Designing a "voicings/chord shapes" feature

I’ve been working on offering a new band setting: a way to specify which chord shapes you want to hear the guitar using for a particular song. I’ve got a lot of unresolved questions about how to design the feature so I am hoping to get some feedback about it.

“Show and tell” is going to be much easier than trying to write things out in this case, so check out the video I made:

Some open questions that were in the video:

  • What language should I use in the interface to convey what I demonstrate in the video? How do terms like “shapes”, “voicings” and “positions” come across to you? How about compound terms like “root shape” (or “root chord shape”) and “playing position”? Any other terms that come to mind that may be a better fit?

  • What kind of visualization would make sense to you in terms of conveying which chord shapes will be used for which keys? Here’s a very rough sketch of something I was thinking of, but figuring out how to label it or otherwise show people what it means has been challenging:

  • Do you think it’d be better to have a handful of options in a dropdown (“option 1” in the video) or let folks select any set of chord shapes (“option 2”)? Is there a third option that might be preferable? (UPDATE: See the Option #3 that I posted the next day)

Well, that’s some of what’s been kicking around in my brain – if any feedback or opinions arise, please hit reply!


Also, one thing I didn’t mention in the video is that this settings panel will also let you choose between the G chord shape that has the open B string and the “power chord” G with no thirds. That option will be below the main shapes/voicing selection and will probably be just a simple checkbox or dropdown. I’ll probably have an option to use drop D tuning for D shapes as well, because that sounds fun. Maybe even a way to have Strum Machine automatically use Cadd9 chords when in G position. I was exploring these ideas in this sketch – see the red underlines, which denote the dropdown menus for these G and D options:

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One word you didn’t mention for describing this stuff is inversions. For folks that don’t play guitar but do play piano, that might be more informative. As a not-great guitar player (I’m a fiddler, mainly, and after that, a uke player, followed by piano for composition purposes), I found the picture above (in your visualization bullet) most useful, because it makes clear that the capo would range from none to fret 4.

I understand your desire to put everything for a chop sheet into the “band” settings but wonder if this is the best way to think about it. For the guitar players I work with, esp when considering a song, we usually settle on a particular key fairly quickly, and if I was going to switch keys (unless its up a 5th or down a 4th and the melody lies in a convenient place), it’s often “starting over again” in terms playing the tune, and what voicing I (or the backup player) would prefer. Some tunes just “belong” to a particular key, so few would chose to move it.

One simplification would be to use your default setting for a given song unless a user selects something different, and then it would be for that key alone. If switching to another key, a brief dialogue could say “custom capo choice used for key ” no longer active.

I use strum machine heavily, mainly for composition and scratch recording. The ability to customize bass note choice to chord is crucial to me, as are some of the chord extensions. One thing I’ve missed is the power chord option, which I’m glad to see is being considered.

For me, a much bigger drawback than being able to specify chord voicing is not being able to specify what bass notes I want to hear when I wish them to replace a strum (important note: this would NOT require you to use AI or whatever to come up w some bass note runs–the user could specify bass notes at a level of eighth note resolution using something like the slash notation you already provide, except in this case, the bass notes would replace any strum).

Not being an advanced guitar player, I don’t understand the “Cadd9” position option you’re considering.

In the video, I find the pictures of the chord forms more useful than just the note names.

As a power user and computer scientist, I have quite a few other observations that relate to ease of use of SM and would be happy to Zoom with you at some point if you’re interested.

Thanks for such a wonderful product, and I was delighted to hear in past posts that you wish to avoid the black hole of awfulness that was Band in a Box. Adding features for a wide range of users is difficult. I appreciate your hard work.


Option 2 looks user friendly…visually showing the chord diagrams for the user to choose their chord shapes and location on the neck from would be very handy! You might even have a feature where you click on the diagram and the user can “hear” what it will sound like before they select it and use it in their song.

You are doing a great job Luke!!! It just keeps getting better and better : )

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Ha ha. Many moons ago I asked you about chord inversions. Like others I like the chord diagrams best. For terminology, your users are musicians, so stick to simple: root, 1st inversion, 2nd inversion. Just in case somebody’s a noob, you can have their explanation in a help popup.

