The Woodshed

Why does this chord inversion sound so bad on guitar?

1

My Tru-Arc™ brother Steve won a White Falcon acoustic at 2016's Hoosier Daddy Roundup - he says he knew from the time he saw the guitar that it would be his, but the palpable joy and excitement he showed when this came true was nonetheless little short of Mel Waldorf's display when he won Powdog's amp at the NorCal.

Steve had been through a miserable spring and summer, and said he knew the Falcon would change his life: he was going to learn to play guitar.

The gleaming White Falcon is always at the ready, reclining in a deluxe wooden stand near the mirror-black grand piano in his living room. And indeed, he's diligently applied himself to a great series of online lessons and has made enormous strides in the last year.

Every once in awhile he calls with a cogent observation he's made about something he's just learned, or some fretboard connection he's just made. Steve being Steve, these are always insightful and give me the opportunity to think a little deeper into the mechanics of guitar playing and the harmonic architecture built into the grid of strings and frets.

This morning's question from Steve was about one very specific chord inversion, and it's a good question. (There may be other voicings about which the same thing can be asked, but this is about THIS one).

To wit: why does an open 6th-string E sound so bad with a standard 1st-position C chord? We know E is the 3rd of the scale, and there are already Es in two other octaves in that chord. But let that low E in, and it sounds...well, beyond muddy. It sounds wrong. It sounds bad.

I don't think this is a matter of the guitar being played, or of personal taste. Come to think of it, it's applied to every guitar, acoustic or electric, on which I've ever (accidentally or purposely) tried it.

Yes, on any harmony instrument making the 3rd the lowest note in a chord has a particular effect. It doesn't always suit the context. And, sure, you can mud it up by including intervals directly above it (like the 5th). But a chord with the 3rd in the root frequently sounds exactly right in an arrangement, particularly when part of a moving bassline. That goes for any key.

And, by way of contrast, a D with a 2nd-fret-6th-string F# sounds ... well, great to my ear. I overuse it every chance I get. (Typically leaving out the 5th string for clarity.) And that chord is only a full step above the offensive C/E. But even when I leave the C on the 5th string out of the chord to keep it clean, that low E just sounds...bad. It sounds bad, is what it sounds.

It's not the inversion itself which is the problem. On piano, it sounds OK (in context). Guitar-centric illustration: I have a song with a slowly descending bass line which in the inevitable place logically wants that low E against a C. When I play it on a guitar with synth access, the synth part sounds great (usually with an orchestral strings sound, in the same octave as the guitar). But the guitar output - played at the same time on the same instrument - sounds...

bad is the word.

And it's not the low E itself which offends. That's our favorite note on the whole guitar, ainit? Big, bold, fundamental, the root of a zillion great riffs and rock & roll progressions.

The low E sounds somewhat better when played against a C formed by barring an A at the 3rd fret - though still not as good as D/F#.

So what's going on when the open E is played against a first-position C?

2

Too many 'E's? Just play the 3rd fret G instead. But what do I know, I'm only a bass player.

3

I think it's begging for the G in the middle. Played as-is, the C chord is about as tight a chord as you can get in the guitar and then you add a big wide open minor 6 in the bottom. By comparison, add the G in the bottom and it sounds great... still a tight chord. Also, D/F# has the A in the middle as well which contextualises the bass note.

4

if you want precise technical information on harmony and chord structure ask a drummer.

5

I think it's begging for the G in the middle. Played as-is, the C chord is about as tight a chord as you can get in the guitar and then you add a big wide open minor 6 in the bottom. By comparison, add the G in the bottom and it sounds great... still a tight chord. Also, D/F# has the A in the middle as well which contextualises the bass note.

Well, there's really no concern about how to play a "better" version of the C: it's easy enough to leave out the 6th string entirely, and yeah I often like the low G at the 3rd fret (though a chord with a 5th on the bottom is also its own thing).

Agreed that the 3rd-string 2nd-fret A is crucial to the D/F#. But when I transpose that inversion straight down, interval for interval, and keep the G in the middle of the C/E...kerplop, that low E still pees in the punchbowl...

6

How to answer with a non-answer...or comment an ambiguous common thought.

The Compleat Beatles Song Book was a gift to me 35 years ago. Every song done up with full Voice, Melody, Guitar Chords, and "Piano" music. Hmmm....piano voicings?

Those that play a D chord like a C but Barre with the index finger and hold the pinkie on the 5th fret, 5th string get the idea. Bobby Goldboro's favorite chord, etc., amongst others who do the same.

So, that is the concept, put the pinkie up onto the top rows sometimes. Make minor chords with the pinkie up there somewhere.

I bought my Byrdland because some smarter, better playing guys figured that out in the 50's. And I have short fingers despite being 6ft. 3in.

