Simple Alternate Chord Voicings
If you are in the beginning stages of learning guitar but are looking to spice up your playing with some other chord voicings, read on.
The focus of this article is how to get chord voicings that are different from the old standard ones that are made in the open positions of a standard tuned guitar. You know, E (major), A (major), and D (major), etc.
The idea came about for this article because, again, I was jamming with a friend of mine, trying to stubbornly impart some of my knowledge. Just a little knowledge that I thought would help us cope with the others’ chord changes and riffing without too much thought.
Simple Chord Shapes
What I have found in my beginner’s stage of playing guitar and jamming is how do I get some of the chords that are in the same range as what my friend is playing on the guitar?
The application of finding different voicings of the same chord arises from using the same simple shapes of chords that you will find within the first three or four frets on the fretboard – or is it fingerboard? Let’s begin with E, seen below in Figure 1, beside the chord diagrams for A and D.
You can see in the above diagram of the chord E where the frets are fretted on the fretboard, which strings ring open, and what the notes are played on each string (below the diagram). Remember that a major chord is made up of a major triad, three notes. These notes come from the chord name’s major scale and are the 1st or root, the major 3rd and the fifth. The major 3rd is simply the 3rd note of the major scale. A minor third would be a half step below that.
The rest of the major chords within the first four frets are shown in Figure 2:
Please take note that while all of the major chords within the first four frets are provided above in Figures 1 and 2, there are other some other chord voicings for these chords within that area. One such chord I can think of is:
When I use the type of shape above, the chord shape for E (see Figure 1), where I fret notes with the lowest fretted string being the fifth, I call it an “E Shape” as seen in Figure 4. I do not know if anybody else calls it this. Later you will see this shape used to make other chords.
The first thing you can do with this “E Shape” is move it up and down the neck of the guitar to different frets as in Figure 4. Always keep the finger closest to your head on the fifth string. This is marked below with the circle on the mentioned fret placement on the diagrams. The diagram below on the left is the “E Shape” used in place to make the open position E chord. The diagram below on the right is the placement of the “E Shape” with the circled fret placement at the second (to form E), fifth, seventh, and ninth frets. The fret markers are show for the fifth, seventh, ninth and twelfth frets.
If you have not already noticed at this point, these fingerings do not make major chords (or if they do you must really work hard think of their major chord name) and I am not going to name them in this article. The point is to demonstrate that the “E Shape” is transferable up and down the neck to form “good” (by personal preference) sounding chords.
Making Use of the “E Shape”
So how do you make use of the “E Shape”?
It is quite easy in theory. It takes quite a bit of practice to get a good bar chord. You use a finger bar to make a bar chord. To make and A chord use the chord diagram given below in Figure 5. I have read and practiced what I think is the easiest way to make a bar chord. Placed the fingers that are higher up the fretboard down first. After the higher fingers are placed then place your index finger down to bar the fretboard. You will find that you may find some fret buzz – work through it by moving your finger and pressing down tightly with your index finger.
To follow these steps using the diagram below do the following:
- Place your pinkie (4th) finger on the fifth string, seventh fret
- Place your ring (3rd) finger on the fourth string, seventh fret
- Place your middle (2nd) finger on the third string, sixth fret
- Place your index (1st) finger as a bar across all of the strings, fifth fret
- (You should check out other musical sources for specific fingering diagrams.)
The notes for this A major chord are also given in the diagram below, Figure 5. You can compare it to the often-used chord voicing of A above in Figure 1. Give both of them a few strums to hear the difference in how they sound. The chord voicing for the A given below should sound a noticeable higher and even a little more upbeat when compared to the chord voicing for A in Figure 1.
How do I use the “E Shape” further? Simply move the whole shape, bar included, up to the seventh fret. Now I mean that the bar moves up to the seventh fret. The circled fret placement moves up to the ninth fret as in the chord diagram for B in Figure 5 above.
So as you can see you just have to move the whole shape a fret or two to get a new chord. You may have even noticed that the “E Shape” was evident in the second chord voicing of F in Figure 2. Go back up to Figure 2 and have a look. You will see the same shape as seen in Figure 5 above. Do not forget to make a bar chord using the process I described three paragraphs above in bullet form.
You can easily get 7 chords by using the “E Shape” with the circled fret placement on the fifth string. The high E chord voicing with the bar on the 12th fret will be hard to make on most acoustic guitars. If you have a Stratocaster type guitar you might even be able to get this type of bar chord with bar all the way up on the 15th fret – that is a G chord.
Other Chord Shapes
You may have asked yourself “What about the other chord shapes?” These are all applicable, some requiring more practice than others. You can use the “A Shape” from the A chord in Figure 1 as well as the “D Shape”. Do not be intimidated by the difficulty of the shape. Practice will allow you hands to form almost all shapes almost anywhere between the nut and the 12th fret or above if you have an electric guitar.
