• Michal Šinka

How To Write For Guitar So That Your Guitarist Loves You - Part 4

Last week, we talked about triads and triad arpeggiations. Let's have a look at seventh and higher chord voicings today and how to score them for guitar, so that they sound gooood.

A man playing a chord on the guitar

Compared to the piano, playing chords on the guitar is easier and more difficult at the same time. Once you have a well-functioning chord voicing, you can change the key simply by moving the finger shape around the fingerboard - way easier than on the piano. But to find a well-functioning voicing can be a challenge. Things don't work in such a nice, linear fashion on the guitar, there are limitations for what is playable and what isn't.


Firstly, only six notes can sound per voicing at any given time, since (standard) guitars only have six strings. However, these will almost never be six different pitches in a guitar voicing but rather four or five of them with a) one or more notes repeated in various octaves or, more common, b) one or more strings omitted (when plucking or playing arpeggios) or muted (when strumming across all six strings).

F# major 7 chord fretted over six strings
F#maj7 fretted over all six strings. Pitches from bottom up are F#, C#, E#, A#, C#, F# - some of them are repeated in the higher octave.

F# major 7 chord fretted on four strings
The same F#maj7 chord fretted on four strings. This voicing is more economical and sounds better in denser arrangements. The way I play it here requires plucking the right strings with four fingers of my right hand (or arpeggiating them).

F# major 7 chord fretted on four strings, muting the remaining two strings
The very same F#maj7 voicing, however, this time I'm using my index finger to mute both strings that are not supposed to sound (strings number 1 and 5). That means I can also strum this chord if I choose to, not just pluck it.

And secondly, it is often very difficult or even impossible to play the traditional, closely-spaced big piano voicings on the guitar. When there are too many consecutive intervals equal to or smaller than a major 3rd, the chord will likely be unplayable, unless open strings can be used. That means that the playability of certain close position voicings varies from key to key. In general, only the close position voicings of major 7, minor major 7, and augmented major 7 chords (without tensions) are playable without any problems in all keys. If you score a close position voicing for any other type of a seventh chord or of any higher chord, you'll likely run into playability problems.

"Drop" Voicings

If you want to be safe, rather than close position chords write drop 2 or drop 3 voicings. What does that mean? Well, it's easy! To obtain a drop 2 voicing, take the close position chord and simply transpose the 2nd note from the top an octave lower. Similarly, for a drop 3 voicing, transpose the 3rd note from the top. These voicings are generally easily playable and sound great on the guitar. Let's have a look at an example:

Comparison of close position chords to drop 2 and drop 3 voicings
G minor 7 chord: hard to play in close position (requires long fingers and a longer time to stretch them to the right frets), while perfectly playable as drop 2 or drop 3 voicings, including all of their inversions.

G minor 7 chord in close position
Gm7 in close position is playable but it requires long fingers and longer time to fret it. Surely not the ideal voicing to use.

G minor 7 chord, drop 2 voicing
Gm7 drop 2 voicing is much more common and flexible to play.

G minor 7 chord, drop 3 voicing
Gm7 drop 3 voicing. Because the Bb in the bass sounds quite low, use this voicing if the music specifically calls for the first inversion of Gm7, i.e. Gm7/Bb (read below).

The 4-part drop 2 voicings work great when there is a bass instrument in the arrangement playing the roots. We can even omit the root and play the 9th instead, or similarly omit the fifth and play the 13th. The drop 2 voicings will still be playable (the latter is not ideal in a minor 7 chord that I'm using as an example here though, since the 13th would be an avoid tone).

Nevertheless, drop 3 voicings work great even without any bass instrument playing along. Either in root position (see picture below) or as an inversion (see previous photo).

Drop 3 voicing with the root at the bottom
The third inversion of the close position Gm7 voicing is the starting point for the very typical drop 3 voicing with the root in the bass.

Gm7 chord, drop 3 voicing
Gm7 drop 3 voicing with the root in the bass. This is probably the most typical guitar voicing for a minor 7 chord. I like to play it the way you see in the photo - using the middle and ring fingers - which allows me to easily mute the remaining two strings.

However, in order to play the accompaniment without any bass instrument to support the chords from below, we can easily create 5-part voicings out of many drop 2 or drop 3 voicings by adding the root in the bass. There are exceptions but while fretting one of the drop voicings, very often we can reach the root as well. Examples:

Drop 2 and drop 3 voicings with the root at the bottom
This is the drop 2 Gm7 voicing that we have seen earlier, this time with the low G at the bottom. In the drop 3 voicing, we have to raise the root to the 9th, otherwise the voicing would be unplayable (the index finger has to fret the Bb and the high F at the same time, thus it would cover the open G string in the first fret - the 9th is fretted in the second fret, therefore the index finger covering the first fret on the G string makes no difference anymore - see picture below). Even with the 9th, this voicing is less typical but it sounds very interesting.

G minor 7 chord, drop 2 with root
Gm7 drop 2 voicing that we have seen earlier, this time with the added root in the bass.

G minor 7 chord, drop 3 voicing with tension 9
Gm7 drop 3 voicing with the added root and tension 9. I am playing the tension 9 (pitch A) with my middle finger. As you can see, if I raise the middle finger, the G string (string number 3) would still be pressed in the first fret by my index finger. Therefore, this voicing is not playable without the 9th.

Drop 2 voicing of a ninth chord
This is an example of a maj9 chord. In close position, the voicing is unplayable. Possible alternative is the high drop 2 voicing with the root in the bass. The drop 3 voicing works well as a 4-part chord, however, adding the root Eb to it isn't possible.

Omit 5

Another way to find a playable seventh chord voicing is by omitting the fifth. So, unless you need a chord the has the altered fifth in it (e.g. a half diminished or an augmented seventh chord), these voicings will work great. An example of a G7 chord follows:

Omit 5 voicings
Omit 5 voicings on the high four strings. The close position G7 chord may be playable (with longer fingers) but the omit 5 voicing is much more typical. It works great with the 9th at the top as well.

G7 chord, omit 5 voicing
G7 omit 5 voicing. Very typical and easy to play.

G7 chord, omit 5 voicing, tension 9
The same G7 voicing, this time with the added tension 9.

And one more example, this time with a D7 chord:

Omit 5 voicings
Omit 5 voicings on the middle four strings. The close position D7 chord is unplayable. However, this omit 5 voicing is one of the most typical guitar chords. The same goes for the omit 5 voicing with the 9th at the top. The 9th can be altered as well (i.e. b9 or #9).

D7 chord, omit 5 voicing
D7 omit 5 chord. Again, a very typical dominant 7th chord voicing, this time played on the inner four strings.

D dominant 7th chord, omit 5 voicing, tension 9
D7 chord with the added 9th. Raising the pinky one fret higher results in a D7(#9) chord. In contrast, removing the pinky from the fingerboard altogether and putting the index finger flat across three strings would result in a D7(b9) chord.


The moral of the story is the following: try to avoid close position voicings and use drop 2 or drop 3 voicings, or their 5-part version with the root (or any desired inversion) at the bottom instead. Alternatively, omit the fifth of the chord and use one of the omit 5 voicings. That way, your chords should always be easily playable in the studio at the rehearsal, or anywhere really. :-)

As always, if you are unsure about whether or not your guitar arrangement is playable or if you'd like to simply get a guitarist's feedback on a guitar part that you have written, make sure to sign up for our free one-on-one guitar playability feedback! Also, 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.

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