Altered States - Unique Voicings
Updated: Sep 6, 2019
In the mid '70's I became obsessed with Jazz. For roughly 10 years I studied and worked at getting comfortable with the style. I consciously rejected the steel-stringed acoustic guitar
after having learned on it and after 10 years playing it. The one I had (a cheap Gibson) was just too physically difficult to play to be able to execute the technique-intensive music I was
trying to master on the guitar.
I had a nice Martin nylon-string that I continued to use - mainly for classical music - and also a Burns solid body electric, but my main guitar became a Gibson 175 - a hollow-body electric usually (but not always) associated with traditional Jazz guitarists. I was not interested in the steel-stringed acoustic - at all.
In the early eighties I was browsing in a record store (remember those?) and stumbled across an album by Alex deGrassi called, "Slow Circle." I had never heard of him. Looking at the back of the album jacket I noticed that there were 4 altered tunings defined and numbered. The number of the corresponding tuning was given after every song. None of the songs were in standard tuning. I also noticed that this was an album of solo instrumental steel-stringed guitar. I assumed this was going to be very bizarre, dissonant and experimental music ("New Age" was not yet a defined genre). Since I was also into "experimental" music - at the time I was listening to Ornette Coleman and James "Blood" Ulmer (who used an altered tuning on electric guitar) - I thought this deGrassi guy might be interesting/bizarre and bought the album without any preview.
When I got it home and put it on the turntable it turned out to be some of the most beautiful, consonant, "inside" music I had ever heard come from a guitar. Sometime after that, I was listening to Pat Metheny's latest release at the time, "Rejoicing," which was a trio record that had several Ornette Coleman tunes on it and included Charlie Haden on bass, who was Ornette Coleman's bass player in the late '50's. Ironically, the tune on "Rejoicing" that grabbed me was a beautiful rendition of Horace Silver's "Lonely Woman" on which Pat played steel-stringed acoustic guitar. In spite of an irritating drum mix that afflicted that whole album, that one track was also "inside," gorgeous music coming from a steel-stringed acoustic guitar, this one in standard tuning
This synchronicity resulted in two things. I began experimenting with the tunings on the back of the deGrassi album, and I went on a search for a steel-stringed acoustic guitar that felt as close to my Gibson 175 as possible. I even strung my 175 with acoustic guitar strings for a while.
The guitar I wound up with (long story made short) was a Martin MC28. I play it to this day. I don't know what I'll do if I ever have to replace it; Martin discontinued production on it decades ago.
I messed with the altered tunings for 3 or 4 years. I wrote quite a few tunes, most of which are now lost. One of those songs, "Tehachapi," wound up on my CD, "Sound Tracks" but the others are probably beyond retrieval.
After 3 or 4 years of messing with the altered tunings given on the "Slow Circle" album jacket I came to the conclusion that my approach was not good because it negated the years of study and work I had done to understand the instrument and master the neck. Change the tuning and I was back to hunt-and-peck, learning by trial-and-error. I knew by experience that that was a very deficient way to learn (see A Little Story, Part 1).
So...I decided to analyze what it was about these tunings that made them sound the way they did and then figure out how to get the same types of sounds in standard tuning. I came up with three characteristics that produced what I was looking for:
One or two drone notes occurring on top of the progression, usually open strings.
Close intervals (2nds or minor 2nds) in the middle of the chord. When played alone these intervals are very dissonant but when placed in the context of the chord they become beautiful. Many times the dissonant interval is an inverted 9th. One note of these close intervals is frequently an open string. If not, a big stretch in fret-hand fingering is required.
Liberal use of inversions to create smooth bass lines. The bass line often "walks" like in jazz.
The types of chords that I came up with that exhibit some or all of these characteristics I call "Unique Voicings" because they usually involve open strings and so cannot be transposed. The context for the term is very guitaristic. They are available in only one position on a single root - thus the term "Unique."
After much thought and struggle to integrate the "Unique" material into my Vertical Truth method-book series I decided to keep it separate and just compile it into it's own book. I called that book, Unique Chord Voicings.
The problem with trying to integrate the "Unique" material with the Vertical Truth material is that the Vertical Truth material is logical - it progresses from simple to complex conceptually with no regard for simplicity or complexity from a guitaristic, mechanical/technique point of view.
Conversely, the "Unique" material progresses in the chronological order in which I "discovered" it - which is generally simple to complex mechanically; it's a guitar-centric rather than a theory-centric approach. Turns out some of the most physically easy things to play are extremely complex from a music-theory point of view.
In the introduction to the book I said,
It is by no means complete. In general, each page deals with a concept that is given in seminal form and the reader is directed to pursue that concept for themselves. I did not have the time or motivation to clearly define every possible application for each concept. So a certain level of harmonic knowledge and knowledge of the guitar neck is assumed. The more you already know the more you'll get out of this book.
I've spent the 15-plus years since the release of Unique Chord Voicings pursuing for myself the ideas "given in seminal form." Though initially applied to steel string acoustic guitar, I've since applied Unique Voicings to all kinds of music and all kinds of guitars, acoustic, classical and electric. Unique Chord Voicings have become an integral part of the way I play today.
One of the things I do for MasterGuitarSchool.com site members is send out a free monthly newsletter. It is published on the 2nd Tuesday of each month. Each newsletter contains a link to a free webpage-based guitar lesson. These lessons are not one-off lessons but are a lesson series. In March of 2017, having completed a two-year series of lessons called Concepts for Basic Improvising, I decided to revisit Unique Chord Voicings as the next lesson series to be given away to site members.
The Unique Voicings Lesson Series began with the April 2017 newsletter. I realized pretty quickly that I have reams more material now than what's in the book - the book is now functioning as a bare-bones outline for codifying all the material I have come up with since I wrote it. And may I say, "It's a crap-ton of stuff!" As of now, there have been 11 lessons published with maybe a half-dozen more to go. Or more, I don't know. I'm adding stuff all the time.
So thank you, Alex deGrassi - and your altered tunings - for providing the impetus, albeit indirectly, into the discovery of some interesting and beautiful chord voicings - all in standard tuning - that I use constantly and of which, some 30+ years later, I have not grown weary.
Here is the demonstration video that goes with the very first Unique Chord Voicings lesson. It gives the easiest chord forms to play. Check it out and sign up if you want more!
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