How do you find where you should put the bar when using the bar chords?
Let’s look at Figure 1 again.
The key to using this method to getting different chord voicings easily is looking at the fretted notes in relation to the nut. With the E chord one there is one note fretted after the nut on the 3rd string 1st fret in the “E Shape”. This means that the bar in the bar chord with fall immediately behind the note that is on the lowest fret.
Let’s first talk a little bit about natural notes (or tones). A natural tone is one of the notes that does not have a sharp or a flat in it. Those notes that do have sharps or flats are called accidentals. So the naturals are: C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. An accidental would be C# or Cb (C flat).
To make the next available chord that uses a natural note as its root, shift the “E Shape” up one fret and bar all the strings on the 1st fret. This gives us an F chord. See Figure 2 above. You should have a real grasp of using the “E Shape” now so you should try using it on your guitar.
Once you have done that, move on to the “A Shape”. You can see above that the lowest fret fretted is the second. That means that when you use the “A Shape” to make a bar chord the bar must be two frets behind the “A Shape”. See Figure 6 below. You will notice that I have dispensed with that circled fretted note in this figure.
Take note that the easiest way may be to use two bars when using the “A Shape”. However, you may find that you want to use your last three fingers to hold down the “A Shape” and of course your index finger to make the bar. Using your last three fingers to make the “A Shape” provides you with certain advantages if you can eventually get your fingers to stretch that way. You can easily make 7th chords by removing your ring finger. This would be removing the middle dot from the small bar diagram above.
That is right, I snuck in a little variation on your basic “A Shape”. Theoretically you can do this with all of your “Shapes”. If you remove certain fretted notes from the diagram you end up with different chords. Look below at Figure 7. Take note of the blank circles where there used to be solid circles. These are where you can remove your fingers to make other chords that vary on the original at that position. Also note that the solid dot has been marked on the bar made by the index finger.
You should have noticed in Figure 7 that I added something a little different by using an “A minor Shape”. The base of the “A minor Shape” is actually the same shape as the “E Shape”. However, when the “E Shape” is used, by shifting your fingers by one string you can form the chord A Minor. See Figure 8 below.
Placing the “Chord Shapes”
How do find the chord you need quickly? One method is to memorize the fretboard’s natural notes. To do this easily, I use “bands” of natural notes on the fretboard. These bands of natural notes occur in quite a few places between the nut and the 12th fret. After the 12th fret the fretboard repeats itself. If you have already read my article called Basic Music Theory you should already have a map of the fretboard to use.
If you do not have a map of the fretboard then I recommend you make one. I have written fretboards in a couple of different ways. The first way was with all the notes – both naturals and accidentals. I find it easier to read the map of the fretboard if I list only the natural notes. One way to write out a fretboard is provide in Figure 9. Another way to write it out is vertically; turn the fretboard of figure 9 clockwise 90 degrees.
You can see that “bands” of natural notes appear at frets 5, 10 and 12. Places where there are natural notes almost all the way across the fingerboard occur at the 3rd and 7th frets. These are also good to remember as “bands” of notes including the accidentals with them. A diagram with both types of “bands” would look as Figure 10 does below.
Now that you know you can use a few different shapes see if you can find a voicing of G that uses the “D Shape” as seen in Figures 1 and 8.
Figure 10 will also come in handy when you are trying to find the right spot to start all of your scales. Of course you will need a little alteration to place such scales as the C Major scale beginning with the 8th fret of the 6th string. I leave the rest up to you.
I thought I would just let you know that one of the experiments that helped me to realize that I could use “Chord Shapes” in this way was using alternate tunings. I like to play with the blues and often would tune my guitar to open tunings. One such tuning is Open D. Its strings are tuned low to high: D, A, D, F#, A, D. This allows for very simple formation of major chords.
To form a major chord with an open tuning you bar at each fret – just one bar across at each fret. If you draw another fretboard tuned to Open D you can see D by strumming the open strings, E by barring at the second fret, F by barring at the third fret, and so on. This is what led me to realize the use of “Chord Shapes” and bar chords to easily find alternate voicings of different chords.
So experiment as much as you can with your guitar. Warnings about open tunings: be careful about tuning your guitar to an open tuning that puts more tension on your strings than would normally be on them. Also be careful about changing the tuning all the time as this may possibly cause unwanted twisting or other damage to your guitar. There are articles on Guitar Noise and the Internet that can inform you about alternate tunings. You should also check with the manufacturer of your guitar just to make sure if your tunings are going to place more tension on guitar than you would normally have.