The Woodshed

Why does this chord inversion sound so bad on guitar?

26

I guess "bad" is objective

I thought it was objective, yes.

27

The 5th harmonic of the low E is a somewhat flat G#, that's not going to play nice with the G that is present both as a played note and as a harmonic of the C.

Beyond that, it's kind of getting into general jazz principles that you don't want to double your roots and should go for more width in your voicings for clarity. For comparison's sake, the low E played in a progression with C-G on the G and B strings sounds ultra sweet, so it's the voicing, not the inversion per se. (Not that I necessarily share the opinion. I think you could sell the voicing just fine in a folk/Americana style with a little voice leading and maybe going a little light on the E.)

28

Still, there's something specific about that E played open which doesn't afflict either the voicing or the inversion when the same note is played at the 2nd fret (with the 6th string tuned to D).

Try it. Adding the fretted low E to the standard cowboy C sounds fine (to me). It's the open E-string that offends.

Different overtone series when fretted than when open? Simply that the open E rings longer? I don't know.

It's not mixing open and fretted strings. The low E sounds great on a 1st-position E chord. It doesn't even sound BAD with a first-position A. (Allowing for listener tolerance for a 5th in the bass.)

It just sounds uniquely bad with a C. Not quite unusably, as pointed out, if part of a logical phrase leading to it, and if soft-pedaled and not long sustained.

It's just so odd that the same note (when D-tuned and fretted at the 2nd fret) sounds so much different.

29

My theory:

When playing an acoustic guitar for the first time....What chord do you strum out?

Of course it's that glorious huge E major chord.

Even if it's not exactly the first...you KNOW you are going to slam into it pretty quick. Don't deny it. You are only lying to yourself.

Anyway. My theory is that our ears get used to that booming lowest note on the guitar BELONGING to E major (ok alright maybe E minor if you are Goth)

When you play it with C it's like an old friend that's cheating on you. That's just not right. Your brain rejects the premise.

Access to the low End denied.

Ok MAYBE G..... because that's a fifth.....even then it's suspect.

30

Since you can drill down to it specifically being the open E, that would seem to clinch it as being related to the harmonics. The relative proportions of each harmonic are going to vary with the same note played open vs fretted ,as well as between each possible fretted position, but you'll certainly have more harmonics overall open than fretted (because of the scale length difference, as well as the tendency to hit them harder).

It would be interesting to record that note both ways and check it in an analyzer for how much of that G# is present in each. Should be around 400 hz, without doing the math. (I'm not going to do it, but it would be interesting.)

31

Since you can drill down to it specifically being the open E, that would seem to clinch it as being related to the harmonics. The relative proportions of each harmonic are going to vary with the same note played open vs fretted ,as well as between each possible fretted position, but you'll certainly have more harmonics overall open than fretted (because of the scale length difference, as well as the tendency to hit them harder).

It would be interesting to record that note both ways and check it in an analyzer for how much of that G# is present in each. Should be around 400 hz, without doing the math. (I'm not going to do it, but it would be interesting.)

OK! I like this. This makes sense - physics rather than psychology. I can't SWEAR the core of the explanation is true (that relative proportions of harmonics vary with length of the string producing the fundamental), but it certainly makes sense to me. Seems the nodes would HAVE to fall in different places physically, and reinforce or cancel each other in different patterns.

This satisfies. It wouldn't take much emphasis of the G# harmonic from the open E to really sour the C chord. If that node happens to be de-emphasized when the note is played with a different string length, there you go.

This also explains why the C/E sounds fine when produced by a synth getting the fundamental note information from the same string that sounds horrible acoustically: the synth uses its own sound-producing engine without reference to the overtone series of the string. (In fact, hex-pickup guitar output would be useless to drive a synth if it didn't isolate the fundamental and ignore overtones.)

Thanks to all for the thoughtful discussion. If I was Mr Science and knew the answer, I'd award teleharmonium the win - but at least for my money, that's the leading theory!

32

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

– Billy Zoom

Yes, if it sounds bad, don't do it.

Physical harmonic structures tend to vibrate at fundamental and higher frequencies. Say at 1, 2, 3 etc tell the fundamental frequency. This is physics.

Humans tend to rearrange these frequencies so they fit. But there's a limit. This is psycho-physics.

Diana Deutsch has done a lot of research in this area.

Diana Deutsch

Lee

33

Yes, if it sounds bad, don't do it.

Geez, clearly. This isn't about figuring out how to more euphoniously do something that sounds bad. This doesn't cripple any of my miserable songs. I know to avoid the interval. I've been avoiding it since I was 12 (except in that one song where I use it on purpose). Everyone knows to leave the damn low E out of a C chord.

This is just curiosity. Idle, perhaps: one just wonders why. I didn't know why; I submitted the question to a panel of voluntary experts. I didn't mean to tax anyone with the burden of having to solve a deep psycho-musical problem for me.

I guess I could say it's a science question, not a music question.

34

Sorry, i was a bit obtuse in my answer.

On the science side, structures tend to vibrate at a fundamental frequency plus integral (1,2,3...) harmonics if the structure is sufficiently symmetric. Nature tends to like the lower harmonics because it optimizes to lowest energy required. So the first harmonic is a octave.The 2nd is a 5th, the 3rd is another octave, the 4th is 3rd and so forth.

Now to suppose that you strike an E, The G is going to be pretty dis-harmonic. Like a #5 interval. Like an E+.

What bothers me is not what is clearly bad that troubles me so much, is why promiscuous inversion works most of the time. So, my reference to psycho acoustics.

Lee

35

To me the odd thing is how bad it sounds together, but how good it sounds to play an open E chord - whether major or minor - and then an open C chord. I really like the E major - C sound. Yup, similar to Honey Don't, and also Long Blonde Hair and a song called Voodoo Doll I used to play in a band I was in 30 years ago.

In the case of Emajor - C you get the G# - G thing which sounds sweet. Then when you go to the B for the end of the verse it is a release of the tension built during the verse.

That little observation led me to often go to a sharp 5 in a blues progression where a listener might expect a regular 5 and it's a fun distraction. I've heard other do it but I still like it. It's fun to play with the expectations.

36

Here's a slightly different way to approach it: change the major C chord to a C7. It sounds fantastic, played with the b7 on the A string, i. e. 012010. I learnt it from a video about cool chord choices for the tune Claire de Lune by the gypsy jazz guitarist Robin Nolan (who, if I remember correctly, got it from Biréli Lagrène). It is preceded by a Gm7 in this tune. Try those two chords. So, while the major C with an open E in the bass quite mysteriously doesn't work, the dominant chord with the same open E produces a fantastic complex, slightly dissonant and exiting sound. At least on an acoustic guitar.

37

I noticed that I could at some degree train my ear to accept the open E with C by playing F with open A as lowest note and Bb with open D as lowest note.

Also fine tuning the low E string by ear while playing the C chord seemed to help. Or maybe I just had bad tuning in the beginning. Or maybe something related to guitar tuning challenges in general? Would this explain why fretted D tuned E sounds better? And why fretted G at fifth fret of D string sounds better than open G string?


Register Sign in to join the conversation