If there’s one thing I’ve heard guitar students say over and over again, it’s that they love guitar and can’t wait to practice every single day of the week until they lose feeling in their fingers. But if there’s a second thing I’ve heard from guitar players, it’s that they feel trapped inside the patterns and shapes that they know, and want to try and break free from them to feel more fluid on the neck. So let’s look at some ways to address the issue of fretboard confinement.
Most beginners learn their open chords before anything else. We can use the pitches of the open strings in chords outside of the standard major, minor, or dominant 7 set that most learn to create lush, dense sounds that are truly characteristic of the guitar itself. In this set of open string chords, there are going to be some shapes that you may have seen before, and others that you have not. We will be talking about the concept of extensions, which are notes that exist in addition to the root, third, fifth, and seventh of the chord.
The ultimate goal is for the guitarist to look at the pitches of the open strings as tools to be utilized, not ignored. The challenge is to find the perfect spot for an open chord, or to use these as a way to bust out of the shell and discover some new chords all your own. So here we go!
We will start with this chord since it has a very clear connection to a shape many of you have already seen — the 6th string root major barre chord. To execute this fairly common open string chord, simply form the major barre chord as you would on the fifth fret, and un-barre your first finger, so that the first and second strings ring open.
Now we have the droning E, a nice consonant frequency, and the addition of the B, which is the 9th. We still have our major 3rd, though — the C# being played on the third string — so what we get is the slight rub of a major 2nd interval, which happens to work beautifully in the context of these chords.
Try sliding this shape around the neck and see what types of chords you come up with. Don’t worry about anything being right or wrong — just do it. And when you hear something that you like, stop and remember it. Writing things down is always a good idea. Then you can take a look at the theory behind whatever you’ve just created.
The shape of this chord is based on the open C shape, but is placed higher on the neck so that the third finger starts on the 8th fret. The open E gives us the major 7, which sounds especially colorful next to the F on the 2nd string. And with the open G ringing out, this chord is very lush and can be used a number of ways. Again, this is based on a common shape, so try sliding it around and discovering what you can!
This chord was a major discovery for me. G minor doesn’t lay easily on the guitar — there are no standard minor shapes for G in the open position.
If we forego the first string and simply play the root in the bass, open D, and the B♭ and D on the 3rd and 2nd strings respectively, we have a G minor chord. With the open E on top, the major 6th, we create an air of mystery. It’s not a disturbing tension, but it’s the fedora on a detective smoking under a streetlamp on a misty night, unsure of his next move.
Since we’re exploring minor tonalities now, let’s go back to A as our key center. Just like we had done with the last A root chord, we are going to keep the 1st and 2nd string open for 5th and 9th scale degrees, respectively. This time, we are going to need a minor 3rd — that’s the C we play on the 5th fret of the 3rd string.
The most characteristic note of this chord to my ear is the major 7th, which we play on the 6th fret of the 4th string. The combination of major 7th with minor 3rd, in addition to the sound that the ringing 9th brings, is one of haunting beauty, distant tragedy, or mourning.
The key of A♭ is not an easy place for guitar players to live. A song in A♭ means constant bar chords, with little to no opportunity to use any of the open strings. At least that’s what I used to think, until I came across this rather unconventional little voicing.
The open B string gives us our third (technically it’s called C♭ in this key), and we double the 7th on the 1st and 4th strings. Try playing the 3nd and 2nd strings together to hear the wild dissonance of that minor 2nd interval, and then play the whole chord again to hear how it fits so perfectly inside. Little ear worms like that are what keep me so inspired by music theory — it’s math you can hear!
For the last open chord I want to show you, we turn to another tough area for guitarists — B♭. This voicing also has a 9, which by now you should start to see is a scale tone that just works beautifully in most contexts.
We also utilize the #11, a characteristic of the Lydian sound. I like to think of the #11 as being “super-major” — it’s the brightest sounding scale tone, loud, proud, and shimmering, like Prince Charming or Napoleon. This is another shape that can be placed on different frets around the neck for interesting results. Another option is to try and put your pinky finger on the 7th fret of the 4th string for the major 7th, a nice sounding addition to this chord.
These chords are just a few of the discoveries I’ve made while messing around on my guitar. I’m sure that some of you out there have come across these voicings, but the most important thing I can try to impart is the spirit of trial and error — there is no shortage of possibilities on our instrument, so keep playing! And share what you discover in the comments below!