I’m a long time student and teacher of tango guitar. This series of articles is for tango guitar students and guitarists interested in pursuing tango. Contact me for more information on lessons and workshops.
This month we’re going to wade into the vast waters of harmony. Many guitarists will already have a working knowledge from studying classical, jazz, or rock. For those folks, I’ll point out some characteristics of traditional tango harmony. For those who have less experience, fear not – I’ll show you where you can start.
Once we combine harmony with rhythm (see guitar blog 4 for rhythm), we’ll have the basis for tango accompaniment.
Here are 6 thoughts for approaching tango guitar harmony:
Understand basic chord functions
No matter what your background, you probably have some idea about the chords that occur naturally in a major or minor key and how they relate to each other. Even if you need to brush up on these concepts you can do so in the context of learning tango. You’ll want to work with a teacher and make sure you understand how basic chords function within a piece of music.
Learn to read chord symbols
Today’s tango musicians use the same international system of chord symbols that jazz and rock musicians use. If you’re unfamiliar here’s a helpful article. Most English-speaking musicians know this system, and refer to chords and notes using the letters A-G. If you’re going to be working in Spanish I’d recommend that you learn the solfege names as well (do-re-mi). You’ll use both, of course, because Spanish-speaking musicians write using international chord symbols A-G, cifrado americano, and refer to them in speech using solfege names do-re-mi etc. In that context you’ll write ‘Gm’ and say sol menor, a challenge that will keep your brain nimble!
Tango is more diatonic than jazz or Brazilian music
In general, the language of traditional tango is more diatonic and triad-based that jazz. Of course you can dress up your arrangements with jazz harmony, but it’s important to understand that when you do so, you’re making a specific choice. For example, a traditional tango musician will usually not substitute a maj7 chord for a simple triad for the tonic in a major key. Similarly, we usually do not substitute a min7 for the tonic in a minor key. If that was confusing to you, here’s the takeaway: when starting out, stick to basic major, minor, and seventh chords and you’ll be on your way.
Learn the fretboard
It’s really important to know how to get around the guitar. For every chord you learn, work on memorizing at least two (maybe three) places to play it. If this is a new idea, here’s a great way to expand your knowledge: for every chord, find and memorize a position with a root on the 6th, 5th, and 4th strings. It’s also very important to see the patterns that chord shapes have as they progress up and down the fretboard. For years guitar teachers have used the CAGED method to illustrate this concept. It’s worth checking out here.
Key signatures are more ‘classical’
Tango was developed on guitar, violin, bandoneón, and piano. Unlike jazz, where brass and wind instruments are central, tango does not traditionally use many ‘flat keys.’ While you will see Eb and Ab, those keys generally appear as the relative major keys to Cm and Fm. While it’s always good to learn to play in all 12 key signatures, in tango we can concentrate on a smaller number, about 6 or 7.
Learn characteristic chord progressions
There are a few sequences of chords that pop up all over tango repertoire and it’s helpful to notice them and memorize them. Doing this increases your familiarity with the language of tango and it also makes it easier to memorize songs. Can you point out one of the ‘classic tango’ chord progressions?