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Guitar Chords with Open Strings

Updated on January 2, 2022

Guitar chords in E

Guitar playing is often easiest and most effective when you are playing in the sharp keys. These are the keys of G, D, A, E - and B. One reason for this is the standard tuning of the guitar, which means that you can often add the open strings E and B (strings 1 and 2) to the chord to give it extra ring and sustain. This is something widely exploited by Jimi Hendrix, amongst others, who was very adept at using chords with open strings.

The chord grids below show some variations of the harmonised scale chords from the key of E - the I IV and V chords in this key are E, A, and B. Many hubs have a music theory component if this doesn't make sense to you, or you can ask questions through the comments box below.

My new hub Guitar Chords and theory may also be helpful, as it has chord diagrams for different string sets.

Key theory

Every key has three major chords, three minor chords, and one strange leftover chord called a m7b5. The major chords are the I, IV and V chords, the minor chords are the ii, iii and vi chords. The note names of the chords come from the notes of the parent major scale. You can play the scale for E major on strings 1 and 6 (thinnest and thickest strings respectively) by playing the following pattern:

0 2 4 5 7 9 11 12

Notes 0 and 12 are the same (E) an octave apart.

Harmonised scale theory

Here is the order of chords for the harmonised scale. This example is for the key of E, but all the other keys follow the same pattern and have the same interval distances between chords:

  • Chord 1 = E, or variation E maj7
  • Chord 2 = F sharp minor, or variation F sharp minor 7
  • Chord 3 = G sharp m, G sharp m 7
  • Chord 4 = A, or A maj7
  • Chord 5 = B, or B7
  • Chord 6 = C sharp m, or m7
  • Chord 7 = D sharp m7 flat 5.
  • These chords are the building blocks of all songs, in every style, and derive from the major scale, which can be used to make melody lines or improvise over the chords, also create bass parts. If you play guitar or piano, you need to understand this stuff!

Guitar Chords and Scales diagram

Practical Playing tips

  • Chord grids - the nut and headstock of the guitar is at the top, the strings are the six vertical lines, with the thickest string (string 6) on the left.
  • The A and B chords shown should be played like a barre chord - but without pressing down on the top 2 strings (E and B)
  • You can use the pentatonic scale shown for all the chords for a guitar solo. You will see this scale described as a C sharp minor pentatonic or an E pentatonic, depending on the note you start with - it will fit all the chords regardless.
  • The circled notes show a harmony part on strings 1 and 3 that works well with the chords - because it is derived from the chords. The first and last pair (E) are not circled.
  • All these chords will work together for songwriting. B11 is a substitute chord for B7. It's classed as a dominant 7th chord, meaning it will resolve to E.
  • Minor chords - you can use the same three-note shape for all three minor chords. The 5th string should be muted - if it's not, just collapse your first finger a bit, and it should stop the string from sounding.

Spirit version of Like A Rolling Stone

Practical applications

All this material has a nice, melodic sound. Start with just the E maj7 to F sharp minor chord change, which is like the Beatles song Don't Let Me Down. This is a very easy song, but sounds good due to the chord voicings and arrangement. Another Beatles song that works well in this key is Octopus's Garden, from Abbey Road. If you use the open string chord forms shown here, it'll sound great.

The F sharp minor chord shape is used by James Taylor, a great and somewhat undervalued guitar player.

A add 9 is a chord widely used by Steely Dan, the American beat combo. This can usually be substituted for a plain A chord.

I've always liked the Spirit track on the video- a classic cover of a Dylan song, played with the open string chords shown here. Though it does go on a bit!

General chord info for guitar

If you are new to guitar, you could try Guitar Chords 101, which shows many of the most useful and easy chords.


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