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Guitar Lesson - Open Chords

Updated on August 29, 2020
Jon Green profile image

One thing I constantly work on is chord voicings, on piano and mainly, guitar. Using open strings can transform chords.

Using open string chords

At the bottom of the diagram is the harmonised scale for chords in E - in other words, the set of diatonic chords built on an E major scale. Note the loop sign - this means it's a barre chord, you first finger is flattened across the fret.

The top set of chords is the same thing essentially, but with added open strings, which gives a nice jangle and sustain to the chords. If you pick each note individually, arpeggiating the chord, it sounds good. You could add a touch of reverb and chorus, and it won't be far off a 12-string guitar sound. As it says on the diagram - these are only approximate names for these chords, because now we've added open strings some of them have quite complicated names.

I've also included the pentatonic scale for solos, and on the last line a mixolydian modal scale which works well with all the chords.

If you like Jimi Hendrix style rhythm playing (and I definitely do) you'll find he used a lot of these chord shapes and ideas, especially in songs like Angel and All along the Watchtower. When you have spent a little time with these chord shapes, they get quite easy to move around - try sliding from the F sharp m shape to the G sharp minor shape.

These chords are good on acoustic guitar, but for me they work best of all on a Fender Stratocaster or Telecaster, due to the clean and distinct tone you get with this guitar design - even better, add a touch or reverb and chorus and a little whammy bar for sustain.

Reading the chord diagrams: vertical lines are the strings, horizontal lines are the frets.

Chords in the key of E


Try using some of these new shapes as a substitute for a normal common-or-garden chord. They should liven up your chord playing. As usual, the acid test is - do they actually sound good in context? You always have the option of adding the bass notes on string 6 to fill out the chord, and to do this use your thumb over the neck.

  • General theory: every key has 3 major, 3 minor chords and a m7flat5
  • Major chords are I IV and V
  • Minor chords are ii iii vi
  • Every key follows the same pattern of shapes, just starting in a different place. When you leave the key of E, it does limit the use of open strings.

The scale pattern on the bottom line is a mixolydian mode - basically the same notes as an E major scale, but starting on the 5th, which is B in this key. Try it out as it is the best scale for ballads or nice melodic songs in my opinion. Notice the pattern - the same on two adjacent strings in parts. This will make it easier to play fast if you use the same fingering pattern on both strings.

Pentatonic scales: how to find the right position. Find the tonic note of the key (E) with your little finger. Then your 4-fret box that outlines the pentatonic scale goes down the fretboard from there. (this works for every other key too)

As strings 1 and 2 (E and B) are notes from this key anyway, you can play fast and flashy stuff by doing pull-offs to the open strings too. It sounds impressive, but it's also easy when you get used to it. You could also incorporate harmonics on strings 1 and 2 at fret 12 or fret 7.

What we're doing throughout this article is using the strengths of the guitar rather than struggling with it, playing in a key where you have a lot of options of using open strings.


All this material could be seen as the basis for songwriting. To some extent, we are achieving the sound of open tunings on guitar in a normal tuning.

There are actually almost infinite numbers of chords - although Ted Greene seems to have known most of them! Check out his books for total chord knowledge.

Learn from the best - well Ted was the best. You can see him playing on Youtube, or at ted

Even top pro players like Steve Lukather study the TG books.


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