Chords: Discover New Voicing. Part 1

A systematic process for manipulating chords to discover new voicings.

Ultimate Guitar
Building a usable chord vocabulary can be an extremely long and frustrating process for a guitarist. Anyone who has written music can tell you how long it can take to find that perfect chord to fit within a phrase. One of the things that both works for and against the guitarist is the fretboard's organization. The fact that you can play the same exact note (basically) several different ways is something unheard of on wind and brass instruments. For instance here are six different ways you can play the same E. Going from the E string to the A string, you would have to move 5 frets down to get the same E. From the A string to the D string, another 5 frets down. From D to G, another 5. But, from G to B, you only move 4 frets down to reach the next E. Moving from the B string to the E string, you go back to another 5 frets down. The discrepancy between the G string to the B string is an important fact to remember.
Now let's take a look at the way octaves are organized on the neck, again using E as our reference note.
Can you see the organization? Look at the diagonal shapes and really analyze how you can reach the next E. Start with the E at the 12th fret on the low E string. You would reach the next highest E if you stayed on the same string and moved 12 frets higher to the 24th fret. But, because of the organization of the fretboard that's not the only way you can reach the next E. You could also move 1 string up and 7 frets higher to get to the 19th fret on the A string. Another way is to move 2 string up and 2 frets higher to get to the 14th fret on the D string. You could also move 3 strings up and 3 frets down to reach the 9th fret on the G string. This method of organization isn't uniform on all the strings, thanks to the difference in tuning from G to B that we talked about above. Take for instance the 9th fret on the G string. On the same string, you would still move 12 frets up. But to reach the octave on the next string, you would have to move 8 frets up instead of 7, like we do on all the other adjacent sets of string. Two strings up, you would move 3 frets up instead of 2. Another distinction to make is how we reach the next octave 3 strings up. Take for example the 14th fret on the D string. If you wanted to move 3 strings up to reach the next highest E note, you would have to move 2 frets down rather than 3 frets down. The same is true of movement between the A and B strings: three strings up and 2 frets down. Become aware of every possible way that you can reach the octave of the E's on your neck, and remember that that organization can be applied to any note. That seeemed like a long introduction to this lesson, but now is when we're going to start talking about manipulating chords, and you'll see that being able to move notes up and down an octave is an extremely useful tool in your trickbag. Let's start with an Emaj7 chord, which contains the notes E(1), G#(3), B(5), and D#(7):
Now, to play this same chord on a different set of strings, move each note individually 1 string across and either 4 or 5 frets down depending on the strings that you're moving between. The E on the high E string is going to be eliminated, and you'll be left with this shape:
Perform the same process again to put your root(E) on the D string. The B on the high E string will be dropped. You should get this shape, which is going to be the basis for all our manipulations:
This next section is the most important section of the article, because it's the formula that you can use to figure out (almost) any voicing of a chord. First, take the G# on the E string and move it down an octave to the 6th fret on the D string. Move the D# on the B string down 1 string and up 4 frets to place it at the 8 fret on the G string. Now, move both the E and the B up an octave to place them at the 5th fret on the B string and the 7 fret on the E string, respectively to get this shape:
Don't worry if it's hard to play at first. The ability to play all of these chords will come with time and practice. To get to the next voicing, perform the same process. Move the B on the E string down an octave to the 9th fret on the D string. Move the E on the B string across 1 string and up 4 frets to the 9th fret on the G string. Lastly, move both the G# and D# up an octave to the 9th fret on the B string and the 11th fret on the E string, respectively, to get this shape:
To get to the next voicing, perform the same process. Move the D# on the E string down an octave to the 13th fret on the D string. Move the G# on the B string to the 13 fret on the G string. Move both the B and the E to the 12 fret on the B string and the 12th fret on the E string to get the first shape below. Then, realize that since D# and E are only a semitone away from each other and are at the bottom and top of the voicing, it would be very easy to move them up and down an octave, respectively, to get the second voicing below:
You can then perform the same process again, or you can realize that the next voicing is the first voicing an octave higher:
The true beauty of four-note chords on the top four strings is that if you know one voicing, than you know at least one other voicing. First, realize that your 1st and 6th strings are both tuned to the note E, so a note played on the 12th fret of the the high E string is the same note as one played on the 12th fret of the low E string. Move the note on the high E string to the low E string on each of the above voicings to get these:
Now, what I want you to do is move these voicings to different sets of strings by moving the notes individually across 1 string and up or down 4 or 5 frets. You can get these voicings (since some of the voicings are very high on the fretboard, I moved them down an octave while keeping them on the same strings):

