• Michal Šinka

How To Write For Guitar So That Your Guitarist Loves You - Part 3

In my previous article, I have talked about the layout of the fingerboard and the corresponding difficulties with playing small intervals harmonically. Let's take that discussion one step further - how to write chord voicings for the guitar so that they are easily playable? We'll start with basic triads first and in the next part of the series we'll discuss the seventh chords.

A man playing classical guitar

Before we begin though, let's have a look at the pitches of the six open guitar strings again as a refresher for what follows:

Notation of the open guitar strings
Open strings in standard tuning (sounding an octave lower than written). Zeros stand for open strings, numbers in circles denote the strings.

Triads in Close Position

Triads (i.e. basic three-note chords: major, minor, augmented or diminished) in close position (i.e. all three chord tones within one octave) are generally pretty easy to play on the guitar. We can play them in various positions and using various string sets, thus altering the timbre (darker, fuller sound on lower strings, since they are thicker and metal-wound). We are able to connect triads (and their inversions) pretty fluently, as you can see and hear in this video of mine. So, no real limitations here.

The lowest close position triad that a standard guitar is capable of playing harmonically is a G triad - major, minor and augmented - the bass note being the written G3, sounding G2. Notice that the G diminished close position triad on the low three strings is not possible, since the Db (the diminished 5th) would have to be fretted on the fifth string, where Bb is already sounding. Triad arpeggios are possible even below G (i.e. F#, F, or E) but will require two notes of the triad to be played on one string, thus losing the typical "let ring" effect (more on this in a later post).

That being said, if you are writing close position triads and their inversions, let's say as an arpeggio accompaniment, try to avoid pitches on the lowest string as part of the triad, and rather stick to the upper five strings, preferably even strings 1,2,3 or 2,3,4. Of course, you can reach to the lowest string for a special effect but it won't sound idiomatic. On the contrary, triad arpeggios on the upper strings are very idiomatic to the guitar, especially when open strings are involved. Here is an example of a typical, very simple 6/8 triad arpeggio accompaniment:

Triadic guitar accompaniment on higher string sets
A simple and very typical triadic accompaniment in a 6/8 meter. We will most likely use strings 1,2,3 or 2,3,4 for these (no open strings in case of the latter).

Even though the following is the same harmony and even though it is still perfectly playable, it just sounds too low and isn't that typical. This type of scoring can definitely be used for a special effect but avoid it if what you have in mind is a default, typical arpeggio style accompaniment.

A low position triadic guitar accompaniment
The same triadic accompaniment in a 6/8 meter now played an octave lower on strings 4,5,6. Easily playable, yet much less typical.

Lastly, please notice that the correct term is a close position triad, not closed position. In other words, the term wants to tell us that the pitches are close to each other, not that they are closed within one octave. :-)

Triad Arpeggiation

Triad arpeggios (i.e. the notes of a chord played in succession, either ascending or descending) are a very typical feature of guitar accompaniments. Most often, we use 4-part chords for the arpeggiations (this is related to the fact the we use four fingers of the right hand to play). To achieve that, score the bass note of the chord on one of the lower three strings (open or fretted), and then write a close position triad above it. Here is a very typical example - the same harmony again, this time using 4-part chords in a 4/4 meter:

A typical 4-part triadic guitar accompaniment
A typical 4-part triadic accompaniment in a 4/4 meter. Again, we are using strings 1,2,3 or 2,3,4 for the triads (in case of the latter, no open strings except for the bass notes will be involved, while the bass note D of the Dm chord will be fretted on the 5th string).

Power Hack: To make sure your triad arpeggios will always be perfectly and easily playable, score them along the basic chord shapes found in guitar chord charts just like this one.

Triads in Open Position

Now, if you want to take your guitar writing to a ninja level, try writing with open position triads (i.e. chord tones are spread outside of the scope of one octave). Also known as spread triads, they sound just awesome on the guitar! There are no recommendations as for which strings sound best because open position triads sound good everywhere. Since the chord tones are spread further apart, they don't clash with each other even if lower string sets are used.

Open position triads are easily playable without any limitations. Have a look at this other video of mine where I demonstrate a practice system for these triad voicings (read the description below the video). You'll see that every triad can be played with three different fingerings (two if we use the upper four strings). That means they are very flexible to connect fluently with each other (as long as your fingers are long enough :-) ). Even though these voicings are not very suitable for arpeggiation, they are the best tool for harmonizing a melody line.

In the second part of the aforementioned video, I play an excerpt from one of my very favorite pieces of music ever written that features spread triads as a way of melody harmonization - Anthem by Oregon (composed by Ralph Towner).

I really hope you are finding this series useful and that it is already helping you create better guitar music. Please, let us know how you like this series or what you would like us to cover by sending us a message on Facebook or Instagram. And don't forget - if you need any advice on whether or not your guitar part works well, you can always sign up for our free one-on-one guitar playability feedback.

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