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Confused about Chords

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Honorable Member
Joined: 15 years ago
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Rather than go on about how I got to where I am going to transcribe the discussion I had with one of the voices in my head which I've named Herbert.

"So we're going to play Working Class Hero by Green since its only 3 chords. The chords are Am G and D" says Herbert
"Ok easy enough." I answer.
This is where I go to strum the chord Am and Herbert cuts in. "Oh no no no! You have to put a capo on the second fret!"
A pause then I say "I don't understand. The tab says Am G and D. Those are all open chords, what do I need the capo for? And I don't know how to fret theses on the 2nd fret."
Herbert says "Well you actually fret the chords the same way you normally would but on the second fret instead."
An even longer pauses occurs, "But what you describe isn't Am G and D, it's Bm, A and E."
"Yes! But you use the normal open chord shapes since the tab says there is a capo."
"But the tab doesn't give chord frettings or any mention of that. I'm just supposed to assume?" I ask with my voice increasing in frustration.
"Fine. We'll roll with it. What's the next song?"
"It's Where Did You Sleep Last Night by Nirvana. Only 4 chords. No capo but its down a half step."
"Sweet!" I say throwing my hands up in excitement. "What's the first chord?"
"Its Em."
"So you want me to barre it then? Can't I just tune the guitar back to standard and not barre it?"
Herbert gives me the stink eye. "Don't start this again!"
"Ok last song, Open Your Eyes by Alter Bridge. No capo and the tuning is D A D A D D. The first chord is D5."
"Ok think I'm getting it now. So I fret it like any other D5?"
"No." Herbert says, "you just strum the strings open!"
"But based on our previous discussions should the tab say Em11 since that's what the open strings are in standard?"
"No in this tuning you just play the D5 with all strings open."
"But the last two songs the tabs had alternate tunings and you told me to play as if I was in standard and now for this one....oh sod this I'm going back to my Xbox!"

Seriously though, anyone find this perplexing?

"In what, twisted universe does mastering Eddie Van Halen's two handed arpeggio technique count as ABSOLUTELY NOTHING?!" - Dr Gregory House

Reputable Member
Joined: 13 years ago
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What, you want more?

Famed Member
Joined: 16 years ago
Posts: 3995

It is the basic problems with the tabs and internet. I suffer it almost every day (no with guitars and music but the discussion could be quite equivalent).

Be patience (and recommend him a David's or NoteBoat's book).

Illustrious Member
Joined: 19 years ago
Posts: 4921

When you re-tune an instrument, there are two different ways you can handle the notation:

1. Write it in actual pitch.
2. Write it as if the instrument was in standard pitch.

The "Open Your Eyes" example uses the first type. The sound you produce is a D5, so that's what's written.

The other examples are the second type, which is called scordatura notation (scordatura is Italian for "mis-tuned"). In "Working Class Hero" the first chord is Bm, but it's fingered (and therefore written) as if it's Am. In the Nirvana tune the first chord is Ebm, but it's fingered (and written) as if it was Em.

If you want to make sure you're not misunderstood, the score should say "scordatura" followed by the tuning. For the Green tune it would say "scordatura F#BEAC#F# (standard capo 2nd fret)", and for the Nirvana "scordatura EbAbDbGbBbEb". Including the word scordatura would tell a classically trained musician that the notes then indicate fingerings, not pitch.

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Eminent Member
Joined: 11 years ago
Posts: 18

The standard I see most often on internet tabs/chords is to list everything in terms of chord shapes. When I write these up for my own use, I typically change them so that songs using capos are shown as chord shapes and songs played with retuning are shown with the actual sounding chord, and make a note of the chord shapes used when retuning. For example, my write-up of Nirvana's Where Did You Sleep Last Night? is written with the first chord as Ebm and three notes (=notifications) on the top showing the chord shapes to use depending on how you plan to play the notes (you can use a capo or retune). I play this song with a capo at the first fret and a standard Dm chord.

My Johnny Cash song book lists everything in terms of chord shapes without regard to the capo or tuning (so everything is played as though in open position with standard tuning, and a note tells whether to retune or capo). If you want to play the song in the same key with different chord shapes, you have to first figure out what key it is in, and then figure out which key to play it in relative to whatever tuning or capo position you plan to use.

When there's a standard, it is easy to figure it out, otherwise there is no way to know what is being talked about if no one tells you. If the music or musician isn't clear, then you just have to figure it out on your own. :(


Prominent Member
Joined: 19 years ago
Posts: 680

When I teach a song that is down half a step I use software to bring it up to our key. The weakness of that is that the student can't practice at home in that key to the CD - but it is way easier to click one button that to retune my guitar and have the student do the same so I voted for convenience. As for capo - I follow the rule that the chord shapes we are using are Am shapes - or E shapes etc... I can explain to the student look its really a Bm etc... those who have come for long enough understand that - those who don't just enjoy playing the song.

together we stand, divided we fall..........

Alan Green
Joined: 20 years ago
Posts: 5342

It's mind-numbingly confusing at first, but you'll be surprised how quickly you get used to the retuned idea. I like to see the basic chords listed when I'm using a capo; that way, I can move the capo to a different fret to accommodate a new singer and still play the basic shapes as written.

I spend a lot of my show changing tunings, especially at weddings. Drop D for Pachelbel's Canon, DGDGBE for the Wagner, back into standard for the Mendelssohn. Scream!

"Be good at what you can do" - Fingerbanger"
I have always felt that it is better to do what is beautiful than what is 'right'" - Eliot Fisk
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Illustrious Member
Joined: 19 years ago
Posts: 4921

I spend a lot of my show changing tunings, especially at weddings. Drop D for Pachelbel's Canon, DGDGBE for the Wagner, back into standard for the Mendelssohn. Scream!

The only way to really handle that smoothly is with either a) arrange the setlist from highest tunings to lowest (because in my experience it's faster to tune down) or have multiple instruments.

I've done sets where I start in standard, go to drop D, and then to double drop D - and I try to sequence the tunes so they'll work. But if I'm in a situation where I need to go back and forth between three tunings frequently I use three guitars.

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