From the January/February 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY SEAN MCGOWAN
In this Weekly Workout, let’s take a close look at a common extended chord—containing a note beyond the seventh, the venerable ninth. The ninth of a chord is the same note as the second scale degree. For example, D is both the second and ninth of C. However, the ninth is typically thought of and played above the octave in a chord voicing or solo line. It’s commonly used to dress up major, minor, and dominant chords, and its pleasant yet fairly neutral sound makes it ideal for chord voicings in many different styles of music.
When playing lead lines, we can create interesting sounds and colors while avoiding the tendency to build redundant solo lines on scales. Running chord arpeggios up through the ninth is also a chance to explore new sounds and build dexterity using some powerful picking techniques—namely, alternate and cross-picking, string skipping, and hybrid chordal playing.
Let’s start the first week by exploring a few basic but practical voicings for ninth chords on different string sets. To keep things simple but also offer some variety, I’ve organized the voicings into three different registers: low, mid, and high 9. In each voicing, the ninth is always the top note, but the overall voicing is featured on different string sets, so that you can play them over the entire fretboard, in any key (these shapes are all movable), and in different tonal ranges.
Example 1a illustrates a Gmaj9 chord in a low-9 register. Note that the root of this movable shape is on the sixth string and will sound great when you’re going for a rich, earthy sound. Example 1b shows a mid-9 Cmaj9 chord, with the root appearing on the fifth string. The voicings in both of these examples are identical in that the chord tones are stacked low to high—root, third, seventh, and ninth—and they both omit the fifth chord tone, which isn’t really necessary here to convey the sound of these ninth chords.
Finally, Example 1c shows another Gmaj9 voicing, this time in a high-9 register. The high-9 voicing also places the root on the low string, but adds the fifth of the chord on the second string—voiced above the third and seventh on the middle strings—and the ninth extension on the high E string, expanding the range of the chord to just over two octaves.
You can also apply these three voicing registers to any other chord type. Examples 2–3 work through low-, mid-, and high-9 voicings for minor-ninth and dominant-ninth chords, respectively. Practice these voicings slowly and thoroughly, moving them through several different keys and trying them out in songs. Essentially, any time you encounter a basic major-, minor-, or dominant-seventh chord voicing in a song, you can substitute that with any of these ninth voicings.
Now let’s check out how we can use these voicings for a solid technique workout. Example 4 cycles through the three registers of major-ninth chords (Gmaj9 and Cmaj9). If you’re playing fingerstyle, use your thumb to pick the root of each chord on the E and A strings and your index, middle, and ring fingers for the chord tones on the “and” of each beat. Alternatively, assign a pick or thumbpick to the roots and pick the following notes with your other fingers. If you really want a flatpicking challenge, you can try to flatpack everything, alternating between picking a single note (the root) and a short strum on the three or four upper strings, essentially creating a boom-chuck style of accompaniment.
Example 5 uses the same chords but mixes it up with an arpeggio type of pattern that focuses on string skipping. Again, you can practice with a hybrid picking technique, alternating between the pick and middle finger (or thumbpick and index) up and down the strings. Or you can try to flatpick everything, creating a wonderfully challenging cross-picking exercise. Of course, you can also play these fingerstyle to practice crossing string sets in ragtime, blues, and folk styles of accompaniment. Be sure to practice different patterns and variations on this exercise, such as playing the notes low to high, high to low, using different rhythms, etc.
Beginners’ Tip #1
Some of these chord voicings may be new to you, and a little tricky for the fingers to get into. After you settle on a good fingering, try starting each chord with a different finger and observe which is the smoothest-sounding and most comfortable for you.
This week we’ll explore ninth-chord arpeggios in different positions, while working through some rigorous alternate picking patterns across the strings. Example 6 outlines some essential ninth-chord shapes, all with the root on the fourth string. You’ll notice a similarity to the high-9 voicings in these shapes as they ascend through the chord tones root, third, fifth, seventh, and ninth. Try alternating every pick stroke (down-up, etc.) regardless of whether you change strings or repeat notes on the same string. Not only is this approach a great picking-hand workout, it will help outline the chord changes in a powerful way if you’re working on your solo improvisation.
Example 7 also works through our three basic ninth-chord types with a root of C, this time with the root on the fifth string and with triplet rhythms. Be sure to play these along with a metronome slowly to ensure you’re really getting the three-against-two triplet rhythm across. Do the same with Example 8, which is the same idea, but with ninth chords having a root on the sixth string.
For Example 9, let’s expand our ninths pattern to two octaves by essentially combining the low- and high-9 shapes. Of course, make sure to practice this example with minor-ninth and dominant-ninth chords. Example 10 illustrates a fingering for G9, this time in eighth-note triplets.
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Beginners’ Tip #2
When playing through these arpeggio fingerings, you’ll be crossing the strings a lot and giving your picking hand a good workout. Try to keep the individual movement of the fingers of the fretting hand to a minimum—you want to be able to concentrate on the picking patterns.
Now we’re going to combine the extended arpeggios from last week with scale fingerings that lend a potent alternate and cross-picking workout in one example. In Example 11, play through the same ascending ninth chord pattern from Ex. 9, but descend down through the G major scale. Example 12 illustrates the opposite: Start with an ascending scale, then work back down through the ninth arpeggio. This one is a little trickier, as your picking hand starts to get used to playing a scale, but quickly switches gear into more of a cross-picked arpeggio figure.
Example 13 combines both variations, this time with the root on the fifth string. Again, make sure to practice this week’s examples using all three chord types, with whatever
fingerings work best for you. Example 14 is a complex line that starts off with a great string-skipping exercise ending on the high-9, descending back down through a major scale, then shifting the ninth arpeggio pattern and finishing off with some chordal hybrid picking figures from Week One. Example 15 is the same type of example using minor-ninth arpeggios and a G Dorian (G A Bb C D E F) line. This one is a little more rigorous with the varying rhythms. Remember to take it slowly, using a metronome for accuracy.
Beginners’ Tip #3
To keep your rhythm strong and secure, try accenting the first note of every beat, regardless of whether or not it’s an upstroke or downstroke. This practice will automatically create musical dynamics in your picking.
We’re going to end this series of workouts with a complete lead solo over a 12-bar blues in G. As you work through this etude measure by measure, try to analyze which pattern you’re using from the previous three weeks over every single chord. Creating an awareness of how the lines actually fit with the chord progression will help you when it’s time for you to improvise a solo, and you’re looking to add some fresh lines to your lead playing.
Beginners’ Tip #4
Record or loop the chord changes, so that you can hear the lines in context over harmony. Try practicing it with both a swing and a straight eighth-note time feel (think of the rhythmic shifts in Freddie King’s “Hideaway”) and notice how it affects your own rhythmic acuity.
Sean McGowan is a jazz and acoustic guitarist based in Denver, where he directs the guitar program at the University of Colorado Denver. seanmcgowanguitar.com
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.