Book Review: Voicing Modes – A Chord Voicing Approach to Hearing and Practicing Modes by Noel Johnston

I love books on harmony. To me, harmony is all about learning colours and expressing an emotion or mood from the sound. Studying with Mick Goodrick, Jon Damian, Steve Rochinski, Bret Willmott, Tim Miller and John Stowell were real highlights to my musical development because they all taught me different ways of expanding my harmonic knowledge. Discovering Noel Johnston’s book is another highlight of recent times.

This 157-page book contain a multitude of modal voicings, concepts, fingerings, scales and etudes that can help the inquisitive guitarist to go beyond their staple stacked 4th voicings or inversions from the 60s modal jazz era. When I listen to what Noel has compiled here, I hear evocative sounds that I’ve heard from composers like Maria Schneider & guitarists like Ben Monder, John Aebercrombie, Mick Goodrick and Bill Frisell. It may not very well be the exact same voicings that these people use but it certainly in the same ballpark.

Instead of a typical modal voicing book that goes into Dorian sounds, Noel decided to begin with an exploration of Phrygian voicings that are usable in different Phrygian mode variants like G Phrygian, G Phrygian Dominant, G Phrygian natural 6, G Double Harmonic Major and G Mixolydian b2. After sharing some voicings and arpeggio fingerings, he includes two etudes demonstrating the musical context of these sounds.

Then, he goes into Aeolian modal voicings and what he calls the “Magic 6th” voicing , following the same format. Etudes on Stella by Starlight, All The Things You Are, Giant Steps and Blue Bossa help internalise the use of these modal voicings as substitutions within a standard tune context.

Following that, Noel includes a Reference section with:
a) melodic voicings (standard use voicings harmonizing top notes that spell out the respective modes within a functional context)
b) The 7 Major modes, 7 Harmonic Minor modes and 7 Melodic Minor modes
c) other scales and ideas

At this point of the book, it becomes a more Mick Goodrick type resource where he leaves the reader to explore the sounds that you’re interested in.

My experience using the book:
For me, the most important thing is to really dig into the first half of the book to understand the concept he introduces. The voicings, arpeggios and etudes are really important to be played. I find that when I finally started to have an intuitive feel for the material, more ideas started to open up. Then, I could see the possibilities for future usage of the book for my own music, composition, improvisation and reharmonization.

Here’s a great video from Noel introducing the basic concept covered in the book:

Pros: A lot of content, a lot of ideas and examples. Did I mention a lot of content? 🙂
Cons: Some the explanations may require many repeated readings to make sense. This is pretty complex stuff. There are typos in some of the tablature and diagrams (sometimes the numbers in the guitar neck diagrams appear to refer to the fingering and sometimes it’s for the function of the note). The typos I spotted were when it appeared to fix fingering and function in a single diagram. Not sure whether this was just in my edition of the book & whether this has been fixed in the new 2.0 edition.
TLDR: Are you a harmony geek? Do you already know you standard shell voicings, drop-2, drop-3 and 3 + 4-part quartal voicings? Wanna more color in your life? Get this book. If what I just wrote doesn’t make sense to you yet, get The Chord Factory by Jon Damian (Berklee Press) or Creative Comping by Daniel Davis (KJOS Music Company) first. Those will help get you up to speed.

How to Buy:
To buy & check out samples of Voicing Modes – A Chord Voicing Approach to Hearing and Practicing Modes, go to the official page here: http://www.noeljohnston.com/voicingmodes.php

Note: I bought this book. This was not a complimentary copy. It was totally worth the 10 bucks.

[Read more Book Reviews]

Book Review: Between the Voicings by Hristo Vitchev

Book Review: The Outside Sounds and Substitutions of Modern Saxophonists for Jazz Guitar by Kevin Miller

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