What do the songs “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”, “Wanted Dead or Alive”, and “Happy Xmas” (‘So this is Christmas…’) have in common? They all have instantly recognizable riffs, written using the same technique; chord fills. But what are chord fills exactly? How can we use them in our own playing? How exactly does love ‘shake all over like a jellyfish’? Keep reading for an answer to 2 out of these 3 questions.
(But first, a small anecdote)
Back when I was playing some of my first gigs, I was completely terrified of people knowing that I was a beginner (or a ‘n00b’, as the kids call it) (Or at least, as they called it 10 years ago. You young’uns Gen Z may use another word for that). So what I did was this: Whenever I heard someone talking about my inexperience, I would ask, “how can you tell that I don’t have much experience?” And usually the answer was something like: “you sounded like a beginner, and what you should have done is sound like you are not a beginner.” Of course! I should have known that the answer would be so simple. (But I was a beginner, so…)
But that leaves me with the question: How do I sound like I’m not a beginner, with the least amount of time and effort? (because really, who likes investing their valuable time and effort to get better at something? Talk about putting the cart before the …*ahem*… chords!) And what I discovered is there really was a way to play all the same, basic ‘cowboy chords’ that I knew, and turn them into something a little more interesting, professional, and ‘catchy’ sounding. And that technique is called “chord fills”. end anecdote
So what are chord fills exactly? Let’s take for example an open D chord on the guitar. For this chord, we play the open D string; 2nd fret on the G string; 3rd fret on the B string; and the 2nd fret on the high E string. To create a basic chord fill, we can change around the highest note of this chord (2nd fret of the high E string). The 2 most basic notes we can change to would be the 3rd fret on the high E, or the open high E string. For now, try strumming quarter notes on a D chord, and with every strum, move the high note of the chord to one of these options.
Sounds great right? If not, we might need to change around the rhythm we play these different notes to make it a little more interesting. Before then, let’s use an open A chord as another example. This chord normally has the B string held down on the second fret. So without moving any other fingers, try to change that note to the 3rd fret, or to the open B string.
Now, these are just a couple of examples we can use on an A chord and a D chord, we can of course try this on any open chord or even barre chords, just do a little bit of experimenting, try putting different random notes on top of a few chords, and you will be able to tell which notes work and which ones… aren’t as great.
You can find more played examples in this video:
Once you can do this on a few chords and you’ve found some combinations that you like, start putting chord fills into some songs you know, or even your own songs. You’ll be sounding more professional in no time :-)