Chords of life

chord

I thought guitar playing was tough. I tried the guitar a few years back and gave it up eventually. It made no sense. I learnt plenty of chord shapes but I could not figure out any system, any organization in what I was learning. It soon got very overwhelming. Maybe if I had a teacher, he could have told me. But I prefer self teaching, so I did not take help. It almost always never works for me. Result: I gave it up.

Recently, one of my friends kept his guitar at my house for our jamming sessions (I am a keyboardist). Since old habits die hard, I got the guitar out every night and fiddled with it. I restricted myself to playing chords on the top four strings in the standard tuning because this is what metal riffs are usually made of. I was also hoping that with the confusion of six strings gone for a while, I might find an organization to chords on the first few strings. Soon it became very clear to me that I should have gone through this exercise a few years back when I gave up.

I found the organization that I was looking for, thanks to the first four strings, and this is what I want to share here.

Chords on the first three strings: The open chord shapes used to nag me earlier because the shapes were so different across chords. Open major chords on different roots would have quite dissimilar shapes. Take Cmaj and Gmaj for example.

Learning the shapes were a huge pain. But you know what’s worse? That would be hearing metalcore bands change chords at their supersonic speeds. It demoralized me enough to give up playing the guitar. I thought I’d never reach that level.

The advantage of playing chords on the first three strings is that the patterns are no longer so complicated and that they remain fixed. They are easy to memorize and easy to change. This means: speed, baby!

There are only a few such basic patterns. You can play them anywhere on the fretboard. The root of the chord changes as you shift. This is why I have labeled the chords with numbers so that you know where the root is (the root is labeled by the number 1). The numbers will also tell you the rest of the notes (relative to the root) that are being used in the pattern.

There are ten patterns in total though most of them can be derived from the first two.

Shape 1 : Major (Root is in the second string)

String 1 ___ _5_ ___ ___ ___|
String 2 ___ _1_ ___ ___ ___|
String 3 ___ ___ _3_ ___ ___|

Shape 2 : Major (Root is in the third string)

String 1 ___ _3_ ___ ___ ___|
String 2 ___ ___ ___ _5_ ___|
String 3 ___ ___ ___ _1_ ___|

Shape 3: Can be used as major or minor (Root is on the first and third string)

String 1 ___ ___ ___ _1_ ___|
String 2 ___ _5_ ___ ___ ___|
String 3 ___ _1_ ___ ___ ___|

Shape 4 : Minor derived from shape 1 (Root is in the second string)

String 1 ___ _5_ ___ ___ ___|
String 2 ___ _1_ ___ ___ ___|
String 3 ___ ___ ___ 3b_ ___|

Shape 5 : Minor derived from shape 2 (Root is in the third string)

String 1  ___ ___ 3b_ ___ ___|
String 2  ___ ___ ___ _5_ ___|
String 3  ___ ___ ___ _1_ ___|

Shape 6: Diminished (Root is in the third string)

String 1 ___ 3b_ ___ ___ ___|
String 2 ___ ___ ___ 5b_ ___|
String 3 ___ ___ _1_ ___ ___|

Shape 7 : Diminished (Root is in first and third string)

String 1 ___ ___ ___ _1_ ___|
String 2 ___ ___ 5b_ ___ ___|
String 3 ___ _1_ ___ ___ ___|

Shape 8 : Sus2 derived from Shape 2 (Root is in the third string)

String 1 ___ ___ ___ _2_ ___|
String 2 ___ ___ ___ _5_ ___|
String 3 ___ ___ ___ _1_ ___|

Shape 9: Sus4 derived from Shape 1 (Root is in the second string)

String 1 ___ _5_ ___ ___ ___|
String 2 ___ _1_ ___ ___ ___|
String 3 ___ _4_ ___ ___ ___|

Notice how Shape 8 and 9 are identical!

Shape 10: Sus4 derived from Shape 3 (Root is in the third string)

String 1 ___ ___ ___ _1_ ___|
String 2 ___ ___ ___ _4_ ___|
String 3 ___ _1_ ___ ___ ___|

That’s it! 10 shapes and now you have all common triads! Chords which have added notes (for example 7, Maj7, min7, dim7 etc) can derived from these shapes by adding the extra note in the fourth string.

Chords in the second, third and fourth strings: Now here’s the fun. The shapes stay the same! You don’t have to learn anything extra. Just take the shapes as they are and shift them down one string. The same formulas apply.

When you will become familiar with all the patterns, the next thing to master is chord progressions. For that you need to learn one more thing. Scales.

If you know scale shapes (I’ll draw one below), then to play the right chords in the scale you will need to use successive notes as the root. That’s it.

To illustrate, a certain shape of the major scale on the first three strings look like:

String 1 ___ ___ ___ _2_ ___ _1_ ___ ___|
String 2 ___ _6_ ___ _5_ ___ _4_ _3_ ___|
String 3 ___ ___ ___ _1_ _7_ ___ ___ ___|

Now go through these notes playing in succession shapes 1, 1, 5, 2, 2, 4, 6 (Maj, min, min, Maj, Maj, min, dim) using the note as the root. Those are the triads of the major scale played in succession.

This formula holds no matter which scale root (for example C or Db) you are on. The 1 in the scale diagram above marks the root of the scale. But even if you choose a different scale, chord shapes and scale shapes will remain fixed.

I’ll conclude with a tip. If you are trying to find the chord progressions of a song, the best way is to play the melody and then use the notes of the melody as roots. Of course this does not work all the time. But it works in most cases. If you do it , you’ll find that your life has suddenly become a whole lot simpler.

I did this to find the chords for the chorus of Blackbird by Alterbridge tonight and got it within a few minutes.

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