As a banjo player, my banjo is usually tuned to open G: gDGBD. When playing with a fiddler I’ll probably capo at the 2nd fret, sometime at the 4th. I also use Sawmill tuning (gDGCD Gsus4), as well as gDGAD, gCGCD. I might capo at the 2nd or 4th, depending. For capping I just change the key up a step or two. I’m not sure how your voicings concept would work with that. However, what I would find useful is to be able to have a voicing for a section, different from the rest of the song, for some spice. For example, changing the voicing would work for when I play a section up the neck. My brain fuzz maybe.

By the way, you know me. Feel free to reach out to me and bump things off of me for feedback.

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Thanks Luke! I am agreeing with Robert. Inversion/s seem to be the term I hear the most when practicing/playing the banjo. Perhaps qualifying the chord/s needed (e.g. “power” etc.) would make things a little more accurate. The diagrams are an excellent visual aid, but what happens if someone does not play guitar (unlikely on SM, but who knows?). As you probably know, TablEdit has a fretboard feature, would that make things more complicated or easier to picture? As banjo players know, jumping between inversions for back up is quite common, but maybe that is too granular. Love the newsletter.

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This is all great! Thank you everyone for your thoughtful feedback, which inspired me to explore another option (option #3 I guess):

  • Focuses on the preference for the current key; options for configuring the rest of the keys are at the bottom.
  • Visual display of not only the chord shape but the capo position as well.
  • Leans into the term “position”.

Here’s the thing with the term “inversions” – that certainly fits when talking about up-the-neck chords (on guitar, banjo, mandolin, etc.), and of course piano, where as you go up the neck/keyboard you drop notes from the bass and add them an octave up (“inverting”) as defined on Wikipedia.

But if we’re choosing between, say, an open A chord or a G chord on the second fret, we’re going to still have most of the same notes, and more importantly the same bass note. That’s why I think a term like “position” or “voicing” makes more sense, as “inversion” implies a non-root bass note (like D/F#, which is the first inversion of D).

@MauroDanielRossi - There are plenty of non-guitar players on SM, actually. In any case, I’m trying my best to make this understandable to everyone but I know that’s impossible… but the good thing is that this is an advanced feature that can freely be ignored.

@RobertBiggs - I wasn’t thinking this would be something you would change on a section-by-section basis, since people don’t generally switch capo positions mid-song… but perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to offer that anyway, as long as I’m adding the ability to override any band setting on a section/measure basis.

@BelindaThom - Btw there is a power chord option in SM now. It’s the “5” button in the Chords menu (or your 5 key). Cadd9 sounds like this and is commonly used for the 4 chord in bluegrass as well as pop music. Kind of has a sus2 feel. I’m not sure if or how I want to stick this in the UI yet. Might be a different customization panel.

What do y’all think of the latest mockup (including the text)?

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OK Luke. I like that fretboard diagram but I think you need to flip the pics horizontally I don’t think I’ve every see a fretboard display that way before. They always seem to be the other way around.
And, if it’s capo for getting the sound, then I wouldn’t expect to have it in a section. That would require some capo fu that only a grand master would have. :wink:


Haha, I just showed this to my wife and she said the same thing. Here’s what flipping the pictures would look like:

I updated the post above… to anyone else seeing this later, here’s what I had before:

I guess my thinking was that this is how you’d see the chords if you were looking at someone playing guitar across from you in a jam. Curious if anyone else feels strongly one way or the other…

I guess here’s the third option, for completeness:

I mostly see these diagrams vertical, of course, but that would make the menu kinda big… but maybe I’ll explore that next.


Maybe I could go vertical after all:

A bit more vertical space taken up, but not that much. I could show fewer frets in most situations as well, and could probably squish the diagrams even more as needed.

To me this seems like a clear winner, but let me know if you prefer one of the horizontal layouts!


No strong feeling, but I like the horizontal. More like what I see when looking down at the neck of my guitar.

