#Guitar Lesson: Guide Tones and Shell Voicings
Hi all you guitar fans out there in guitar land. Here is a lesson based on a powerful concept used by many improvisers and accompanists in jazz. Let’s take a “Theory Time-Out” and refresh our memory. The Triad (consisting of a Root, 3rd and 5th) is considered the “building block” for western harmony. Jazz and Blues music typically adds (at the very least) the 7th to form 7th chords. Although this is the case, many Jazz improvisers, composers and accompanists when looking at Jazz harmony feel that the 1st and 5th are somewhat redundant (because they typically appear in the bassline and are “assumed” to be part of the chord). As a result, a chord can rely on the 3rd and 7th alone to provide the essential harmonic information. For example, if we were to take a ii V I progression in the key of C, we could outline the harmony by simply playing the 3rd and 7th of each chord:
These notes provide what we call a Guide Tone Line. Guide Tone Lines are the essence of the harmony and are very powerful in writing background lines for accompaniment, establishing the harmony and even as the primary target notes during an improvisation. By nature, Guide Tones have smooth voice leading as the move almost chromatically. In addition, little movement is required by the left hang. Experiment with Guide Tone Lines by comping through your favorite Jazz Standards only using Guide Tones. This is a technique that has been used to great effect by guitarists like Jim Hall, John Scofield, John Abercrombie, Pat Metheney and many others.
Although this is a somewhat brief (and a bit truncated) description of Guide Tone Lines, it serves our purpose for this lesson. Beyond simply using Guide Tones for accompaniment, we can actually develop a full voicing system. Simply add the Root to our fundamental 3rd and 7th and we create a fuller sound. These “Shell Voicings” don’t have Inversions in the common sense because the Root is simply there to fill out the sound and therefore will stay in the bass. As a result, we’ll look at voicings of Root 3rd and 7th as well as Root 7th and 3rd with the Root in the bass on the 4th, 5th and 6th strings. These Shell Voicings are a GREAT way to expand your Jazz Guitar vocabulary and once you understand the basic concept, and easy to expand upon.
Guide Tone Lines and Shell Voicings are very useful when playing with keyboardists or in Big Band context as they are unobtrusive. The great Jazz rhythm guitarist Freddie Green (from Count Basie’s Band) based his entire style on Shell Voicings and Shell Voicing derivatives.. Later, we’ll investigate how to develop these to include extensions and altered sounds, and we’ll see that a great number of our favorite and most common voicings are derived from these Shell Voicing basics.
Tariqh Akoni is Los Angeles Music Academy College of Music Guitar Department Chairman. He is a performing/session guitarist and currently on tour with Josh Groban.
Want to learn more about the LA Music Academy guitar department? Check out Tariqh’s video introduction below.