How to Play the Guitar with Voice Leading

In music composition and guitar playing, voice leading is the technique of writing smooth transitions from one chord to another, using common tones between chords and stepwise motion between their different pitches. Voice leading allows composers to take advantage of relationships between chords when connecting them in order to create more melodic lines.

You can see an example of voice leading in the chord progression C-E7-F-G-C. With the pitches of these chords, you have a stepwise musical line G-G♯-A-B-C. The 5th of the C chord, G, moves to the G♯ of E7, then to the A of the F chord, then to the B of G, and finally to the C of the C chord.

This voice leading explains why an E7 chord can lead well into an F chord, even though these chords don’t have a V-I relationship. In practice, you may not actually play the chords with these specific chord shapes.

[Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna]
Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna

Again, there’s no V-I relationship between E7 and F. The chords are actually III7-IV in C major. But the voice leading makes it work anyway.

The defining musical features of many songs owe their greatness, at least in part, to similar III7-IV voice-leading techniques.

“Imagine” by John Lennon, “Don’t Look Back in Anger” by Oasis, “Space Oddity” by David Bowie, and “The Air That I Breathe” by The Hollies all feature an E7 chord leading to F in the key of C. “The Way” by Fastball has C♯7 leading to D in the key of A, and “Interstate Love Song” by Stone Temple Pilots has G♯ leading to A in the key of E.

A few more examples don’t necessarily involve a dominant 7th chord. Look for similar lines, both chromatic (moving up or down in half steps) and diatonic (moving through the major scale), in the music you’re playing. Voice-leading techniques are easy to recognize when they happen in the bass part.

You can hear this progression in the opening to “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin. If you’ve ever wondered why these chords fit together so well, take a look at the chromatic bass line that moves down the 4th string.

[Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna]
Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna

Another clear example of voice leading in this bass part. Here, the bass line descends from A to E. Notice the half step movement from G to E. Led Zeppelin uses this kind of progression in the song “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” and The Beatles use something similar in their song “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

[Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna]
Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna

You see a similar descending chromatic bass line over the changes G-D/F♯-F-C/E-E♭ómaj7 in the verse of “Plush” by Stone Temple Pilots.

Hearing voice leading with the progression I-Imaj7-I7-IV is also fairly common. In C major, the chords are C-Cmaj7-C7-F, and they’re often connected with the descending chromatic line C-B-B♭ó-A — C from the C chord, B from Cmaj7, B♭ó from C7, and A from the F chord. Here the voice leading is internal, placed within the chords, not in the bass.

This example voices the chords with this line by moving along the 3rd string. You hear a similar chord progression in “Something” by The Beatles.

[Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna]
Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna

One final example is the progression I-Imaj7-I6-I, or C-Cmaj7-C6-C, in C major. Here, the voice leading is purely diatonic, that is, sticking with the major scale. These chords are linked together with the descending line C-B-A-G. “Jingle Bell Rock” by Bobby Helms connects its chords with a similar progression.

[Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna]
Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna
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