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A Guitar Chord Lesson in Not Using a Chord Chart all the Time

When you first learn guitar, a typical guitar chord lesson would be to teach you 5 open position chords followed by minors, 7ths and then barre shapes. However, you can use these shapes in other ways, not just as stationary chords.

It’s all about experimenting – using your ears to pick out the right sound for what you want to create. If you’ve been playing for some time, you know how the familiar open position/barre chords sound by now so you want to create something fresh. If you’re a beginner, you’ll get a huge head start if you nail this stuff early on.

Here’s a guitar chord lesson in how to really loosen up your creativity by using more than just a chord chart…

Guitar Chord Lesson 1 – Floating Shapes

Each chord creates a shape on the fretboard which can more often than not be barred and moved up and down the fretboard (a moveable shape). Some, however, can be moved without adding that barre and sound good depending on what mood you’re trying to create.

The example below is of a simple moving of the normal Am7 shape down at frets 2 and 3. All I do is slide it up two frets and it creates the musical tension that helps build a chord progression.

Through this guitar chord lesson, you can click on the tab diagram to hear it played…

A Guitar Chord Lesson in Not Using a Chord Chart all the Time

Moving familiar chord shapes around the fretboard is a simple but great way to open up your songwriting and get new ideas.

Below is another example of a simple movement of a chord shape. This time it’s the E major shape…
A Guitar Chord Lesson in Not Using a Chord Chart all the Time

So instead of barring to create the full chords up the fretboard, we’re leaving the top two strings open which gives a distinctively different sound. It almost makes each chord blend into the next because your keeping those two top strings/notes open and stationary through the progression.

That’s the basis of this lesson, so let’s look at more complex floating movements and see what sounds we can create…

Guitar Chord Lesson 2 – Embedded Harmonies

A harmony in music can be anything that relates to melody, but an embedded harmony to me is something you hear, whether it’s amidst a chord progression or not, that creates a musical “phrase” or pattern. When a song’s referred to as “catchy” it often has this embedded harmony thing (like Snow Patrol’s Spitting Games with that annoying “do-doooo do-doooo”).

Listen below to how a harmony fits into a chord progression (variation 1 tab) by using the floating technique in the first example…

A Guitar Chord Lesson in Not Using a Chord Chart all the Time

I could then use that initial harmony as a lead guitar line over the chord progression.

This is a very commonly used songwriting secret to give a song real character and an identifiable “hook”. Try one of your own by picking out a harmony line in one of your chord progressions and building on it using these floating techniques.

Remember, you can tune your strings differently such as EADGAD instead of the usual EADGBE. This will create different sounds and opportunities for floating.

You can also add notes to the chord shapes in your progressions to hear the difference they make. E.g…

A Guitar Chord Lesson in Not Using a Chord Chart all the Time

See how this progression has been built up from that first simple harmony phrasing? By not strictly using regular barre chords (all the time anyway) we can create very unique sounds and moods. By floating 2, 3 or 4 strings up and down the fretboard, adding strings/notes and moving strings/notes around in the shape you instantly open up your songwriting potential.

Try the exercise below as another variation/addition to that initial harmony we’ve been building on…

A Guitar Chord Lesson in Not Using a Chord Chart all the Time

Guitar Chord Lesson 3 – More complex Floating

The shapes and patterns we’ve looked at above are relatively simple, but you don’t just have to limit yourself to slides and fixed shapes. You should also experiment with irregular chord shapes up the fretboard.

All I tend to do is pick a shape at random, see how it sounds (see?)! Once I find a nice sounding chord I move it around, swap strings, change the shape etc. – just investigate the fretboard.

A Guitar Chord Lesson in Not Using a Chord Chart all the Time

So there were 4 different chord shapes used in that, but still not limiting your playing to regular soundin’ barre chords. You’re floating around the fretboard creating new voicings for what would be the same old barre chords.

That’s the main point of this guitar chord lesson, to look for alternative fingerings and chord shapes…

This is how you find new sounds on your guitar – for example, let a couple of strings ring out as open and see if they work with your chord shapes. I know, I keep saying “see”, listen with your eyes? :S

Guitar Chord Lesson 4 – Mixing Barre and Open String

Of all my barre chord bashing, it’s still often appropriate to use them, after all, they might be the sound you want, and that’s great….!!!

What can work well is if you mix it up a little. Take a look and listen to the example below…

A Guitar Chord Lesson in Not Using a Chord Chart all the Time

Those first two chords in that progression are barre chord shapes (Cmaj7 and E7sus2).

This is definately something to mess around with – mix barre chord shapes with open shapes like the example above to get those unique, interesting chord progressions.

I like it when I hear a song and I can’t figure out what chords are being played because it means the songwriter has really tried to create their own personal interpretation.

Guitar Chord Lesson 5 – Hidden Harmonies

Finally, let’s look at how to build on this harmony hook thing we looked at earlier because I think this is really important in finding your own voicing in your music.

You can play any sequence of chords and pick out a particular harmony, single notes that weave through the progression to create the voicing.

Before you listen and try the following example, I want you to first hear the note harmony and keep it in your mind when the chords start playing – THIS is what really knowing music is about, hearing the nuances that make a song your song and building on them.

A Guitar Chord Lesson in Not Using a Chord Chart all the Time

If you kept that harmony line in your head, you should have heard it in the chord progression afterwards.

All chord progressions carry many of these “hidden” harmony lines and harmony lines carry many potential chord progressions, you just have to weave together the one that sounds right for you.

Guitar Chord Lesson 6 – Using Chord Modifications

Below are some modified chords to try out, if you haven’t already of course. In the same way the chords below have been modified (adding just one note, the 9th), whenever you play a chord think about whether adding, taking away or modifying particular notes/strings in that chord shape make it sound more suitable for the mood you’re trying to create.

E.g. in basic terms, an Em7 might sound better placed than a basic Em. It makes a big difference to the sound.

Click on the chord diagrams to hear.

Enjoy experimenting!

Modified C Chord (Cadd9 to Cmadd9)

A Guitar Chord Lesson in Not Using a Chord Chart all the Time

Modified D Chord (Dadd9)

A Guitar Chord Lesson in Not Using a Chord Chart all the Time

Modified E Chord (Eadd6)

A Guitar Chord Lesson in Not Using a Chord Chart all the Time

Modified G Chord (Gadd9)

A Guitar Chord Lesson in Not Using a Chord Chart all the Time

Modified A Chord (Aadd9)

A Guitar Chord Lesson in Not Using a Chord Chart all the Time

I hope this quite different guitar chord lesson has been of some use! If it hasn’t, this site definately will be.

Bottom line – don’t be afraid to mess around a bit with chords away from the caged barre shapes. Once you’ve mastered this, not only will you be able to create your own songs by the bucket load, you’ll be able to play your favourite band’s stuff in new and inventive ways.