I was discussing the nomenclature for chord shapes, capos and such with my wife this morning. She’s not a musician, but did take dobro lessons at one point, so kinda gets the problem.

Her answer? Tell Luke that he has high courage to present this dilemma, admitting to non-perfection and finite knowledge.

My answer, sort of. From banjo days, I think of the root chords as those shapes played as far down the neck as possible, and called them “chord shapes.” For instance, on a guitar, I can play a C in the first fret (2nd string) and so on, called primary/basic/normal/natural…, or a “5th fret C” with a G’s "chord shape.

	Limit SM to choose from these Root Chord Shapes f(i.e., the chords I can play)

SECOND Listen:
In English, to an advanced beginner:

“You can choose the key you want to hear the song to be played in; AND limit chord shapes to those you know using a capo.”

The band settings must produce the chosen sound key, but only use Chord Shapes from a list of keys capo’d up if necessary–minimum capoing.

“Voicing” is NOT intuitive to me. “Alternative Capo’d” “Up the Neck” “Capo’d Chord Shape”

“Root Chord Shapes” to choose from, does seem natural to me. "Root Chord Keys That I can Play the I,IV,V,VI Chord Shapes.

In the e.g., I’m assuming that SM will choose the capo’d shape key to minimize the amount of capoing. Could choose E at the 5th fret; how does it choose?

Maybe “Root Chord Shapes for SM to Choose From” could be something like:
That’s all I got. I’m sure I’m not understanding it completely. I had to do something like this for my singer’s key choice excel app. Nothing as elegant as you are doing!

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Actually, yeah, better vertical

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Hey Luke,

Here’s the 3 chord shapes on the banjo. Just for your edumacation.

We usually refer to them as root, barre and trey. People who don’t know much music theory usually refer to the root shape as the F shape, and the trey shape as the D shape. In my head these shapes have always been root, 1st inversion and 2nd inversion. I don’t know, maybe I’m the weird one.

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@RobertBiggs I picked up the banjo 25 years ago (my banjoversary was last week, now that I think of it!) so I’m very familiar with those closed chord shapes! I’ve always thought of them as F, D, and barred shapes, but you’re right, they’re a perfect example of root, 1st inversion, and 2nd inversion. I’ll keep this in mind for when I add banjo to Strum Machine. :wink:

@PeteA Thank you so much for all of your comments on the wording. That will definitely be helpful.

The band settings must produce the chosen sound key, but only use Chord Shapes from a list of keys capo’d up if necessary–minimum capoing.

That’s a good way of putting it. I’m trying to side-step the issue somewhat in my latest mockup, though, by asking them explicitly which root chord shape they want to use for the key they’re currently in, rather than specifying a list of keys. (The list is still at the bottom for other keys, but it’s secondary.)

You mentioned you like horizontal… do you prefer the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd mockup in the post above? I’m guessing the 1st, right?

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I personally prefer horizontal w the nut facing to the left (might make the left-handed banjo players unhappy LOL)

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I agree with Belinda (above). The images with the tuners (nut) to the left. For a right handed player, that looks most like the real thing. Somewhere, I saw some images rotated a bit (10% maybe) which gave a 3D tilt.

SO cool that you’re working this. AND, I couldn’t have really understood the problem w/o your 8 min video!

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I prefer the vertical orientation because it is consistent with how guitar chord diagrams are presented in all standard sheet music and tablature. The horizontal format is typically used to show scale patterns in the various educational materials I’ve seen over the years, but it’s not bad. I just think it makes sense to follow the standard presentation for chord diagrams. Also, showing just one fret behind the capo and a number next to the capo can reduce the height of the diagram considerably for capo positions higher up the neck


I went with a vertical layout in the end, mostly because it worked the best with some other UI elements I introduced for fine-tuning voicings (e.g. G chord with or without the B string fretted at the third fret). I’m really happy with how it turned out.

Still working on wrapping up this next beta, which turned out to be a much bigger (and more exciting!) update than I’d originally planned, but I can’t wait for y’all to be able to play around with it. It’ll either come out by the end of the month or sometime in mid-April.