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In this advanced rhythm lesson we're going to look at high register chord progressions.
More specifically, I'll be outlining tactics that can be used to make those progressions sound better, more melodic and more musically complimentary.
The challenge in developing this part of our playing if often a simple matter of habit and knowing conventional wisdom. Most of the time we're playing chords, we're playing on the lower portion of the fretboard, particularly if we're playing open chord patterns.
At the same time, the higher register of the fretboard (I'll consider this to be anything above the seventh fret) is often considered a place for lead guitar, exclusively.
In this lesson, we'll marry rhythm guitar playing with the higher portions of the fretboard and develop a few best practices along the way.
Here's what we'll cover (click to jump):
What is a high register chord progression?
Let's do a brief review of the theory involved with this topic.
First, a chord progression is a series of chords that follow the bass line of a given piece of music.
Thus, if you have a bass line of E, A and B, its chord progression would consist of an E, A and B (perhaps Bm) chord, where each chord matches the root note of the bass line, while adding additional intervals (making each root into a fuller chord).
A high register chord progression, on the guitar, simply takes those same patterns and moves them to higher frets.
So, instead of playing them near the first and second frets where the original bass notes are located, you might play them on, say, the seventh and ninth frets, where you'd still be looking for the same root notes.
They'll just be an octave or two higher.
Let's look at a simple example.
Take the following tab of a G, C, and D chord progression:
G, C, and D chord progression guitar tab in the open position. (View Larger Image)
Here's the audio as well:
Now, here's the same chord progression tab and audio played at the 10th fret, instead of the open form:
G, C, and D chord progression guitar tab at the 10th fret position. (View Larger Image)
This is the type of transposing we'll be doing in this lesson. If you know your fretboard notes, you can see that we've simply taken the root notes we were using on the second and third frets and moved them all to the 10th fret.
It's actually quite simple.
The Music Theory of Higher Register Chord Progressions
In this case, the music theory involved is largely a matter of transposing chord progressions we already know.
Thus, I'll assume you have a firm hold on the following topics:
You must know how to find root notes on the higher frets.
Iff you can play a G chord at the third fret position, you should be able to at least have a vague grasp of how to play it at the 10th fret, where its root is repeated an octave higher.
If that doesn't make sense to you, take some time to review the chord progressions and fretboard notes on the low E and A strings (links in the above list), then jump back in.
Most of what we'll do here shows you how to improve upon this knowledge and make these progressions sound better.
It's not necessarily meant to be a full theoretical explanation.
Four Ways to Improve High Chord Progressions on the Guitar
When we move chord progressions we give ourselves a simple and effective way to improve our sound without actually changing what we're playing.
This is because moving chord progressions to the higher frets changes the feel and tone of the notes we're playing, expanding their application and providing new ways to layer or accent the bass line.
Aside from simply playing the chord progressions on a higher fret position, like we did in our first example, there are four different ways to give a chord progression new life at these higher octaves.
1. Ambience or modulation effects
Adding ambient or modulation effects to higher register chord progressions is a great way to immediately improve their tone.
Something about the notes on the higher frets and these effects tend to meld really well together, creating a crisp, almost shimmery or chime-like sound.
What are modulation and ambient effects? Here's how I'd sort them out:
A typical pedalboard arrangement. (View Larger Image)
In most cases you can use one or a combination of these effects to embellish your high-pitched chord progressions, depending of course on what effects you have available to you.
Chorus and delay are the two most common, but work with whatever your pedalboard affords you.
A few examples of modulation and ambience pedals. (View Larger Image)
What these effects will do is provide a thin, shimmery layer of color to your notes, which will help make the higher pitches less edgy and more appealing as a decorative sound.
Regardless of which effect you're dealing with, I'd be careful to avoid over-saturating your tone.
For example, most chorus pedals (and modulation effects in general) are controlled by two factors:
As rate and depth go up, the intensity of the effect increases.
Speed and depth controls on an old DOD chorus pedal. (View Larger Image)
Depending on the make and model of the effect, this can often give you a warbling or vibrato-like sound, which isn't going to be quite as effective for layering a chord progression.
Make sure that they're running a slower algorithm, and simply providing a layer of color.
