Guitar Voicings in Pop-Rock Music: A Performance-Based Analytical Approach

Tim Koozin, University of Houston

This paper presents an approach that integrates guitar tablature and harmonic transformational theory to map transformational paths of motion through fretboard locations on the guitar. Hand positions and motions are shown in relation to harmonic, rhythmic, and formal patterns prevalent in pop-rock music. Similarity, proximity, and relative degrees of effort are observable qualities in basic actions of guitar playing that can be related to other more fundamental elements of human behavior. Through this approach, guitar-based pop-rock songs can be understood as realizations of embodied human actions that are idiomatic to guitar playing and powerfully resonant with other actions basic to human experience.

Guitar fretboard topography and the rhythmic actions of guitar playing are significant performative elements that have not been fully considered in studies of harmony and rhythm in pop-rock music. A focus on patterns of physical motion in guitar playing will show that chords and figurations characteristic of pop-rock music can be understood as instances of more generalized hand position shapes and motions indexed to intervallic distances on the fretboard. The "fret-interval type" is introduced as a measure of fretboard hand position, providing a kind of prime form expression of guitar tab information. Coordinating fretboard location with harmonic transformation provides information about the physical actions that move through pitch voicings and hand positions, forming specific embodiments of transformation. In this way, harmonic, motivic, and formal elements in songs may be viewed as a kind of "composing out" from fundamental idiomatic actions of guitar playing. Chord patterning, riff structure, extended chords, and alternate tunings are each explored to show how embodied actions leverage the guitar's inherent design to project effective voicings.

Guitar voicings will also be considered as agents of cultural meaning that may combine to project stylistic tropes within songs. Like all musical materials, patterns of guitar voicing are socially constructed and possess a history of use, providing a means to organize musical actions that may project powerful cultural references and associations.