Music Makes Sense, Connects And Shines
With The Clever Use Of Guide Tone Lines

A little bit of poetry is a good way to introduce the subject of guide tones because they are simply the backbone of harmony. They are the basis, heart and soul and meaning of every chord.

Let's have a closer look:

  • Guide Tones are always accompanied by, but separate from, the bass/root note.
  • They form the basic sound quality of the chord groups: Major, Minor, Dominant, Half Diminished & Diminished
  • Guide tones (GT) are made up from the THIRD and SEVENTH step of the scale they belong to.
    Guide Tones Ex 1
  • Major and Minor TRIADS are the only chord sounds that can be clearly defined by a bass note and 1 Guide Tone.
    Guide Tones Ex 2
  • All 4-note chords need at least 2 guide tones (plus the bass/root note) for the sound to be clearly established.
  • Depending on the quality of some chords, notes other than the seventh can be made "honorary" guide tones.
    Guide Tones Ex 3
  • Exception: To define the chord sound of m7b5 (Half dim) and Dim chords without any doubts, 3 guide tones are needed. This is really the whole chord apart from the root note.
    Guide Tones Ex 3
  • Note: Due to their simmetrical nature (minor third intervals between notes), diminished chords belong into their own little group.
    This is mainly because the scale they belong to is an 8-note scale called the diminished or Whole Tone - Half Tone scale.
    Guide Tones Ex 1 Dim

How To Use Guide Tones Effectively:

  • Background lines, on their own or combined with other notes (Ex 5)
  • They can be following 1 guide tone, both (2 part), or a mixture of the 2.
    This is determined mostly by which idea best enhances the melody and creates the most musical interest.
  • Best sounding, warmest register for backgrounds: D below middle C to G above middle C.
    Guide Tones Ex 5

  • Use instruments that sound great in that register like: Cellos, Violas, Clarinets, Trombones, Saxes etc.
  • The most natural way to use guidetones is when the chords move around the circle of 5ths anti-clockwise or from right to left.
  • Think carefully before using guide tones lower than D below middle C due to low interval limits and muddy sound.
    Guide Tones Ex 6

  • Use them in higher registers of course, with different sound qualities.
    Guide Tones Ex 7

  • They make a great basis for very strong background riffs when improvising.
  • Don't over-use them! Their strong "locking-the-chord-down" quality can become overbearing if not used with taste and common sense. (see Ex. 7 above)

Guide tones are present in every chord played in all styles of music unless chord sounds are created that omit 1 or both of them on purpose.
So there is a difference between this natural occuring use and creating actual linear musical background (or foreground) structures with them.
That kind of application of guide tone lines you will find most effectively and frequently in orchestral music from middle of the road pop music to jazz to the classics.
Listen to the string writing of Johnny Mandel, Claus Ogerman, the arrangements behind most well known jazz singers and many pop artists who have used orchestral sounding backings.

Here is a small taste of how the use of guide tone lines (combined with other notes) can enhance a piece of music, first in the comfortable mid register and then used up high:

To start, please listen to our short 16 measure tune from part 4 of the circle of 5ths page:

Now the same song with mid-register guide tone lines added:

Guide Tones Ex 8

NOTE: Mid-register guide tone lines (long note or rhythmic phrases) can be mixed into the background or brought out slightly as a secondary feature.

And here it is again with some high register lines:

Guide Tones Ex 9

NOTE: High-register guide tone lines are more likely to be treated as a secondary feature behind the melody.

Guide tones together with the circle of 5ths diagram
give you the tools to create music with strong
foundations, like a well built solid house.

Do you like what's here? Join "George's Combo" and always stay updated!

© all rights reserved - George H Brodbeck 2011

webdesign by GH Brodbeck