With effects and high chord progressions, less is more.
Let's try a few examples.
Take the following progression (C, E and G positioned at the 10th fret):
C, E and G chord progression at the 10th fret position. (View Larger Image)
Here's what it sounds like on a Fender Stratocaster on the middle and neck pickup selector, with only basic EQ applied:
Now, it sounds "okay" but we can certainly dress it up a bit. Let's try adding a little bit of chorus:
To model the sound I used a plugin in Guitar Pro 6, but you can easily do the same thing with a chorus pedal. I'd keep the settings as simple as possible. Rate, depth and level should all be around 12 o'clock.
Let's add a slight delay to the same progression.
We can really start to hear how these effects play well with the higher notes, as they're extremely clear and resonant.
To introduce our next item, let's take this shape and break it up into an arpeggio so we can isolate each note.
C, E and G chord progression arpeggiated with root at the 10th fret position. (View Larger Image)
2. Arpeggiated sequences
Once you've transposed your progression to a higher fret , you can arpeggiate the sequence to highlight the notes in each chord.
Let's look at a simple example.
Start with the following two arpeggios, anchored at the eighth fret:
Arpeggiated chords with a root on the eighth fret. (View Larger Image)
We can add some light modulation and ambience, just like we did with the previous example:
Let's add one more measure to the same pattern.
Third measure added onto initial pattern. (View Larger Image)
It's a simple tool, but happens to be particularly effective with these higher notes.
This also helps you blur the lines a bit between lead and rhythm guitar, in that you don't always have to just strum out the chord progressions you've moved to higher frets.
Arpeggios allow you to make it more interesting for yourself, and provide another layer of creativity that you can use to develop guitar tracks.
Notice too that in the last tab sheet, I was simply moving the intervals, while anchoring the root note at the eighth fret, which was a B♭.
The root note stays the same through all three chords. (View Larger Image)
Instead of shifting to an entirely new chord position, we simply move the intervals in each measure, namely the second note in each chord:
Intervals shifting underneath the root note in each measure. (View Larger Image)
You can see that as we move the interval underneath the root note, the higher notes on the second and first string move as well. This creates the "illusion" of a chord change, though the root note is actually staying the same.
This is helpful for a number of reasons.
Most pointedly, it allows you to play a chord progression more as a melodic lead line.
In other words, you're not forced to move with the bass line and can instead focuses on more melodic notes and tones. This works better on the higher register because that root note isn't as deep and therefore can hold through a bass line without sounding like it's competing with the foundation of the bass line.
...it allows you to play a chord progression more as a melodic lead line.
Thus, you can even simplify the above progression to just the root and first interval, and still have a great-sounding guitar track.
Arpeggiated pattern with only root and one interval. (View Larger Image)
For the audio, we can apply the same mix and effects:
We'll take a closer look at using intervals to accent a bass line in the next section.
3. Accenting bass lines with intervals
In a stricter musical sense, bass instruments are entirely responsible for maintaining the integrity of a chord progression.
While guitars might follow those bass lines in the form of a chord progression, it's important to remember that a guitar's job is more so one of layering and decorating. In other words, a chord progression played by a guitar isn't foundational to the song.
If it goes away, the song's structure is still intact.
This has a few implications:
- Chord progressions can deviate from being a carbon copy of a bass line
- Chord progressions can include notes that harmonize or "accent" a root or bass line note
- Chord progressions can (as we've seen) be part of melodic construction
One of the simplest examples of this is replacing an F♯ with a D or vice versa. You'll also see chords like C♯/D and other slash chords that accent the bass line with a different interval.
In the context of higher register chords most (if not all) of what you'll play will be some kind of harmonic interval.
Whether or not you following the baseline strictly is up to you.
One of the best ways to visualize these is the C#, B, A and E progression.
If we follow the bass line with root notes included, we'd get the following progression:
Root notes are included in the chord progression. (View Larger Image)
However, we can omit those root notes for a cleaner and more "higher register-friendly" chord arrangement.
We omit the root notes of a each chord. (View Larger Image)
For the audio we add some delay for just a little extra decoration.
As with previous examples, we can break the same shape into an arpeggiated run of quarter notes for layering over the original chord progression.
