If you play guitar, it’s probable that you’re seeking the one true chord, The Greatest Guitar Chord of All Time, using musical laws that have been in place since before the American Revolution.
Zirque’s History of Music
Once upon a time, everything was melody – you had a line, and you played it, sang, it, whatever. But then, smart folks who couldn’t leave well enough alone started working melodies against each other. The simple harmony of two voice polyphony gave way to full-blown triads and more as more voices were added. By the time Mozart was on the scene, melody and harmony had been separated into their own domains.
Music, of course, kept progressing. Debussy and later Stravinski combined chords that didn’t belong together and created daunting and beautiful polyharmonies. Some Jazz lifted those new poly-harmonic rules and eventually added poly-rhythmic elements. Today’s electronic musicians create poly-textural music that is familiar in many discrete ways but altogether brand new.
Not too long ago, the BBC did a fantastic series on The Five Chords That Changed Classical Music, if you want to delve a little deeper. I endorse these chords wholeheartedly – my buddy Peter did an interpretation of The Rite of Spring called The Massacre of Spring a few years back that I got to help with, and I saw the recent Tristan and Isolde at the Met. The other chords are nice, too.
Back to Guitar Chords
Some branches of the guitar-driven musical spectrum take full advantage of all the advances in musical theory.
- The English progressives like King Crimson, Yes, and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer experimented heavily with 20th-century musical forms and idioms and in some cases developed very sophisticated approaches to harmony.
(If you love that, check out Petra Haden’s acapella version of “Sheltering Sky“)
- Meshuggah, a personal favorite, create a virtuosic interplay of rhythm, harmony, and melody that, while not being quite on the level of Debussy or Stravinski perhaps, capable of creating moments of colossal dread and beauty. “Sum,” the final track on Catch Thirty-Three captures many of those elements in a nice little package.
- Although not guitar-driven, I find the music of Bjork to be very innovative and entertaining and worth exploring on the fretboard. The harmony and melody are always very odd. Check out this fantastic re-working of “Hyperballad.”
BUT, none of these genius people created the greatest guitar chord of all-time, and I’m veering away from the guitar again.
So it’s the D chord, right?
I do love the D chord. It’s my go-to chord if I want to make something energetic. It lends itself to easy suspensions and pull-offs, and with the low E dropped to D, makes for an ultimately satisfying strum.
There’s a story about Woody Guthrie playing at some union hall or other. He was in a foul mood – travel is hard, expectations on musicians are weird, who knows. The organizers throw him (and his fascist-killing machine) up on the “stage” with a single microphone, way too many rowdy people. Mad that there was no chance of the guitar being heard, he played his entire set without changing from the D chord.
The photo for this song that I picked entirely at random shows Woody playing a glorious D chord.
I see where you’re going – D is the V of G, and G is great?
Not G, although G is fantastic. Eric Johnson ruined my G, though. In “Cliffs of Dover,” due to distortion playing havoc with the third, he’s got his ring finger up on 3rd fret of the B string, and his pinky on the 3rd fret of the high E. Yep, thanks, Eric, now that’s how I play it. I have to make an effort to play the G chord normally. So, no not the G.
This next song, also completely picked at random is in the key of G and just sounds great.
Gotta be E then?
Very close. E is fantastic, but it needs a little something extra to be The Greatest Guitar Chord of All Time. Specifically, it needs a minor 7 and both the major and minor third, and it looks like this.
EADGBE ------ 1 6th fret 2 3 7th fret 4 8th fret
You play this chord with the two open E strings, and you also have E on the A string – that’s a lot of E, so the tonal center is not in question.
Your ring finger is on the minor 7 – the D on the G string. The minor 7 is classic dissonance, it sounds a little jarring, but is also pointing straight at the resolution as if to say “Hey, you know what would feel cool? The tonal center!”
Your first finger is on the major third – G# in the E major scale. If the minor seven is classic dissonance, the major third is classic harmony at its most fundamental. It is the Mi to every Do. These first three notes are a very familiar shape up and down the fretboard – 1 3 7 who needs a 5?
Your pinky is on the minor 3rd – a G-natural. Since we already have a third in the chord, we refer to this pitch as an augmented or sharp 9 – the 2nd raised a half step in the presence of a seven chord. The G-natural offers an additional dissonance – it is a half step (or major 7th) from the 3rd. As a half step, it creates a faux “blue note” – the flattened major third common in blues music. As a seventh it sets a small stack of sevenths rising from the tonic – the minor seventh on the E and the Major seventh on the G#.
The result is a chord that has a tremendous amount of ambiguousness about where it’s leading – it’s very funky.
Typically this chord – the Augmented 9 – has been used in the turnaround. Here we see (hear) it in Miles Davis’ “All Blues” from Kind of Blue – around 45 seconds in. It creates a nice lead back into the main figure.
But of course, it was Jimi who put it front and center. He used the Augmented 9 in many songs – “Spanish Castle Magic,” “Stone Free” (I heard this was the first song he ever wrote), and “Foxy Lady” to name a few – but “Purple Haze” is built around The Greatest Guitar Chord of All Time.