Guitar Essentials: 11 Other Ways to Play Common Chords

If you’re like most guitarists, you’re probably still playing the same chord grips you first learned. That means a lot of your fretboard’s real estate is going unused.
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If you’re like most guitarists, you’re probably still playing the same chord grips you first learned. That means a lot of your fretboard’s real estate is going unused.

It also means your playing isn’t all that it could be.

What you need is a lesson in chord inversions, which is what you’re going to get right here.

In this lesson, we’ll cover the essential three- and four-note grips that will enhance many aspects of your playing, including neck vision, comping and chord soloing. Get ready for a supercharged chord de force that will have you well on your way to attaining chord inversion mastery.

Before you embark on the road to harmonic domination, let’s review some basic theory.

A chord consisting of three notes—root, 3rd and 5th—is called a triad. The four basic triads are major (1-3-5), minor (1-b3-5), diminished (1-b3-b5) and augmented (1-3-#5).

The order in which a chord’s tones are arranged, from the lowest note to the highest, is referred to as a voicing. When a triad is voiced with the chord tones in sequential order—root-3rd-5th—it’s referred to as a root-position voicing.

If the triad is inverted so that the 3rd is the lowest not (3rd-5th-root), it is said to be in 1st inversion. Juggle the arrangement one more time by placing the 5th at the bottom (5th-root-3rd), and you’ve got a 2nd inversion voicing.

FIGURE 1A displays major and minor triads in root position, 1st inversion and 2nd inversion, on three string sets (5-3, 4-2 and 3-1).


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FIGURE 1B does the same with diminished and augmented triads. Learn the chords on the highest string sets (4-2 and 3-1) first, as these are the most common shapes.


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Also, notice that some of the chord names have slashes. The letter on the left side indicates the chord’s root and quality, while the letter on the right indicates the chord’s lowest note. For examples, in FIGURE 1A, the D/F# symbol signifies that the chord is D major and the the 3rd, F#, is the lowest note. Therefore, this is a 1st-inversion voicing.

It’s important to have the previous shapes at your finger tips so that you’re able to grab them in a flash.

FIGURE 2 is an exercise that will help you see and play the inversions in a horizontal fashion. When playing this figure, or for the matter any other sequence of chords, always look ahead. While playing one inversion, fix your eyes on where the next chord falls on the neck and visualize its fingering. you might even try forming the chord “in the air” before you place your fingers on the neck.


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FIGURE 3 throws some rhythm into the fire with a funk vamp inspired by the work of former Red Hot Chili Pepper John Frusciante. For the 16th-note scratches that fall in between the chords, use your fret hand’s 1st or 2nd finger to deaden the strings. If you have trouble making the two-chord change in one bar, step it down a notch and play one chord per bar, yet maintain the 16th-note strumming pattern to keep your sense of time.


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As a change of direction, FIGURE 4 features vertically aligned Bº triads played in an eighth-note-triplet groove. In bar 1, notice how the b5th (F) of the first Bº chord flips down an octave on beat 2 to become the lowest note of Bº/F. This move is followed by similar action between Bº/F and Bº/D, where the b3rd (D) jumps down an octave to form the 2nd inversion. This sort of figure will come in handy when you want to create some catchy-sounding chord licks, either for use as fills or for beefing up your solos.


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FIGURE 5 also takes a vertical approach, this time with an arpeggiated augmented-triad sequence that sounds right out of a sci-fi B-movie soundtrack. For this one, try using hybrid picking—a combination of pick and fingers: articulate the lowest note of each beat with your pick, and pick the second and third notes with your middle and ring fingers, respectively. For extra credit, as you play through all of these examples, pay close attention to which inversion you’re playing and spell the notes of each voicing out loud.


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Now let’s work with some tetrads, or four-note chords (the root, 3rd, 5th and 7th) most commonly called 7th chord. The five basic types are major 7th (1-3-5-7), dominant 7th (1-3-5-b7), minor 7th (1-b3-5-b7), minor 7th flat 5 (1-b3-b5-b7) and diminished 7th (1-b3-b5-bb7).

The additional degree in the formula makes it difficult for the notes of these chords to be played in numerical order on the guitar. Instead, the voicings are usually more spread out. For instance, a basic Cmaj7 chord in 3rd position, on strings 5-2, would be voiced 1-5-7-3 (C-G-B-E). FIGURE 6 shows an army of 7th chords, all with a root note of G. Here, you’ll see the introduction of the third inversion, in which the 7th is the lowest note.


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Let’s put those tetrads into motion. FIGURE 7, a jazzy vamp in F major, makes use of all four inversions. For this figure, try the hybrid-picking technique introduced in FIGURE 5. Play all 6th-string notes with your pick, and the notes on string set 4-2 with your middle, ring and pinkie fingers. Also, make sure that in each chord you use a fret-hand finger to simultaneously fret the 6th-string note and mute the 5th-string (by lightly touching it).


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The waltz-time groove of FIGURE 8 is reminiscent of pianist McCoy Tyner’s work in saxophonist John Coltrane’s classic quartet. In this example, the inversions aren’t in strict order, so stay focused. If necessary, slow the tempo down. The important thing here is to visualize the inversions, make the changes and pull everything together smoothly. Also, keep in mind that while it’s beneficial to make these chords part of your arsenal, it’s important to keep your exercises musical and fun.


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FIGURE 9 is a chord-melody solo over a 12-bar blues that incorporate both triads and tetrads. The symbols in parentheses represent the basic blues changes, while the symbols below represent the actual chords used. Listen to how the voicings flow into one another—this is where all the inversion work really pays off.

After you’ve masted this arrangement and the figures above, be sure to remember that with great power comes great responsibility. You’ll need to visit these chord inversion often to keep them fresh and under your fingers.


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