Arpeggiated the intervals of our original bass line. (View Larger Image)
Here's the final product:
4. Basic layering
The last method I want to cover is similar to the tactics we've already seen, but much easier to apply.
Just as we can use higher register chords to compliment root notes and bass lines, we can also use those same chords and notes to simply layer them. The definition of layering, while not entirely uniform, in this context is assumed to be the following:
Layering a chord progression or root note is where you mimic either of those qualities by repeating them, usually at the exact same note are an octave variance.
Here are a few different ways this typically takes shape on the higher frets:
- Root note layering of the bass line
- Dotted eighth note repetition of the root
- Chord swells that echo each chord change
These are all fairly easy to apply.
For example, let's say you wanted to apply the first example, and layer a bass line by each root note.
Assume the following G, C and D chord progression:
Open G, C and D chord progression. (View Larger Image)
If you were to break this down into a simple bass line, you'd have the following tab:
G, C and D bass line. (View Larger Image)
Now, if we want to layer by simply playing each root on the higher register, we would need to find those same notes above the seventh fret.
The eighth and 10th frets give us plenty of those notes to work with.
Layering the bass line with half notes. (View Larger Image)
As you can tell, I've broken up the bass line notes into half notes and added a delay.
We can further break the bass line down into eighth notes and continue using our delay effect for a dotted eighth note layering track.
Layering the original bass line with eighth notes. (View Larger Image)
Lastly, we can substitute chord swells to match the chord changes we're hearing in the bass line. In this context, we simply play those chords somewhere above the seventh fret.
Let's stick with the G, C and D example and look at where we might play complimentary chord shapes around the 10th and 12th frets.
Here's how I would arrange it:
Chord swells matching the G, C and D bass line. (View Larger Image)
When should a guitar player "camp" on higher frets?
Since we've already discussed a lot of the advantages of playing chord progressions on higher frets, the occasion for employing this tactic should be, in part, self-evident.
In some respects, it's simply a matter of variety and preference. Then again, there are type of music and portions of certain songs where higher notes just sound better.
I've found that it's most helpful when you need to mix the disciplines of rhythm and lead guitar together.
- When chords sound too thick or chunky
- When lead melodies sound too light and not heavy enough
Both problems are solved by high-register chord progressions. You get the melody-friendly chime of the higher frets along with the foundational punch of a chord progression.
Where and when to apply it could be dictated by a dissatisfaction with either of the two extremes mentions in the above list.
It can also be a matter of creative preference.
Acoustic vs. Electric Guitar Application
What will be obvious to most is that this technique is most easily applied in the context of electric guitar.
That's not to say acoustic players won't be able to utilize it as well, but high-fret chord progressions take on a particularly useful sound when played on a solid body electric guitar.
For acoustic guitarists to take full advantage of this method, amplifying their signal and adding a few effects is a helpful first step.
Here are a few other mods that will help make an acoustic guitar more friendly to higher fret playing:
- Lowered or optimized action (roughly the width of a quarter should fit between strings and frets)
- Lighter gauge strings (.042-ish)
- An acoustic guitar with a cutaway (Taylor 114ce)
So yes, an acoustic guitar can handle this technique under certain circumstances.
However, electric guitar players stand to benefit most directly. For them, this is a "wheelhouse" tactic that should be easy to use and implement.
If you have other thoughts, questions or even contributions (corrections?) please post those in the comments section below so other readers can benefit as well. We also have a parent article that we update with all the online guitar lessons and YouTube channels that Guitar Chalk formally recommends.
Other Advanced Rhythm Guitar Resources
Understanding Guitar Seventh Chords: A thorough guide to understanding the theory and mechanics behind seventh chords.
Worship Guitar Chords: A look at the chord structures and melody commonly used in modern worship music.
B7 Chord Guitar Lessons: A lesson on the B7 chord focusing on exercises and applicable music theory.
Teaching Guitar Chords: Looking at teaching methods for guitar chords and progressions.
Using Chord Progression for Riff Building: We look at the rules and structures of chord progressions to build heavy, modern-flavored guitar riffs.
Flickr Commons Image Courtesy of Kmeron