. Ex. 2c is a two-chord vamp often played in straight eights grooves. Ex. 2d is the same progression with a moving inner voice. Notice the seventh (F) of the Gmin7 chord moves to the major seventh (F#) and the suspended fourth (F) of the C7sus4 moves to the third (E) of the C13.
Ex. 3. Blues
In a traditional 12-bar blues, you play the I chord for four bars then the IV chord for two bars. Approaching the IV chord is an opportunty to use voice leading to add character to an otherwise basic progression. Ex. 3a shows the basic chords for the first five bars of a 12-bar blues. Exs. 3b and 3c show two ways to lead into bar 5: Ex. 3b moves the fifth and seventh of the I chord up chromatically to the third and fifth of the IV chord—simple, but effective! Ex. 3c uses tritone substitution, preceeding the IV chord with a chord a tritone (three whole-steps) away from the I chord. This introduces new harmonic content, and is used by both traditional and modern blues players.
Ex. 4. Static Harmony
I’ve heard some amazing musicians say they don’t know what to play over a one-chord vamp. Here are two ideas for voice leading when there’s very little music on the paper. Ex. 4a plays with both major and minor thirds. Even though the chart may say G7 (a dominant chord with a major third), feel free to also play minor thirds if they feel right. The use of sixths and triads creates new hooks and melodies. Ex. 4b is a Latin-style vamp. The music may just say G minor, but by moving the low note (G) of the right hand voicing down chromatically, we’ve got heads bobbing and feet moving!
Read Between the Chords
“The choices we make in connecting our chords can help give even the most common chord progression an uncommon musical identity,” says CliffordCarter, who has appeared with artists such as James Taylor, Betty Buckley, Harry Connick Jr., and countless others. Most recently he can be heard on Michael Franks’ new CD Time Together and saxophonist Bill Evans’ Dragonfly.