Learn to contort your fingers beyond the normal. Jazz voicings seem to always be a test. I enjoy the 13th chord position referencing the 6th string. Makes the pinkie go another direction.

Straight up piano voicings makes use of that pinkie a lot up top.

Johnny A tells a weird, strange story about the same Compleat Beatles Songbook....he can play better than me...Ha!

7

It does sound ugly, but you need it to play Border Song. Fortunately it's just a single passing beat from the C to the F.

8

Does it really matter why it sounds bad? Isn't it enough to know that it does?

9

When playing a standard C in the first position, us Chet/Merle style players never play the open low E within our alternating bass as it sounds simply horrid! .....and we don't use our pinky on the 5th string/3rd fret to allow our ring finger to add the 3rd fret G to flush out the chord over all 6 strings. No, we need that low G but we switch our ring finger back and forth between the 5th and 6th strings because our pinky is busy on the top 3 strings involved with the melody notes.

For the C7 in the first position, I fret the chord with the index, middle and ring and grab the low G with my thumb. For this chord I eliminate picking the 5th string altogether, ala Merle, and again this allows the pinky freedom for the melody. This gives a 2 string alternating bass rather than 3 strings.

The issue of chords [with the same notes] sounding 'proper' in one version and bad in another is extremely pronounced in a cappella singing, particularly barbershop. In other words you may have all the correct notes for the chord you want but it doesn't sound right. Quite often, swapping the bass and baritone notes solves the issue. Same with the guitar.

10

The issue of chords [with the same notes] sounding 'proper' in one version and bad in another is extremely pronounced in a cappella singing, particularly barbershop. In other words you may have all the correct notes for the chord you want but it doesn't sound right. Quite often, swapping the bass and baritone notes solves the issue. Same with the guitar.

An interesting observation. My instinct would be that in that context, it would be matter of micro-tuning one or another of the singer's intonation. But probably not, since such singers generally know how to adjust that on the fly as needed.


Does it really matter why it sounds bad?

Oh, deeply. Profoundly.


A sudden inspiration (so obvious it was embarrassingly long in appearing) just led me to a quick experiment. Figured it had to be something not about the pitch itself, but the fact of the open string. I tuned the 6th string down to D, played a C and wrapped my thumb around to the 2nd fret for the E.

Sounded fine. Even dandy.

So...what is it about the OPEN E which doesn't work, when the same note fretted does?

11

Interesting question and one that I never thought about; just accepted that it sounds bad and avoided it. However.....now that the question has been posed by our good man Tim, I've given it a bit of thought and listened to the offending construct.....My interest and knowledge of music theory stop with the physics, so I might be falling short in my response, and I am not entirely committed to my response, which is speculative at best.

Here goes; with the open E played that low, we tend to hear it as a root almost as strongly as we hear it as a third. In functional harmony, diatonic semitones (half step intervals that occur naturally in the scale) are what determine harmonic function. In C major, the F wants to fall to the E, implying a subdominant to tonic cadence. When we get the F falling by semitone AND the B rising by semitone to the C, we get a more compelling cadence; dominant to tonic. In E minor, the falling semitone is between the C & B. There are really only three functions: tonic, subdominant and dominant. In this case, if we hear the E as a tonic, the implied chord is E minor. The C on the 5th string is in a semitone relationship to B and sets up an expectation of a soft or subdominant cadence by falling to the B, the 5th of E minor. While the C major and E minor are both tonic functioning chords this should not be a problem, except that we are not fully hearing the C as tonic, rather, it sounds like a flat 6 in E minor that demands resolution by falling to the B, creating a soft or subdominant cadence in E minor. Perhaps this is also strengthened by the fact that B is the first overtone of the E, and again, the low register of the open E accentuates this. On the one hand the ear is saying C major. On the other hand it is saying, no it isn't, it's a subdominant chord trying to resolve to E minor; competing functions.

12

Great description Journeyman.

I was about to post a (less technical, but related?) reference to Carl Perkins "controversial" chord progression from E to C (bVI) in Honey Don't.

"When Carl first played the song to Jay, Jay protested what sounded to him like an odd chord choice, going to a C7 chord after the E instead of the natural blues progression choice of A. At first, Jay refused to go along, but Carl convinced him it was something different." (from "Go Cat Go" biography.)

At least, this thread reminded me of it.

13

That interval E-C #5 is pretty nasty.

All chords relate to the lowest note, the same chord should sound good if there is a bass guitar playing a C.

When you use it in the bass line, your ear may not be relating it to the chord, just hearing that it is causing tension or relief in the progression.

The F#-D conundrum is interesting.

I have four things you can test, it could be a combination of these things [or something else].

Dissonant intervals are more dissonant at lower frequencies. Pretty obvious if you subscribe to beat counting theories, less obvious if you observe the beauty of mathematics. You can play some chord intervals on a bass guitar, like E-B 5th, but G-Bb minor 3rd, even G-B major 3rd, sound like poo. On the higher strings of the bass, these chord intervals are fine. How does the F-C# sound?

