Moving On Up

Classical Guitarist

Let’s get serious and take a long look at a question we get asked a lot how to take the next step in becoming a better guitarist. It doesn’t matter if you are a beginner or an intermediate or even an experienced player, we all want to improve on the skills that we have. And as I’ve said before, sometimes the quickest way to improve is to simply be aware of what you already know.

Here at Guitar Noise we’re always up for an ambitious undertaking. Over the next number of columns we’ll be examining the basic chord and fretboard theory that we already know and then use it to take that next step in playing. You’ll find how easy the concept of “moveable chords” can be and also learn your basic lead scales. We’ll then examine how these two techniques are used to come up with simple “tricks” to create fills, riffs and leads. We will not only analyze other guitarists’ leads, we’ll also come up with some of our own.

To make matters even more interesting, these columns will crossover with the upcoming lessons on both the beginners’ and intermediates’ pages. And that’s not to mention a few surprise columns (and co-authored pieces) that some of you have been clamoring for.

So let’s hunker down and have some fun. To paraphrase our Performance phrase, “Come on in and play!”

And, lest we forget:

These files are the author’s own work and represents his interpretation of this song. They are intended solely for private study, scholarship or research.

Some of this initial stuff we have touched upon before. If you’re so inclined you might want to reread (or read for the first time) either Theory Without Tears or The Power of Three. If you’re really ambitious and want a little taste of what we’ll be exploring, then also read Multiple Personality Disorder. Just please do me a favor and make certain you know two things before we move on: the fact that all chords start out with a triad of root, third and fifth and the difference between a major and a minor chord. Are we cool with that? Whether you like it or not, in order to improve you have to learn something…

To me, in all seriousness, here is the difference between a beginner and an intermediate:

An intermediate guitarist is one that has started to think for his or herself.

He or she makes observations and then experiments in coming up with new things. It doesn’t matter if it’s as easy as a change in a strumming pattern, playing a Dsus4 instead of a D or playing a riff learned from one song during a different song because it has the same chord progression as the first. Whether this guitarist realizes it or not, she/he has taken the first steps toward developing a personal style.

Think about this: what makes a guitarist “good” or even just “interesting?” Often it is the little touches being thrown in here and there. A good guitarist makes the simple things interesting. He or she comes up with ways to make you want to listen to things. It may be nothing more than playing one chord in a different place on the fretboard, which is what today’s lesson is all about. I want you to forget about everything but the first three strings of your guitar. What we want to do is to look at the six basic chord shapes that occur on these strings.

Okay, we know that the two most basic kinds of chords are the major chord and the minor chord. We also know that they both are constructed by using the root, third and fifth of their respective scales or by starting with the root and stacking the correct thirds onto each other. Are you with me on this?

Now let’s think logically for a minute. If we want to play a chord that has three notes on three strings of the guitar, it stands to reason that each string has to have one note of the triad, correct? If the root is on one string, then the third and the fifth need to be on the other strings. That seems reasonable. We can also come to another conclusion – if we have each note on one string, then we will have three possible ways to play chord. These will be based on upon which string we’ve placed the root:

Guitar Chart

Remember that even though we have three (as yet unknown) shapes, we will have two forms of each shape – one for the major chord and one for the minor. But because you already know the diffence between a major an a minor chord is in the third (the root and fifth are still the same), you’ll see that there’s not all that much difference between the two forms of each shape.

The really cool thing is that you already know these shapes! You just may not realize that this knowledge is already in your mind and in your fingers!

Form 1 – “the E Shape”

What do you, personally, know about your guitar? Do you just make the chords according to the TAB or charts and think, “I know how to make a D chord!” or do you also take the time to know what notes make up that chord? A lot of people think that music theory is hard, but most of it, the stuff that can make you a better guitarist, has always been right at your fingertips.

Think about the simplest chords you know, the ones we call “first position” since they usually involve the use of open strings and are formed close to the nut of the guitar. Which of these chords have the root on the first string? Most likely, you can think of two: G and E. Maybe you thought of Em or F as well. Now let’s look at these chords and remember that, for today at least, we are only concerned with the notes on the first three strings:

Chords with Root Note on 1st String

You can see that, of these chords, the G major (in the first two forms) will not suit our purpose because it contains only two of the three notes of the chord on the first three strings. Depending on the variation you use, you will have either G, B, G (two roots and a third) or G, D, G (two roots and the fifth). But the G in its barre chord form as well as the first position E, Em and F work fine. These chords all have a root, third and fifth each on a separate string. I call these “E Shape” chords. Here are the major and minor forms of this shape and we’ve taken the trouble to show you where the root (R), 3rd and 5th are:

Major and Minor Chords

Those of you familiar with barre chords will recognize them as the top half of E major and E minor styled barre chords (and if you want to see a chart of those, you can find one in the column But Then Again…).

