What is Voice Leading and How Does it Relate to Guitar?

In this lesson, we are going to discuss what ‘voice leading’ is and how it relates to guitar playing.

What is Voice Leading?

Voice leading, in very general terms, is about how you move from one chord to another. To best understand the concept, it can help to break it down into two very general subcategories – ‘good voice leading’ and ‘poor voice leading’. Keep in mind that these categories are very general and we are using them as a way of better understanding the overall concept. After all, ‘good’ is largely a matter of taste and is hard to quantify.

Good Voice Leading

Let’s look at an example chord progression, where no deliberate attention has been given to good voice leading. Let’s assume that we have a chord progression that goes like this:


If we were to use root 6 bar chords, we could simply play the chord progression like this:


That would by no means be an incorrect way to play the chord progression. In fact, it might be a perfect way to play it in certain styles but…

What is the Highest Note Doing?

When we play a chord, the highest note (pitch-wise) of the chord stands out a little bit more than the others. Therefore, when we play a chord progression, one way to ‘voice-lead’ tastefully is to give the highest note of each chord in a chord progression a sense of connectedness from one chord to the next. If that confuses you, let’s look again at the example chord progression, where we used bar chords. If we reduce each chord to only its highest note, we get the following:

2-5-1-VoiceLeading01 highest note

As you can see, there does not seem to be any attention paid to the way in which the upper note of each chord moves from one chord to the next. The most obvious way to apply the guidelines of good voice leading is to make the interval small, from the highest note of one chord, to the highest note of the next. This does require a good knowledge and repertoire of chords and theory, which is something that we won’t be covering in this lesson, but using the following chord voicings, we could play the same chord progression like this:


Again, if we looked at just the highest notes in each chord, it would look like this:

2-5-1-VoiceLeading01 highest note

As you can see (and hear, if you’re playing the exercises), the uppermost notes move very smoothly and orderly from one chord to the next.

Why Is This Important?

Remember that the above is just one example of ‘good voice leading’. While there are general principles that serve as good guidelines (such as using small intervals between chord changes), ‘good voice leading’ is largely a matter of taste. You can find extensive theory on voice leading ‘rules’ if you want, but the goal of this lesson is mainly to make you aware of the general concept and get you thinking about how you connect chords. Let’s look at another example, using the same chord progression that we used before. In this example, the highest note will move downwards in pitch through the same chord progression:


Highest notes…

2-5-1-VoiceLeading02 highest note

This is a good demonstration of how voice leading decisions are not entirely dictated by the chord progression itself. With every chord progression, there are many voice leading options, depending on what you want to achieve. It’s also important to understand that we have focused on the highest note of every chord, because on the guitar, the highest note is quite noticeable. In general music theory however, voice leading principles can be applied to any voice of the chord (such as the bass note, for example).

Applying Voice Leading to Scales and Arpeggios

While we have used chords to introduce the concept of voice leading, in reality, it is probably more commonly applied (intentionally or unintentionally) to scale/arpeggio playing when it comes to the guitar. Again, this is a generalization, but good voice leading with scales and arpeggios is also about smooth transitioning over chord changes. Essentially, we are still trying to achieve the same goal as before (when playing chords) but now we are playing individual notes over a chord progression. Let’s do some examples for illustration. We will use a chord progression of A7, D7, E7:

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A7-D7-E7 progression

We are going to look at two examples using arpeggios. In both examples, the notes that we are most concerned with are the notes that transition from one chord to the next (circled in red):


As you can see, the transitioning notes are quite ‘connected’. This gives the exercise a sense of control and flow. We can apply the same principles to scales. Let’s do two more examples using the mixolydian mode for each chord.

A7-D7-E7-Mixolydian Example1circles
A7-D7-E7-Mixolydian Example2circles

As you can see, while each chord changes, the mode used changes also, but the transition between each change is seamless, because of ‘good voice leading’ techniques. Again, these general principles are guidelines only. Sometimes, using large intervals when changing from one chord to another might be desirable, depending on the effect that the improviser/composer wants to achieve, but the most important thing you can get from this lesson is to develop an awareness of voice leading, and experiment with using it in your playing, when transitioning from one chord to the next. A tell-tale sign of an inexperienced player is when it sounds like he or she is ‘resetting’ whenever a chord change occurs. Experienced players can play over chord changes tastefully by creating a sense of connectedness and seamlessness.

There are many techniques and tips that could be discussed in regards to applying everything that we have covered to practising. But that can be for another lesson. The main purpose of this lesson is to introduce you to the general concept of voice leading, as it is a very important topic. Many exercises and studies on this site have been constructed good voice leading in mind, such as the following:

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