The universe of guitar chords is vast and wild, and can be confusing for beginners. It is easy to lose your mind in pages of guitar chord diagrams and lists of common chord voicings. You could easily spend hours practicing tens of different voicings for a C major chord, only to forget them all the next day.
What systems can you use to build and maintain a vocabulary of useful chord shapes? How can you develop a repertoire of chord voicings that sound good and you can always remember when you need them? The answer is to learn how to use moveable chord shapes!
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Moveable Chord Shapes for Beginners
Guitarists have a secret advantage over keyboardists when learning different chord shapes. On the keyboard, each chord has a different shape and fingering that needs to be memorized. On the guitar, however, we can quickly learn a small number of different shapes and shift them around the fretboard to create many different chord qualities and progressions. Let’s take a look at some examples of guitar chords for beginners!
Moveable Major Shapes
You are probably familiar with this open position D major chord:
If not, this is a D major chord in open position. The root of this chord is D on the third fret of the B string. We can move this chord shape up and down the fretboard to make different chords. In fact, from this one simple chord shape, we can make eleven other chords. Check them out below:
Unlocking this information will provide you with access to new and interesting chord progressions and will also help to deepen your knowledge horizontally on the fretboard. It is vital to have equal parts horizontal and vertical knowledge on the guitar fretboard. Be multidimensional.
Here is a short exercise to practice finding the root notes on the B string. Play all the natural tones ascending, followed by the sharp and flat tones descending. I also recommend you alter this exercise by playing the sharp and flat tones ascending and the natural tones descending.
Moveable Minor Shapes
Do you know how to transform the major triad we just explored into a minor triad?
In order to transform a major chord into a minor chord, all we do is lower the third scale degree by one half-step, or one semitone. Remember, the formula for a major triad is 1-3-5 and the formula for a minor triad is 1-♭3-5.
So how do we identify which note in the chord shape is the third? The answer is it is always different based on the chord shape and is it generally easier to memorize it if we want to remember it! In this particular chord shape, the third is the top note of the chord. So, to turn this major triad into a minor triad, all we do is move the top voice down 1 fret.
We can follow the same steps as the major triad to play twelve different minor chords with just this one D minor chord shape:
You can practice the same sequence of ascending and descending with the natural and sharp and flat tones, or come up with practice patterns of your own! Once you master these two basic chord shapes, you will have begun to open a whole new world of chord voicings on the guitar.
Other Moveable Chord Shapes
Almost every chord on the guitar is moveable in the same manner as this D shape chord. This is one of the great advantages of guitar playing. However, it is also one of the reasons why guitarists often learn less about music theory than other instrumentalists. Since we do not need to understand the construction of chords, and instead can rely upon a handful of shapes, we often do not learn the deeper dimensions of chords and harmony.
It is well worth the time for beginners to learn more about how chords are built and how they relate to the guitar. Your understanding of music and the guitar will increase exponentially when you begin doing this.
In the meantime, here are some other basic open chord shapes that can be moved around the fretboard just like the D shape chord.
Together, these 5 chords form the basis of the CAGED system, which you can use to unlock the entire fretboard.