You Don’t Have To Play Every Note

Seems that most of the people who are seriously reading this blog are guitar players, so I’m going to take another break from actual guide tone lines and address this one to any guitar player who has encountered a chord like “D13+5(add 11)” and felt their heart palpitating.

I’m going to preface this my saying that I am not a guitar player – I am primarily a composer and arranger whose main instrument is keyboard. I know enough about the guitar to know that if I just supply the right chord symbols, an experienced guitarist will know better what to do than I. I’m also guessing that most of the guitarists who read this blog are experienced enough to know what I’m talking about – but it’s something that novice players and students will hopefully find useful (and aspiring pianists may get something out of it as well).

The pros call them truncated chords. They’re based on a couple of simple principles: (1) the root and the fifth of the chord are of no importance (unless they’re  in the bass – and the bass player generally has that covered), and (2) color tones (primarily the third, seventh and ninth)  reign supreme. The best news of all is that in most cases, these color tones form a simple three or four note chord that you most likely already know how to play under a different name.

I’ve already given one example of how this works in which a diminished seventh chord, played over a particular bass note, becomes a 7(b9) of whatever that bass note is. But that’s just the start. For instance, if you need a simple dominant seventh of a specific chord, try playing a diminished triad based on a pitch a major third higher. For example:

If the chart calls for a raised seventh, try a minor triad based on the same pitch:

In the case of a  ninth chord with a raised 7th, use a four-note minor 7th chord over the root:

When the 7th  of a ninth chord is lowered, go for a half-diminished chord like so:

What about  flatted fifths or raised ninths and elevenths, or the thirteenth chord (which pretty much contains everything)?

 It’s just about thinking out of the box. As you probably know, all chords, from simple triads to complex, altered 13th chords are simple stacks of thirds:

However, the more extended chords are almost never played in root position and rarely are all the  pitches actually sounded in performance. Certain pitches (specifically the 5th , 7th  and 9th) are frequently altered. By the way, you noticed that the major 11th and minor 13th had to be raised a half step. Do you know why? If not, listen for yourself:

11th chords          minor 13th chords

The second chord of each set probably sounded sour to you.

In my next post, we’ll look at some ways to truncate these chords – and why truncated chords can work even when one is playing solo without a bassist.

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About KJ at Guide Tone Lines

KJ McElrath earned his Masters degree in Music Theory and Composition from Central Washington University. Composer of several works for big band, wind ensemble and orchestra, which can be heard at I perform a cabaret act with Athena McElrath as McElrath Cabaret, which you can find at
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