These chords, or more precisely, notes taken from these chord shapes, are used to do a lot of leads and fills, especially when changing from V to I or I to IV in music. Here is an example from the chorus of Van Morrison’s Wild Night:

Wild Night line 1
Wild Night line 2

Even though this fill is played only on the E and G strings, the E Shape chords of D, C, Bm and Am are what makes it work. When playing a run like this, I find it easiest to anchor your middle finger on the G string. This way I can use my index finger for the E string on the major chords (D and C here) and my ring finger for the minor chords (Bm and Am). By minimizing my hand movement I get both smoothness and speed.

Form 2 – “the D Shape”

Now let’s find some chords with their roots on the B (2nd) string. D, Dm and C fit the bill nicely:

Chords with Root Note on 2nd String

To me, a C is a D shape chord. You’ve simply run out of room on the neck of the guitar! Anyway, here are your D Shapes for anywhere on the neck:

Major and Minor

In the intro of the Rolling Stones’ Wild Horses, you can hear the lead guitar using notes on the E and B strings that have been derived from the D shape:

Wild Horses

Again, it’s really important to remember that all these shapes have both a major and a minor form. That’s why there’s a total of six of them. In this short lead line, we use the minor shape to get the two notes in the Bm and Am chords and then revert back to the major shape for the G. Here, since we are only using two strings, I find it easier to use the same fingers for each shape – the middle finger on the B string and the index finger for the E.

A lot of people like to use D shape chords. Here is the introduction to The End Of The Line by the Travelling Wilburys:

The End of the Line 1
The End of the Line 2

Notice how in the last phrase, we use chords in both the D shape (G, A and the final D) and the E shape (the first D and the Em) to climb up the scale. If your guitar doesn’t have a cutaway and that last D shape is hard to reach, do what I do and use the E shape D instead. It still sounds fine, especially on a twelve string.

Also, on this particular example you can use your open D and A strings to serve as a drone. The D shape lends itself nicely to this, particularly if you’re playing in the key of D or D minor.

Form 3 – “the A Shape”

The final shape has the root of the chord on the third (G) string. A and Am are the chords you probably already use with this shape:

Chords with Root Note on 3rd String

Remember that when you slide this up the fretboard, you have to account for the open E string by placing your finger on it at the proper place, like this:

Major and Minor

Probably the best known use of A shaped chords is in Stairway To Heaven. This takes place in the “…and it makes me wonder…” interludes:

Stairway to Heaven

This starts out with typical first position chords but then the final four chords of the progression are played up the neck. The G is a D shape and the D and C are done with the A shape.

And finally, just to give you more to think about, here, in Supertramp’s Even In The Quietest Moments, you can see all of these shapes in use:

Even In The Quietest Moments line 1
Even In The Quietest Moments line 2
Even In The Quietest Moments line 3
Even In The Quietest Moments line 4

And if you want to see a other good examples of the use of these chord shapes, check out the next Easy Songs For Beginners lesson, Love The One You’re With. And the upcoming song on the Intermediate’s Page, Supertramp’s Give A Little Bit, explores this technique with even more depth. I hope that you will check out these lessons and see exactly where and how you can use these moveable chord shapes to improving your own playing. Whether you are looking for a way to come up with the same chord voicings you hear on a recording or looking to make an arrangement of a song, whether you are trying to come up with a little riff or fill or even just use an old chord in a new way, these three shapes will give a place to start learning more about how to improve your playing.

Now it’s good to point out that when you use just parts of these shapes, you can blur the distinction between them. For instance, in the earlier example Wild Night, I could say that the chord progression D, C, Bm, Am (all in E shape) might just as easily be D (E shape), C (E shape), G (D shape), F (D shape). If you noticed this then pat yourself on the back – you’re starting to think. The fun of theory is seeing how different chords relate to each other. After all, changing one of the three note of one chord gives you a different chord. This is one of the many things that we will be looking at as we expand upon this topic, but for now, I think we’ll stop here to take in all that we’ve learned.

Whether you know it or not, you now have a really good reason to learn where the notes on your fretboard are. Not to mention learning the notes that go into a particular chord. Don’t go crazy thinking that you have to learn every note first. Simply take the time to reflect on what you are doing. Take the chords that you use most often – G, D, C, E, A, Bm and such and learn where they are using each of the three shapes. Here’s Bm. for example:


Learn one a week if that’s the easiest way for you. Write out the ones you use a lot – it’ll help them stick in your mind if you figure them out yourself. And, believe me, you’ll learn it a lot quicker if you use it in a song that you play a lot. Take Margaritaville or one of the other lessons on the Easy Songs For Beginners page. You’ll be surprised how quickly it comes to you when you use it for real instead of just thinking about it.

As always, please feel free to write in with any questions, comments, concerns or topics you’d like to see discussed in future columns. You can either drop off a note at the Guitar Forums or email me directly at [email protected].

Until next time (and always)…