Conquering a Challenging Chord-D13b9

by Jamie Andreas

We had a post in the forum recently about a troublesome chord, the good old "D13b9" chord. This "altered" chord is used all the time in jazz, and so is very important to know, and to be able to do. It is a dominant function chord, meaning it will most often go to a I chord, and is itself a form of a V chord.

But, as usual, the problem was with handling the chord PHYSICALLY. The chord has 2 difficult aspects; a reach with 4 (2 frets), and a bar. It is the kind of chord that, if not handled or developed in the proper way, can cause a lot of problems in the way of crippling arm tension that will translate into crippled playing action in both hands. A lot of people have trouble with these kind of chords, so I wanted to give some insight into the best way to go about it.

The Bar

On first looking at the chord diagram, you would think that you are supposed to position your bar finger so that it only covers the 4th and 2nd strings. For many people, this assumption is the beginning of their trouble, because that is not our only option. In fact, that is not the best option either. It is much harder to use that short bar and still get the reach with the pinky. A better option is to use a more extended bar, even covering all 6 strings. Then, we will find it much easier to reach with the pinky.

We will also find it much easier to relax the arm in this position, and so allow the arm weight to be transferred to the fingers, greatly reducing our active effort.

The Pinky

Another question raised was whether to try to get the pinky on the tip, or to extend it so that it lands "flat" on the string. This is a common question because in The Principles, and many other sources, students are exhorted to always make sure the left hand fingers are on the tips, and not allowed to lay flat! Well, there are two reasons for that recommendation: 1) it is the best way to train fingers new to the guitar, and 2) we must have the possibility of a full range of motion from all our joints when we play. There are many playing situations where we must bend those last joints of the fingers (the distal joints), and they are often undeveloped in players who have flaws in their basic technique. We cannot train everything into the hand all at once, and so, emphasis on bending the distal joints is the best course of action in the beginning stages of left hand development.

It is so important to understand that the guitar, with its many styles, and types of instruments, gives rise to an incredibly diverse range of playing situations and demands, probably more than any other instrument. So, the idea of "there is only one way to do this or that", which rarely applies to anything in life, is never going to apply to guitar!

Force Transfer Vs. Reach

In doing this chord, we have a situation where we make a trade-off; we trade efficiency of "force-transfer" for reach, because reach is what we need. To make it clear, do this:
--make a fist and put it straight down on a table in front of you, and press as hard as you can, as if you were trying to push the table lower. If you bend your elbow, you will see that you concentrate more force in that one spot. In fact, you can even lean your body weight into your arm, and down through your fist, adding more force without active effort. Now, if you were to straighten your arm, and still attempt to concentrate your force in one spot, you would immediately see that you are now in a position of working harder, and getting less results! You can feel how you cannot bring as much force through your fist onto the table, nor can you use your body weight the same way. In fact, you can feel that it is an entirely different set of muscles being used. But, your straight arm would have the advantage of being able to reach further if it needed to.

The elbow and wrist joint in this example are working in the same way that the middle and tip joint of your finger works in the mechanical action of leveraging force to the strings. Our goal as players is not to rigidly adhere to one way or another of using the finger, but rather to understand the nature and implications of each way, and most importantly, to know when to use one way or another (and it could be different for different players in the same situation).

Developing Strength & Stretch

It is true that the ability to play this chord easily is a matter of developing skill and finesse in our approach to it, and in our hands. It is also true that it is a matter of developing plain old strength and stretch in the muscles and ligaments of the hand itself. And often, people fail in their attempts to develop these assets because they underestimate what it take to develop them. For instance, if you are working to develop this chord, or a similarly challenging one, you will not get very far if you only give it a try here and there when you happen to practice the piece or exercise containing it. No, a much more powerful and focused approach is necessary to develop strength and stretch.

Any time you have a problem of this nature, the chord should be practiced as an exercise, up and down the neck, in a few sessions of a few minutes each day, for weeks, or months. This is what it takes to conquer these problems. Taking potshots, here and there, will give victory to the problem, not to you!

It is also standard procedure amongst pros to make up related exercises that give a work out to weak muscles. In this case, as you do the chord up and down the neck in your daily routine, give the hypothnear eminence, the group of muscles that controls the pinky, and is located between the pinky and wrist on the pinky side of the hand, an extra workout. Do this by lifting the pinky up and down a few times at each fret as you go up and down. Make sure you stop and let the hand rest frequently when doing this kind of workout. There is no point in working to the point of pain.

Also, as Ney Mello, a player with a lifetime of experience, pointed out in the forum, pay attention to your breathing. Our first impulse is to hold our breath on things like this, and that is the kiss of death! The whole body tenses, and it is all downhill from there. Keep the breath flowing, and use (from The Principles) whole body awareness, rotating attention, and posing.

Should I Be Trying To Achieve This?

One final point: it was brought up in this thread whether or not the player having trouble with this chord should even try to make it work, or rather, should simplify the chord by leaving out the bass note. It was also brought up how it is often not even necessary to include the bass note, as in an ensemble situation, a bass player will be playing that low D, and guitar players get a better sound by leaving it out, rather than doubling it, which is true.

At this point, Ney stepped in to say that no, it should not be simplified, and players should develop this ability, and admonished everyone to not try to take shortcuts. That is true, and Ney knows, as I know, that it is often necessary for players to play that chord with the root, and also to do many other chords that make the same demands on the hand. So, there no getting around it.

But I think the point needs to be made that students, by virtue of limited experience, simply don't know when they are barking up the wrong tree, and when it would be wise to simplify or compromise, and when they should continue to plug away at something. Sometimes, they really don't know if they will ever get it, or if they really need to. And that is why we have teachers! There is no getting around the fact that there are some things that can only be learned by putting in the time, and sometimes that means many years. The wise student always seeks the advice of people who have been down the road. Who else can tell you what you will find down there!

This kind of thing goes on all the time in our forums, so I hope that anyone seriously interested in being the best they can be will take advantage of the many players we have who not only have this kind of hard earned experience, but are so generous in giving it out to people. We all love to see everyone get better! So, if you have never visited our forum, why not take a look!

The GuitarPrinciples Main Forum - aimed at showing players how to reach their next level of playing ability, no matter what level they are currently at. This is done by teaching how to practice to get results, by using the principles of correct practice for guitar. It is also the perfect start for beginners, because it shows how to begin learning the guitar without getting all of the usual bad habits.

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