How to See All Chords as Variations of Two Patterns

The following article provides a way to visualize all basic chords as being variations on a common theme. This allows beginners a way of viewing the many chords as really only a couple of patterns.

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When I started playing guitar, I first learned the traditional open chords from a Mel Bay guitar book (I always think of them as the "Mel Bay chords"). It seemed like a lot of work to memorize a lot of different chord shapes. Then I learned bar chord and this just doubled the number of ways to play chords. Later, after learning about the notes making up the chords, I realized they were all pretty much shifted versions of the same basic chord shape, up-down, left-right, and I'd wished I'd noticed this much earlier. First, your basic chord is made up of usually a 1st, 3rd and 5th note. The the 3rd can be each a minor or major 3rd (depending on whether we're making a minor or major chord). For now, we're going to confine this discussion to just simple major chords. We'll first break down chords into those where the string below the root (1st) note is the 3rd or the 5th. If it goes down a string and to the left (towards the nut), it's the 3rd. If it goes down a string and down the right (towards the bridge), it's the 5th. Whenever we have a chord with the 3rd, we'll also add the 5th on the next string below the 3rd. Here are examples for a C-chord. The first is 1-3-5 (the first three notes of an open C-chord). The next is 1-5 (skipped the 3rd, for the start of a bar C-chord).
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--0-------  <- 5th (G)  |           
--2-------  <- 3rd (E)  |           
--3-------  <- root (C) +- pattern 1
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--5-------  <- 5th  (G) |           
--3-------  <- root (C) +- pattern 2
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Now, all the other chords are made up of these two little patterns. Let's start with an F-chord. Note as we move the chord pattern up and down that there is a shift between the B-string and G-string. When you tune the guitar, you'll remember that you fret at the 4th fret of the G-string to tune the B-string, unlike the others. In each case, you'll see that the top (low E-string) and the bottom (high E-string) are the same and set up to wrap in the next pattern. That is, if you mentally envision this as a loop where the top and bottom E-strings are the same, you'll see the same pattern continuing alternating between pattern 1 and pattern 2.
--1-------  <- root (F) |           
--1-------  <- 5th (C)  |           
--2-------  <- 3rd (A)  |           
--3-------  <- root (F) + pattern 2 
--3-------  <- 5th (C)  |           
--1-------  <- root (F) +- pattern 1
Now, let's shift this whole pattern up one to produce the C chord (while adjust the note going from the B-string to the G-string by one). Note that for this example, I'm including the optional G bass note and also using a G on the high E-string (often played open).
--3-------  <- 5th (G)  |           
--1-------  <- root (C) +- pattern 1
--0-------  <- 5th (G)  |           
--2-------  <- 3rd (E)  |           
--3-------  <- root (C) +- pattern 2
--3-------  <- 5th (G)  |           
Now shift it up again to produce see the same patterns in the G-chord.
--3-------  <- root (G) |           
--3-------  <- 5th (D)  |           
--0-------  <- root (G) +- pattern 1
--0-------  <- 5th (D)  |           
--2-------  <- 3rd (B)  |           
--3-------  <- root (G) +- pattern 2
Now we'll move this pattern up again but we need to swap around the pattern after the D to use pattern 1 in the D-chord (we can't produce a negative fret on the G string). This example shows a optional A and F# bass strings.
--2-------  <- 3rd (F#) |           
--3-------  <- root (D) +- pattern 2
--2-------  <- 5th (B)  |           
--0-------  <- root (D) +- pattern 1
--0-------  <- 5th (A)  |           
--2-------  <- 3rd (F#) |           
Then shift this up again to get the open A-chord (showing optional E bass note).
--0-------  <- 5th (E)  |           
--2-------  <- 3rd (C#) |           
--2-------  <- root (A) +- pattern 2
--2-------  <- 5th (E)  |           
--0-------  <- root (A) +- pattern 1
--0-------  <- 5th (E)  |           
And you could take this A-chord and shift it 3 frets to the right to be the bar C-chord, etc. So all the open and bar chords are made up of only two patterns. You can envision chords and scales patterns of notes either going to the left of the root note or to the right. Now, there are exceptions to every rule. You can think of an E5 power chord where you only use stacked pattern 1's and never use a 3rd:
--0-------  <- root (E) |           
--5-------  <- root (E) |           
--4-------  <- 5th (B)  |           
--2-------  <- root (E) +- pattern 1
--2-------  <- 5th (B)  |           
--0-------  <- root(E)  +- pattern 1
Or this C chord is only using pattern 2's (compare to C-chord above).
--0-------  <- 3th (E)  |           
--1-------  <- root (C) +- pattern 2
--0-------  <- 5th (G)  |           
--2-------  <- 3rd (E)  |           
--3-------  <- root (C) +- pattern 2
--3-------  <- 5th (G)  |           
Of course, you can also rotate minor chords the same as the major chords above. You can practice making up your own chord voicing by thinking about the notes and changing from a chord going to the left vs. a chord going to the right. Practice finding the root, 3rd (minor or major) and 5th in all the chord forms, then learn where to find the 6th's, 7th's, etc. Later. Hopefully being able to envision all the chords as combinations of these two patterns will make it easier to find all of the notes.

17 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    TheNameOfNoone
    This way of looking at chords has came naturally to me after 3 years of playing, but you have put it into an article now. Good job
    expson
    This is more confusing than anything I've seen. I'd rather memorize chords.
    timbo63
    OK, a point for AllenHB. I guess the title should be "all basic chords" - "all chords" is a bit of a stretch. I was thinking of this as a way to visualize the basic beginner chords and scales. Seeing where to put 7ths and such follows from that, and then cool open chords later on.
    Sir_Taffey
    Them big open chords This stacking method I also used in my lesson here on polychords. This is perfect for beginners to open up avenues
    AlanHB
    How do you explain this chord? 0 8 0 9 7 0 and 0 2 0 2 0 0
    Metalisnotmusic
    E minor and A7. Alan, these guys need to learn some theory. Understanding the shapes is good, but understanding why the have the shape they do, and how notes fit into a chord is infinitely more helpful. Also, try putting the 7th on the bottom, classic jazz trick
    Kyyper
    those are not 3rds and 5ths... all in all this just blew my mind :O
    AlanHB
    The first one is. It's an E minor chord.
    Rattlehead90
    No it's not! 079987 -This is e minor
    chrismillar
    Hi rattle head the Em the notes are From string 6 to 1 E E B G B G E the Em triad is the 1 b3 5, derived from the major scale. it's just a different way of playing the same chord and you've added that open G for a much more interesting sounding, cool chord.
    Mace Juggler
    That first chord is a type of E minor chord. It's not a standard chord shape but the notes are E E G B E G, which is very obviously an Em. The A, D, and G strings are a triad, 1 (Do) being the A string, 3 (Mi) being the D, and 5 (So) being the G string, and then the B and high E string repeat the pattern, with some voice crossing; the high E string is actually a lower pitch than the B string, because the B string is fretted on the 8th, it's actually a G above the E. The second chord is a bit more complex. The notes involved are A, C#, E, and G. This is a 7th chord; specifically a dominant seventh chord. That means it's a major chord, with a minor seventh interval added on top. The voicing (order of notes) is E A E G C# E, so it's in second inversion; meaning the 5 of the chord is the bottom note, in this case, it's an E. Addenda; seventh chords are simply four note chords; it's the standard triad (1, 3, and 5) with the 7 added in as well for extra colour.