In doing some musical web-surfing I’ve stumbled upon several articles regarding the Steely Dan Mu Major chord. Being a big fan of the Dan, and a jazz guitarist, it’s certainly a harmony I’m familiar with, yet I find it fascinating that a cluster of notes commonly found in jazz years before Can’t Buy A Thrill should garner such interest, particularly from guitar players. Perhaps it’s because rock guitarists need to re-think their approach to voicing these chords.
Let’s look at the characteristics of rock guitar chord voicings. Be they common bar chord forms, power chords, major and minor triads on sets of 3 or 4 strings or 1st position voicings using open strings, rock guitar chord voicings almost always contain a root and 5th, with one or both often being doubled [or even tripled]. Even 7th or 9th chord voicings include the root and, sometimes, the 5th.
Essentially, the Steely Dan Mu Major chord, as found in their earlier work [up to and including Katy Lied], is a major triad with the major 2nd added and voiced closely with the 3rd. The inclusion of this major 2nd interval poses fingering problems for guitar players. If we think in terms of reducing these to 3 note voicings, however, the mu major not only becomes playable [with a finger stretch], but opens us up to many other harmonies.
Let’s take, for example, a simple G major triad, voiced G B D from low to high, on strings 4, 3 and 2. By stretching the 4th finger to A on the 7th fret [replacing G] we have a mu major root position voicing minus the G root. This voicing can also be played on strings 3, 2 and 1 [10th position].
It is possible to voice these mu major triads in first and second inversion. In first inversion, on strings 4, 3 and 2 [B D G], replace B with A, D with B and retain the G. In 2nd inversion, same strings [D G B] replace the G with A. Root position is the voicing we typically find in the music of Becker and Fagan, however.
These 3 note voicings are extremely versatile. As we’re now relying on the bass player to sound the root of the chord, our voicings can serve different functions. For example, our root position G mu major chord functions as the Imaj chord in the key of G when our bass player plays G. However, with E in the bass, it can sound like Em11 [E A B D]. In fact, this chord can assume different functions with almost any bass note in the key of G, and with some non-diatonic bass notes as well.