That open E-string is just too loud. Mute it slightly or work on controlling your picking of it. You are probably doing a lot of subconcious adjustment to the F#. Try tuning the E string down to D or Db and see if the E works when fretted.

The difference in thickness of strings. Try playing the D note on the 5th string. I'm not sure how you would do that...use a C-type barre chord on the 5th fret. That F# is very full on the E string and the D is pretty thin on the D-string. The C is much thicker on the A string.

When you play two notes, a third frequency [and other secondaey harmonics] are produced. You can hear this most readily on higher frequency notes where the ghost notes are close to the real notes. Freq-hi - Freq-lo = Freq-ghost, C 130.81 - E is 82.41 = 49.40 G +18 cents. D 146.83 - F# 92.50 = 54.33 A -21 cents.

14

Great description Journeyman.

I was about to post a (less technical, but related?) reference to Carl Perkins "controversial" chord progression from E to C (bVI) in Honey Don't.

"When Carl first played the song to Jay, Jay protested what sounded to him like an odd chord choice, going to a C7 chord after the E instead of the natural blues progression choice of A. At first, Jay refused to go along, but Carl convinced him it was something different." (from "Go Cat Go" biography.)

At least, this thread reminded me of it.

– nielDa

Carl's instincts were in line with theory. The I to IV progression is tonic to subdominant (function) From the minor scale we get the bVI chord which is also subdominant. I - IV and I - bVI are functional equivalents. We can borrow from the minor for use in major (melody and context allowing) and of coures in much of American music there is often a mixture of diatonic and blues harmony, hence his use of the C7 instead of C major. Sorry for the slight diversion Proteus.

15

If you strum the C chord a few times and then add the E note, it sounds musical.

The F# with a C-type D barre chord sounds fine.

The F with a C-type C# barre chord is on the edge.

It seems to be the uncontrolled nature of the open E and the lower frequency.

You can sort of hear it with an A below an F chord, and that sounds better with an open high-e string [major 7].

Tuning down, the E sounds better on the 3rd fret. It's also quieter.

The more you play it, the more acceptable it sounds. I think my ears are shot.

It's interesting if you play that C-type barre chord with the 3rd on the bass on each fret. Some chords sound nice and some don't. Just playing the #5 chord interval changes character with each fret.

[That C-Type barre chord is not good for your hand, it will hurt you now or 10 years from now, don't use it often or at all.]

16

Y'all sure can make a simple C give me a headache.

I think Hammerhands has it right when he says that a chord tries to sound like it's lowest note. When you play it open, it's trying to sound like an E but a really bad E

17

Try tuning the E string down to D or Db and see if the E works when fretted.

I did that. It sounds great that way.

18

Try tuning the E string down to D or Db and see if the E works when fretted.

I did that. It sounds great that way.

– Proteus

You're right, it does sound better, so the problem seems to be one of timbre and not pitch.

19

Most bass guitarists play root or fifth in the bass, with the 3rd being an acceptable tone but more a passing note. Compared to the root and fifth, it's weaker. As someone mentioned, that E against C in the low end is a m6 interval and pretty dissonant. Also agree that 3 E notes is a lot for a chord and that might be part of the problem. The long sustain of a low, open string might be an issue, too. Much more time to perceive the muddiness as it sustains.

20

You're right, it does sound better, so the problem seems to be one of timbre and not pitch.

– Journeyman

I've noticed the same thing in different ways (because I always play in a wackadoo tuning) but I think the problem isn't the interval structure of the chord but one of timbre; the open E is so strong with harmonic overtones that is creates muck in a chord with close intervals at the low end. My best workaround has been to mute the open E so I get the initial 'thunk' of the E there, but muting it slightly also suppresses the harmonics. I'm thinking the same thing may happen if the 6th string is tuned down to D and then fretted to E -less of the overtones, more of the fundamental.

Just my guess...

21

Maybe it sounds so bad because an open E7 in the fifth position (aka the Creedence chord) sounds so good. Music is not math. Math merely attempts to describe music.

22

If there were a way to include the G that it skips (3rd fret) maybe it would not sound so very out of place. When you jump intervals, sometimes dissonance occurs. Tonics and 5ths seem to repeat easier than 3rds at certain octaves.

23

I play the 7 string bass like I play the classical guitar. I that case, this problem is even worse because it is one full octave lower. So I need to adapt the arrangements. As a general rule, what I do is follow the sequence of harmonics from the lower to higher notes.

24

C E and G are a C Major chord no matter how you arrange the notes or what octave they are.

25

I was playing this chord last night to see if it truly sounds bad. I guess "bad" is objective because I liked it, especially on the lower 3 strings. Unique sound of that m6 interval between E and C.


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