Now, let's take those voicings that have already been manipulated, and move them to different sets of strings.
Some of these might seem impossible to finger, and some of them might be really awkward, so in the cases where this is true, try doubling one of the notes to simplify the fingering. Here's an example with the doubled note in parantheses:
Keep in mind that even though there are a lot of voicings here, there are still a good number that aren't included. It's up to the guitarist to experiment as much as possible. By figuring the chords out on your own, you will remember them much better than if you were just reading them from a chord book. Also, I realize that some of the voicings don't sound very good, and truth be told, in a band setting, you would probably play those only rarely.

32 comments sorted by best / new / date

    nice. if you ever have the time, i could use something that shows the note of each fret. i sorta kno some but not all of them. if you could name the first 12 notes of the E string i can figure it out. thanx.
    Woot! Nice lesson! now to read it over a again...and maybe another time after that...
    Wow! Thanks for your time man. very helpful. you just made me see the light... Thanks
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    First, thank you. As a new player, this was really helpful, as I am trying like h#$% to break out of just basic open cords, and really play. The amount of time you put into this lesson is evident. This was great!
    how I play with the right hand? excuse me if have problem in my writing, i dont know to write english, but i understand it
    Fantastic lesson. Assuming I manage to remember to practice this as often as I can, this will help tremendously! I recommend reading this lesson over and over, as many times as it takes to sink in. It will help players of any level.
    i'm lost totally lost only been playing for 4 months and can't figure out chords and i really got confused on this sorry...just wish i had someone in person sometimes...but i'll get it in time wish we had more video lesson tho them help me out alot.....and more videos on learning to play a song....but i'll get it in just hard trying to learn on ur own...put hey just keep picking right.....
    great lesson, easy writing to understand, you presented some good patterns to recognize and apply to the fretboard, that tends to be the best teaching method. awesome job, dude.
    when playing an E on a b flat trumpet which uses the fingering 1 and 2 can be substituded for 3, but the guitar has a multifaceted amount of alternates so it doesn't compare at all, thus making your statement true, but there are SOME alterates for brass and woodwind instruments
    shuold write an article bout inversions. ie playing a C maj chord with the E or G as the bass note rather than the C...good article i give it 7/10
    I am sure this will help many guitarists learn new voicings. outstanding article and very well explained. I used a similar method to expand my chord knowledge.
    very good. just running through the article with a guitar and playing the chords really helps to get used to the fretboard
    Yeah, this is helpful...very nice. Someone said we need more articles like this. I am new here. don't we see these much? Rueda
    i cant play chords can someone help me plz i like playing metal so i only need some chords but i really dont kno were to put my fingers at and to read them i can read tabs but not chords can someone help me email if u can
    I really enjoyed this article. However... woodwind and brass instruments do has other fingerings as well, or alternate fingerings, like the guitar. It's not as many at the guitar... but they do have quite a few of them.
    chocobo rally
    good tips everyone should know basic fret/note mapping its the most important skill in writing or playing music (:
    ...and nevermind. i was being a complete idiot and reading that backwards. ignore the previous two comments.
    great article, lots of good info clearly explained. it helped me out a lot. just one thing:
    You could also move 1 string up and 7 frets higher to get to the 19th fret on the A string.
    ^ it should read 1 string up and 5 frets higher, i believe.
    This was an extremely good lesson, and I agree there should be more. I didn't play anything, just glanced, but the term voicing should be replaced with the term inversion, I THINK... I'm a theory major, and this all seems right on the money, except for the term. Just being nit picky... This really is a great lesson BTW