Here are 4 easy tips including chord progressions, voicings and techniques (sound + gear) to help you get started on playing neo soul on guitar.
- Learn all trial inversions
- Master some jazz chords
- Practice with selected songs
- Set up the right gear
1. How to make neo soul guitar chords
For beginners, the best way to start is to master the necessary chords that is needed for your playing.
Start by learning all the trials in every inversion of the 12 major keys. The below article is a good resource to help you get started in this area: https://online.berklee.edu/takenote/guitar-chords-101-triad-inversions-up-the-fretboard/
2. Learn jazz chords
Once you have the basic downs, it is time to get into the strumming and techniques.
Neo soul has its souls in R&B and jazz. As such, the guitar sound is not at the forefront but part of the overall music. This changes the way you approach your guitar playing.
In tradition guitar playing, playing full chords is normal and expected. In neo soul guitar playing, it is the reverse. You will always be playing a few strings at the right chords.
Knowing what these right chords are is the key. Here are some important chords you will need
2a. Rootless chords:
Most of us are used to having bass note as the root chord in our playing. In neo soul, we need to invert this habit and start to learn to play rootless chords.
The traditional way, although easier to visual and learn, limits our flexibility, which is needed in playing neo soul. It also limits our ability in playing tunes where the root is not the lowest voicing.
Below is an example of how to start practicing rootless chords, taking from jenslarsen.nl:
What the above does is to translate the usual II V I chord voicings into chords without the bass notes. It is simple to practice but gives a good start to mastering.
For more advanced examples and practices, check out this article: https://jenslarsen.nl/rootless-voicings-part-1-triads
2b. Minor chord extensions
One important characteristic of the neo soul is the use of minor chords. This is what gives the genre a very laid back and jazz like feel, without being 100% jazz based.
To start learning these, begin with 3 chord progression. These are easier to learn and can let you experience how it sounds like immediately.
Here is an example: E-B-A or 1-5-4 if you know the E natural minor scale as pictured below
So, practising these 3 chord progression simply means playing the minor chord on these 3 notes as pictured below.
This useful example is from hearandplay.com. If you want more 3 chord progression to practice, check out the rest of the article here: https://www.hearandplay.com/main/neo-soul-chords-minor-chords
2c. Chord alterations:
Chord alterations are meant to give dissonance to your playing, a characteristic that is common to neo soul. This is accomplished by relaxing the usual tension from a dominant chord. This tension comes from the desire for the sound to resolve into the dominant chord.
Most often than not, it is the seventh chord that has this behavior.
To learn how to relax this tension, you start by knowing what are the alterations. These are b9, #9, b5, #5, b13, #13. Below are how you should handle them.
- Lowered alterations (b9, b5, b13) resolve down one half step.
- Raised alterations (#9, #5, #11) resolve up one half step.
If you want more advanced steps in chord alterations, check out this article: https://music.tutsplus.com/tutorials/how-to-play-altered-chords-on-guitar–cms-19796
3. Start playing these songs
After learning some chords and playing styles, the best way is to apply them to a song for continuous songs. Here are recommended ones from ultimate guitar forum that are good to cultivate your neo soul playing:
- James Brown tunes
- Knock on Wood
- Dock of the Bay
- Soul Man
You can also select songs by these artists:
Artists to learn from: Lauryn Hill, Maxwell, D’Angelo. These artists have used lots of neo soul style in their music arrangement. Listen to them and you will learn a few tricks.
4. Best equipment setup for neo soul
Beside learning new techniques and chords, the gear you used can help to achieve this style of playing.
4.1 Best guitar for neo soul
The sound of neo soul is very close to jazz and R&B. As such, guitars that are used mostly for Jazz and blues will be the most suitable.
The best guitar for neo soul is the Squier Affinity telecastor. It has good clean tones suitable for this style of playing. Quality of finish is also great for its cheap price of $200+. Along with the right amp, it doesn’t take much for this guitar to produce neo soul sounds.
The most important elements you should look for are:
- Clean tone
- Thicker neck that makes it easier for you to play closer to it
Telecasters worked really well here since they have many of the above elements. Brands like Fender will make good choices. Specifically the Squier by Fender telecastor models are good. The best for me is the Affinity telecastor.
- Quality of finish is good considering the $200+ price tag
- Tone is nice after making some adjustments (see below)
- Shape of the neck has a thicker V shape
- Set up: Need to tune it up properly to bring out the best sound
- Neck fret pick up dirt: Due to the way it is designed, dirt from your hand tend to accumulate at the neck and need to clean regularly.
Protip:A way to select the right guitar is to copy what your favourite neo soul guitarist is using. If what they are using is too expensive, then go to youtube to see what people who are covering their songs are using.
4.2 Best amp for neo soul
For neo soul, having an amp to smooth out the harshness of the guitar sound is important. It is also important to have reverbs, lots of reverbs in fact. For such purposes, the Fender tube amps will make for a nice choice.
The best tube amp for neo soul will be Fender Blue Junior. Its EL-84 output tubes produces the R&B tones needed for such style of playing. Its real springs also provide lots of onboard reverb. With this amp, you are almost 70% in reaching the neo soul sound.
- Beautiful tones in highs and lows. Bass response is especially tight.
- Amazing clean tone under the clean channel and dirty/crunch sound on the overdrive channel
- Loud volume if you need the power
- Famous Fender real spring reverb sound
- Might not be suitable for bedroom practice
Learning to play the neo soul guitar chord needs lots of practice, especially if you have not been playing with jazz or r&b music. The simple exercises will help to get you started but you need more examples for advanced playing tips.