How to use chord voicings and substitutions to create complex textures

Experimenting with different chord voicings and substitutions is a great way to expand the textural and emotional nuances in your productions.

We recently welcomed Soul Surplus to Splice, a production company with sample packs that feature tons of lush chord progressions and melodies. In this blog post, John from Soul Surplus breaks down how he uses chord voicings and substitutions to create complex textures.


When we begin learning chords on an instrument like guitar or piano, we often start off with just one voicing for each chord. As a guitar teacher myself, I usually teach the same G major chord shape to every student on their lesson. If you’ve ever attempted to learn a song on a guitar, you’re most likely familiar with this shape – just place one finger on the third fret of the high E string, strum the first three strings, and voila! You’ve got a G major chord (formed by the notes G, B, and G).

As beginners playing through a piece of music, or as producers creating and composing tracks, we might return to these same shapes over and over whenever the music calls for us to play a G major chord. While this can bring a consistent sound to the song we’re playing or producing, it often ends up sounding repetitive and a little boring. To remedy this, it helps to not only know how to play a chord in several different voicings, but to also know the chords that we can substitute in the place of triads and more basic chords. Diversity in our chord vocabulary can help bring out different textures in our productions, while also adding color and cohesion between different instruments.

When I started working in sound design with Soul Surplus, I felt the weight of a very large task: I knew I had to be a one-man ensemble. Even as someone who plays multiple instruments, that’s a job that’s easier said than done. Soul music in the 1970s was composed and performed with a four-piece band in mind (drums, keys, bass, and guitar). Each musician brings their own style and voice to the music, creating an interesting sound and chemistry between each band member. When the time came to work on “12th And Vine,” our homage to vintage Philadelphia soul, I knew that the most crucial way to nail the authenticity and feel of hearing several musicians at once (though I’m only one person) was to approach each instrument with a different personality and chord voicing.

The full composition

In this post, we’ll be analyzing this melodic loop from “12th and Vine” (hear it below), which features a few different instruments such as guitar, electric piano, organ, a Fender Rhodes, and more. Since there are a lot of moving pieces in this loop, I’ll explain why I chose different voicings for each instrument, what each voicing is, and the role they play in supporting the composition as a whole. Here’s the loop in full:

      

The chord voicings for the electric guitar

My process was fairly consistent throughout the composition of each of the ten melodic loops in “12th and Vine.” I always start with electric bass to provide a strong rhythmic and harmonic foundation to the loop. In this particular loop, I played a bassline in the key of C minor. It starts with an F, then walks to an Ab, and then bounces the octave from a higher C to a lower C. After recording bass, I almost always record electric or acoustic guitar immediately after. The chord progression I had in mind for this loop was:

Fmin7 – Gmin7 – Abmaj7 – Bbmaj7/C – C7#5 x2

Abmaj7/Bb – Bbmaj7/C – C7#5 – Abmaj7/Bb – Bbmaj7/C – C7#5 x2

However, if we pay attention to the most prominent guitar part in this loop, I don’t play this chord progression straight through. Instead, I play an Abmaj7 (in 2nd inversion, with the major 7th, G, as the leading voice) where the Fmin is played, followed by a sliding half step between a C5 and a Bb5, in place of where the Abmaj7 is played. Take a listen:

      

Let’s do some music math to explain what’s going on. An Fmin7 chord consists of an F (root), Ab (minor 3rd), C (perfect 5th) and Eb (minor 7th). Meanwhile, an Abmaj7 chord consists of an Ab (root), C (major 3rd), Eb (perfect 5th) and G (major 7th). As you may have noticed, Fmin7 and Abmaj7 share three of the same notes, with the differences being the absence of an F in Abmaj7 and a G in the Abmaj7 chord. Since the bassline is already playing an F in this loop, it isn’t really necessarily to include it in every chord.

The star player in this chord substitution is the the function of the G in the Abmaj7, which is a 9th interval in relation to Fmin. Adding a 9th extension to a minor chord gives it more depth and even a slightly jazzy tone. The melody in this loop also starts with a G, so having the G as the leading voice in the Abmaj7 allows the guitar to sit with the other instruments in a more natural way. The sliding chord (a C5 to a Bb5, back to a C5) functions as a chord substitution, while also being a part of the melody. There are only 2 notes in C5 (C and G), and the Bb5 acts only as a passing chord, so it doesn’t really need to be analyzed as more than what it is. The C5 is played in place of the Abmaj7 in this progression. The 3rd and the 7th of Abmaj7 (C and G) are the only two notes in C5, making it a perfect substitution to play in the place of an Abmaj7.

The chord voicings for the acoustic guitar

The acoustic guitar in this loop doesn’t take as much of a minimalist approach as the electric guitar, as it plays more of a padding role to support the fullness of the composition. Take a listen to what’s going on:

      

I took more of a straightforward approach when recording the acoustic guitar, keeping in mind that its purpose was mostly to support the sonic texture, and that it has a tendency to cut through the mix (especially amongst the other instruments in this loop, which could be considered more ’round-sounding’). The acoustic guitar is playing this progression:

Abmaj – Bbmaj – Cmin – Bbmaj – C7b9

Much like the electric guitar, the triads I recorded with the acoustic guitar share most of the same notes with the chords I’m substituting them for. Abmaj (Ab, C, Eb) has every note of Fmin7 except the root. The same goes for Bbmaj (substituted for Gmin) and Cmin (substituted for Abmaj7). I purposely omitted the 7th of the Bbmaj chord (which was a substitution for Bbmaj7/C) to create a smooth voice leading to the next chord, a C7b9 (which was a substitution for C7#5). The C7b9 (C, E, G, Bb, and Db) contains most of the same notes as the C7#5 (C, E, G#, and Bb).

The potential trouble spot in this substitution is the clash between the G and G# (since the other instruments are playing the G# in the C7#5 chord). Since I didn’t play the G in the C7b9 chord, I avoided this clash successfully, while adding some soulful color with the Db in my C7b9 chord. You should always beware the clashing of two notes that are a half note apart, but I always say that if you can find a way to make it work, then make it work.

The chord voicings for the Fender Rhodes

Lastly, let’s analyze the Fender Rhodes, which is minimalistic much like the electric guitar. While this allowed space for the other instruments to move, I purposely substituted the Abmaj7 to spice things up a little. Have a listen:

      

I played an Abmaj7 in place of the Fmin7, while playing the lead melody line with my right hand – we’ve already covered this substitution and why it works with the electric guitar. The more interesting substitution, however, is the Fsus2 (F, G, and C) in place of the Abmaj7 (Ab, C, Eb, and G). We know that C and G are the 3rd and 7th chord tones of the Abmaj7. The Fsus2 covers this, while adding some major 6th coloration (F is the 6th interval in relation to Ab major) to the Abmaj7 chord. This substitution adds a unique and unexpected flavor, while still being tucked in behind the other instruments. Playing the exact same chords as the acoustic or electric guitar would’ve also worked, but in my experience playing in many different bands, I can tell you that keyboardists and guitarists rarely think the same. Throwing in a different chord served to create a more authentic ‘band-chemistry’ effect for this loop.

Closing thoughts

While we covered some pretty advanced substitution techniques, as well as some pretty fancy and ‘jazzy’ chords, adding these textures and layers can be as easy as moving your finger over a key / fret or two in practice. While I encourage this kind of experimentation, having the music theory knowledge to understand the function of different chord voicings and substitutions will always take you further in the creation process, as it can inspire new ideas. Check out our “12th and Vine” sample pack in its entirety to hear more unique chord substitutions that will hopefully spark some inspiration in your own productions.

May 9, 2019

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