Chords Vs. Voicings Vs. Function

If you’ve watched any of my videos, or any flamenco videos, or played flamenco at all, you’ve probably noticed that there’s about 8 billion ways to play that Bb chord por medio. This brings me back to when I was starting to take lessons in Spain and my teachers would never play the same thing exactly the same way twice in a row. Infuriating! Why not stick to the same chord?!

Not only that, but this is true about almost every chord in flamenco, but that Bb in particular seems to have more varieties than just about any other other chord. So what’s the deal?

The short answer is that there are a lot of chords that sound like a Bb. We say that their function is to be a Bb, even if you might look at the notes in the chord and call it something else. Anything that sounds like a Bb can function as a Bb, so in flamenco we generally refer to all of these chords simply as Bb, or A or whatever the chord is functioning as. It’s just a shorthand so you don’t have to learn all of the nerdy theory stuff (although plenty of nerds will also just refer to these chords as Bb, too, because at the end of the day the function is what really matters).

The best way to approach this if it’s all a little confusing is to not worry about the specifics and just learn a bunch of ‘chords’ that work as a Bb. Then do the same thing for other functions. Before you know it this will all start to make sense. A lot of amazing guitarists operate in this manner, so there’s no shame whatsoever in NOT learning the specifics.

Chords that function as a B FLAT

I’ve created a PDF of tons of voicings that we use Por Medio and Por Arriba and I’ve labeled each chord/voicing first by it’s function, and then by the name a jazz guitarist might give the chord. So “Bb (BbMaj7 #11, 13)” is a chord that functions as a Bb, and which would be analyzed as a BbMaj7, #11, 13. I would generally refer to this chord simply as Bb, and you can do the same.

If you want to understand a little more about the difference between chords and voicings and all that, I’ve done my best to explain some of this below. But it’s also OK not to care about any of this – it won’t make you less of a guitarist! Just look at the Flamenco Chords and Voicings PDF to see what sounds you like, and think of them in terms of their function, i.e. what they do in life.

If you still want to understand more, however, read on:

Chord VS Voicing

A chord is a theoretical construct. A C Major chord is three notes: C, E and G. But that doesn’t tell us anything about who is playing those notes. It could be 5 strings strummed on a guitar, or an orchestra with 8 Basses all playing the note C and various flutes and reeds and horns playing Es and Gs and the higher strings playing any combination, plus Timpani and triangles also in tune. It could be a guy on the moon with a theremin playing an E and two guys on Saturn with kazoos playing a C and a G. As long as there’s nothing but C’s, E’s and G’s it’s a C Major triad.

A voicing is a lot easier, in a way. It’s a particular way of expressing the idea of C Major. Like an open position C major on a guitar, with – from lowest note to highest – a C, an E, a G, another C and another E. We may have some doubled notes, but since they’re all either a C an E or a G our chord is till a C Major triad. Or it could be the version of C that’s barred at the 3rd fret, which sounds a little higher. Or the version that’s barred at the 8th fret, which sounds higher still. Some voicings will sound better than others in a given context, but they’re all C Major because it’s all Cs, Es and Gs.

So the big takeaway here is that there are a ton of different ways to play a C major triad (lots more than the three examples above), and that on the one hand they’re all the same chord, but the voicings will sound different – sometimes very different – depending on how they’re voiced, which is what we call choosing how to express a chord.

Chord VS Function (with as little theory as possible!)

The next step is a little bit tricky, so bear with me. Without getting into theory, the key you play in is basically a bunch of notes – a scale – and those notes form the universe you live in as you play (there are some guidelines about which notes to avoid, but we’re going to just sidestep this subject for now). And generally you can add the notes from your universe to the chords that you play while there. (And sometimes you can borrow notes from a different universe, too). This makes for some interesting (for better or worse) sounding chords that will work for your key. For this reason you can often add notes to your chords, giving you even more options for voicings. If none of this makes sense then just remember this: There are notes you can add to chords that give you a different flavor without changing the basic feeling of the chord, or what we call the chord’s function. But technically we have to change the name of the chord as we add other notes.

Function is the chord’s role in your universe. In the key of C Major, The note C and the C Major Chord are called the tonic, or home note/chord. So it’s function is to be the chord that the music resolves to. In this key the function of the G Major chord (whose 7th chord is G7 also known as G Dominant) is to make you want to resolve back home to C. Other chords have other functions, but these are the two simplest examples.

A Chord’s Job

It turns out that there are other chords that can do the same stuff – like make feel that you’re home or make you feel like you want to go to the home chord – and they’re said to have the same function as the C Major or the G7. So the function is like a chord’s job, whether or not that chord has the official title.

The upshot of all of this is that there are a lot of voicings, and even a few different chords, that we can use to do the same job. And for whatever reason, the way a guitar is tuned and the way the open strings interact with the Por Medio key just happen to give us a lot of options to play things that function like a Bb in open position. Also, because it’s such a common chord to play, guitarists will look for new ways to play it.

But what do we call them?!

I call all of them B FLAT

So the next weird thing is – what do we call all of these chords and voicings? On the one hand, I call all of them Bb, which is where the confusion starts. But the way I see it is that they’re functioning as a Bb, so that’s what I call them. And when I was first learning – long before I learned any theory or even to read music – that’s what everyone I learned from called them too. But often on the chord diagrams you’ll see a chord that’s acting like a Bb (its function) but that we call a G- something or other, or a Bb #11, 13. This all has to do with music theory and analysis, but because this can be confusing even if you do have some theory, I think it’s easiest to call all of them Bb. That’s the function of these chords, so that’s the simplest way to think of them.

If you like and understand the theory then by all means learn more about each voicing. Knowing, for example, that you like the sound of the 13 on a certain chord may help you come up with great voicings on your own. But you can still learn which chords function as (which is another way of saying that they sound like) Bb and leave it at that. If you apply this concept to all of the functions you run into – chords that function as a Dm, a C a Bb or an A to start if you’re playing Por Medio – you will hopefully be less confused next time I say Bb and play a voicing you haven’t seen before.

Watch the Video & Get the PDF

This is all lovely reading material, but maybe you’d prefer to watch the video? Check it out below…. And get the .PDF here.