Are open string guitar chords only used by beginners? Absolutely not! If you are a beginner, you’ll start the musical journey by learning how to play open string chords on the guitar, but you will continue to use them regardless of how proficient you become as a player. Simply put, open string chords never go out of style, and they may be preferred, depending on the type of music you play. If you’ve been playing for a while, you probably already know many of the chords included in this lesson, but I’m sure there are several that you haven’t learned yet. So, this lesson isn’t just for beginners!
The bottom line is that you must be able to play both open string chords and moveable barre chords to play effectively in all keys. Given the standard tuning for a guitar, open string chords work well for the keys that contain sharps and correspond to the string names (E, A, D, G, B), but they don’t work well, or at all, for any of the flat keys (F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, etc.) – the key of F, maybe. And, there are just some chords that are really awkward to play, or they don’t sound like you want them to, so barre chords are the best option. It has to be a ‘mix and match’ thing. Honestly, I rarely play Cm, Gm, Gm7, or Gmaj7 guitar chords in open positions . . .
The great thing about using open string guitar chords is the ease of constructing melody and moving bass lines, as well as intricate picking patterns. And, by using a capo, you can transpose a song up to accommodate your vocal range while using the exact same finger patterns. Would “Dust in the Wind” or “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” sound the same using only barre chords? Not even close. Well, maybe Chet Atkins could have done it . . .
My approach to learning guitar chords is this: If you know how to play major, major seventh, minor, minor seventh, and dominant seventh chords, you can play almost everything. Granted, many songs require using fancier, extended or altered chord voicings, but, if you don’t know how to play them, you can achieve almost the same sound by playing ‘slimmed down’ versions of the chords. For example, if a blues tune uses A9, D9 and E7#9 chords, you can substitute simpler A7, D7 and E7 formations. Will the seventh chords sound as good as the ninth chords? Well, no . . . but they work! As long as you keep chord families and qualities (major, minor or dominant) intact, you’ll get the same basic sound. And, when laying down rhythm tracks or playing with another guitarist, it’s often desirable to play chord voicings that complement each other.
The first set of chord diagrams (below) shows open string guitar chords that you must learn and memorize. Root notes are highlighted in light blue and optional notes are light purple. I recommend using the indicated fingerings, but depending on the chord progression and the specific voicings you prefer, you may need to alter them a bit. Facility of movement when changing chords is the primary goal! For example, if you’re playing a I, IV, V progression in the key of C major, it makes sense to keep your third finger on the G on the bottom string when switching from C to G. However, if you’re playing a D, Cadd9, and G progression as in “Sweet Home Alabama”, it makes more sense to use your first, second and third fingers to play the G chord.
You may also find that, although it’s correct to play the bottom string open for some open string chords, it might not sound very good. I follow a simple rule – unless you’re playing an E chord of some sort, or your finger is placed on the bottom string, don’t hit the low E string with the pick. That’s why I never hit the low E when playing open string A or C chord variations, even though those chords contain an E (with the exception of Cm chords, of course). But, as always, the choice is yours – if you like the sound, then play it!
Here are a few other tips to think about when practicing the following open string guitar chords:
- Position your fingers as close as possible to the upper edge of the frets.
- Keep your fingers curved and play on your fingertips to avoid inadvertently dampening an adjacent string.
- Play each chord note-by-note to ensure that each string resonates clearly.
- When changing between similar chord shapes, keep your fingers locked together and move them as a ‘block’.
- Practice ‘grabbing’ chords and avoid placing your fingers one-by-one.
- To maximize strumming and picking accuracy, use only your wrist and fingers. Try to avoid excessive and needless forearm motion. I suggest anchoring your little finger on the pick guard.
- Learn which notes are contained in each chord and pay attention to root locations.
The next set of open string chords for guitar represents great sounding chords that you’re likely to use often, but it’s not imperative that you memorize them right away. If you do, so much the better. You’ll notice that I’ve included several ‘sus’ chords in this section. So, what are suspended chords?
As you already know, most chords are built using tertian harmony (built in thirds) and contain the first, third and fifth notes of the associated major scale. However, suspended triad and seventh chords do not contain a major or minor third – the thirds are replaced by a perfect fourth. Just like dominant chords, suspended chords also have a strong tendency to resolve. For example, a Dsus4 chord contains the notes D, G, and A; the G wants to resolve back to an F#. A Dsus2 chord has the notes D, E, and A, and the E wants to move upward to the F#. Suspended seventh chords work the same way, and the fourth or second must resolve back to a third.
You’ll soon learn to recognize suspended chords when you hear them. Some classic examples are the intro to “Pinball Wizard” and “Needles and Pins” by the British Invasion band, The Searchers (that’s an old one, I know, but it’s a pretty cool tune.) Suspended chords are especially popular with folk and finger style guitarists, but they’re useful in all genres. One last note – if the chord symbol is Dsus, without a number, it implies a Dsus4.
The final set of diagrams shows how moveable/barre chord forms relate to their open string equivalents. With the exception of a few chords in the diagrams above, all of the open string guitar chords can be moved up the neck to accommodate playing in other keys – you’ll need to change fingering, though, and some require a bit of a stretch. The color code for the barre chord row shows which notes remain constant when moving to the next possible configuration as you move up the fret board.
I’ll never forget a comment that one of my guitar instructors made to me many, many years ago during our lesson. He wanted me to learn “Our Day Will Come” by Ruby and the Romantics – it was in the key of Eb and no one used dropped tunings in those days, so I couldn’t use open string chord forms. I had yet to master playing barre chords and I couldn’t play them to save my life, so I balked at his selection and requested that we learn a different song. He just looked me in the eye and said, “Well, we could pick a song that only uses ‘kiddie chords’, I suppose, if that’s what you have to do.” I cast my eyes to the floor and didn’t respond; but, I went home and learned how to almost play “Our Day Will Come” – it still sucked but it was better than it was the week before. To this day, I use that comment with my students when needed – the reaction is always the same.
The moral of the story is this . . . open string guitar chords are great, but they’ll only get you so far. Keep adding more building blocks to your musical foundation. Ideally, you should know how to play common, important chords in at least three positions on the fret board. Reviewing my previous lessons, “Chord Construction” and “How to Play Barre Chords” may come in handy, too – just keep adding “another brick in the wall”. Have fun with the new chords!