Open chords are something that many beginners strive to master, but after a while the basic shapes of these chords can become boring and stale, which will leave you looking for ways to spice up these chords. This can be done quite easily, but many guitarists don’t know where to start. My aim with this lesson is to break you out of your comfort zone and help you learn a few ways to make your chords more fun and interesting. ***By definition, an open chord is a chord that uses at least one open string, but for the sake of this article we will also say that only the first 3 frets are used.***
There are countless variations of open chords, but for 'How To Spice Up Your Open Chords - Part 1' we will focus on just 5 open chord shapes; G, C, D, E, and A. You'll notice that these are all major chords, but rest assured that minor chords will come in future instalments of this series. I'm going to keep this lesson simple and just offer you just a few embellishments of each chord shape, but in future lessons we will dive much deeper into what you can do to make even more interesting variations of these chords. With that in mind, you should already know these 5 basic chord shapes before you start with this lesson - G, C, D, E, and A.
Let’s start off the the G chord. There are two common ways to play the G chord: one with 3 fingers, and one with 4. Look at the picture below to see the difference. To make variations of the G chord, we are going to be moving our index finger to different strings (but keeping it on the same fret). This is a nice way to change the sound, but won't require much change in your approach except to mute out the A (5th) string. To mute the A (5th) string, let your middle finger lightly touch against the A (5th) string as it is pushing down on the 3rd fret of the E (6th) string. You should hear a 'dead' note if you pick the A (5th) string at this point. Try the examples below and see which ones stick out to you. Many of these variations will sound nice if you go back to a standard G chord right after.
The C chord is one of the most common chords out there, and it's a great idea to be able to do as much as you can with it. The first variation is going to be simply adding the pinky finger onto the 3rd fret of the F (4th) string. Your middle finger can remain in place, and this will now be considered a Csus4. Practice going from Csus4 to C to hear how this sounds.
The second variation is going to be called a Cadd9. You may have seen this chord before, but the most common is a version that uses all four fingers. For this example, you want to retain the C shape with your hand, but add your pinky finger onto the 3rd fret of the 2nd string. The 3rd and 4th variations are called C6add9, but are done in two different ways. For the first, retain your standard C chord shape, but move your middle finger down to the 2nd fret on the G (3rd) string (make sure to leave the D (4th) string open). The second version of C6add9 is going to be a different hand position. Your middle finger should be on the 3rd fret of the A (5th) string, your index finger on the 2nd fret of the G (3rd) string, and your ring finger on the 3rd fret of the B (2nd) string. Mute out the A (5th) string with your middle finger.
Next up is going to be the D chord. The most common variations are Dsus2 and Dsus4 (replacing the 3rd interval in the chord with the 2nd and the 4th, respectively). These are really nice sounding chords that work best if you go back to your standard D chord immediately afterwards. Try playing Dsus4, D, Dsus2, and then back to D. Sound familiar?
The next variation will take the index finger off of the G (3rd) string to get a Dadd11 chord. Follow this with a D6 by placing the pinky finger on the 4th fret of the G (3rd) string. Try playing D6, D, Dadd11, and then back to D. These are great ways to use these variations.
Now we're going to use our pinky finger (finger #4) to make some variations of the E chord. If your pinky finger feels weak, then it's even more of a reason to try these out. Play your standard E chord, but then add your pinky finger onto the 2nd fret of the G (3rd) string. This is called an Esus4, and it works perfectly if you return to E right after playing this. The next variation adds the pinky finger to the B (2nd) string on 2nd fret to make an E6 chord. The final variation adds the pinky finger to the E (1st) string on the 2nd fret to make an Eadd9. Try going between these variations and your standard E chord to see what you can come up with.
Finally, we're going to tackle the A chord. The first variation will simply take your finger off of the 2nd (B) string to leave it open. This is called an Asus2, and works the same as other sus2 chords. You should practice going between Asus2 and A. The next step is to try out an Asus4 by adding a finger onto the 3rd fret of the B (2nd) string. This also works great going back to the standard A chord. Practice going between Asus4, A, Asus2, and back to A. The final variation is an A6, which adds the 2nd fret of the E (1st) string into the mix. You can do this with all four fingers, or if you're like me, you can simply barre a single finger across all four strings that are used. This is a really nice chord to end a song with (if A is going to be your resolving chord).
I hope you had some fun working through these variations. We will tackle the minor shapes soon, and also get into some more advanced ways to embellish your favourite chords. The biggest thing here is to try to make up your own chord progressions using these variations so that you can hear for yourself how interesting these embellishments can really make a song sound. What can you come up with?
About the Author: Jason Wilford is the founder and owner of Pro Guitar Studio, which offers Guitar Lessons in Mississauga (Ontario, Canada).