21

The open C Major Chord is one of the first basic chords taught to beginning guitar students. It is also one of the most common chords I see in the music I listen to.

The instruction books teaching the fingering for the open C Major Chord stress the importance of avoiding the open low E string when playing the C Major Chord and the chord diagrams for the C Major Chord always show the 6th string being muted.
enter image description here

But the E is the third of the C Major Triad (part of the chord) and playing the low E string on the open C chord would be much easier than trying to avoid it with your pick or mute it with a finger tip. I realize that if you included the Low open E string in the chord it would be a first inversion of the C chord or could be referred to as a C with E as the bass note (C/E). But it is still a C Major Chord (just a different voicing) as explained Here and Here by two of the most venerable contributors to this site.

So why does it seem that guitar instruction books make it sound so wrong to play all 6 strings when playing the open C Major Chord?

And why is it rarely used in composing music for guitar?

I often see the second inversion of the C Major Chord in music composed for guitar (C/G) but don't remember ever seeing any song I have ever looked up the chords for that called for a C with E in the bass (first inversion).

Many of the songs I have learned to play use the first inversion of the D Major Chord D/F# and I play that chord in many of the songs I cover and it sounds good.

So why is the first inversion of the D Major Chord far more common than the rarely used first inversion of the C Major Chord which is certainly easier to play than the D/F sharp because it's just a matter of strumming all 6 strings?

Is it just a coincidence that the songs I choose to look up the chords for just don't have the C/E chord as part of the arrangement whereas many of the songs I look up do specify the D/F# chord?

Or is there something about a C/E that diminishes its use in music written for guitar?

  • 4
    Perhaps the more resonant open E string makes the E seem like a pedal tone, making C/E sound more like a contrapuntal neighbour chord of E minor rather than a strong chord of its own. – Remy Mar 5 '18 at 5:09
  • It seems like this is a question about why guitar method book writers present the topic of chord inversions in a particular way. In actual music I think different inversions are just as common on guitar as they are anywhere else. Perhaps an abundance of guitarists who were always taught from rigid and prescriptive method books statistically gives lie to my statement, but in general it is the case from a theory perspective. – Darren Ringer Mar 5 '18 at 16:43
  • I don't know much about music theory, but this seems obvious. Typically guitarists want the lowest note of the chord to be the root. It just "sounds better" in almost every case. – only_pro Aug 7 at 20:14

10 Answers 10

17

Root position and 2nd inversion triads sound stronger than triads in 1st inversion. Maybe it would be better to say that triads in 1st inversion sound more harmonically ambiguous than the other two options.

Consider that for a major triad in 2nd inversion, the fifth is in the bass, and this is the note most closely related to the tonic of the chord. But, for a major triad in 1st inversion, the third is in the bass. This note is not only less suggestive of the tonic, but is itself the fifth of another note. For a CMaj triad in 1st inversion, the E is in the bass. This is a fifth away from A, and the notes E G C are suggestive of an Amin7 chord (containing the guide tones of Amin7).

Alternatively, taking E as the root, E G C looks like an Em♭6 chord which is missing only the fifth. Thus, the CMaj triad in 1st inversion has a harmonic ambiguity that the root position and 2nd inversion voicings lack.

The context in which the chord arises matters. In the context of a progression like C/E - A7 - DMaj7 which is the best way to think of the C/E? Is it a ii chord (Em♭6), a v7 chord (Am7), a ♭VII (CMaj), or something else? Does the melody provide any clues? In the context of another progression: C/E - A7 - Dmin7 - G7, I would say that the C/E sounds very much like a I chord (CMaj). I suspect that this slipperiness is the reason that 1st inversion triads don't show up in beginner method books more frequently; this is a time when simple grips that establish the chord sounds need to be learned.

As to why the 1st inversion voicings are used less frequently by experienced players and composers, I am not sure that this is true (well, it probably is). For me, 1st inversion voicings are most useful as passing chords, or when the third is part of a moving bass line on the guitar, part of the voice leading, or when someone else is playing the bass notes.

Register Issues

The above provides an explanation for why triads in 1st inversion are less common in general, but does not shed light on why a CMaj open chord with an E in the bass is rarely seen. I think the implicit suggestion here is that the particular voicing asked about by Rockin Cowboy may be even less common than other voicings of C/E.

As has been pointed out by another answer and by Todd Wilcox in the comments, some intervals can begin to sound muddy in the lower registers. This phenomenon is discussed here and here, and may be one explanation for why this particular voicing of C/E is avoided.

I note that at this page and this page it is stated that the low E should be avoided with the open C voicing, but no reasons other than that it doesn't sound good are given. On the other hand, this page does mention this voicing, and states that Stone Temple Pilots used it in their tune Plush. All three of these resources seem to be pitched at a beginner level.

One of my favorite resources for information about chords is Ted Greene's Chord Chemistry. He does include this voicing, as an E/G♯ moveable form situated at the 4th fret. This is not a beginner book, and it is assumed that players will use their ears to judge when voicings work and when they do not.

I see some 2nd inversion voicings in the beginner resources mentioned above, but I see almost no 1st inversion voicings. The second page does show a D/F♯ with the F♯ on the bottom string, and now that I think about it I used that voicing a lot at one time.

Summing Up

I think that in general triads in 1st inversion are tricky to use because of their harmonic ambiguity. Add to this that they can also sound muddy or otherwise jangly in the lower register and you have good reason to avoid introducing them to beginners. The moveable C barre form with the third in the bass may be avoided in such cases because it is harder to play than the other barre chords, and it requires some judgment to determine if it sounds good or not.

  • 1
    You have good points here, but “sound stronger” is a fuzzy statement, and “suggestive of an Am⁷ chord” a bit far-fetched since A itself never actually turns up. I'd rather say it's suggestive of Em♭₆. – leftaroundabout Mar 5 '18 at 10:59
  • 1
    @leftaroundabout -- I picked up the language of "some triad inversions sound stronger than others" from a teacher years ago; I agree that it is a little vague (which doesn't bother me too much here). Good point about Em♭6, but I do think that C/E is suggestive of Am7 even in the absence of an A. I have expanded my answer a bit. – David Bowling Mar 5 '18 at 15:15
  • 2
    This has the important music theoretical reasons and explanation and leaves out the fact that the open low E string on guitar can be tricky. Open A chords in second inversion with the open low E usually don’t work either. The open low E can easily sound muddy and doesn’t have to be strummed very hard to make it noticeably change pitch as it rings out. Also we should remember that guitars sound an octave lower than written so it’s quite a low note and on piano, for example, inversions that low can sound muddy also. – Todd Wilcox Mar 5 '18 at 18:09
  • @ToddWilcox -- I think that register may be a contributing factor, but cowboy A chords with low open E notes in the bass are very common, at least with the E working in an alternating A - E - A bassline fashion. Also, C/G with the fifth in the bass seems to be an extremely common chord, and that is not much higher than the A/E. – David Bowling Mar 5 '18 at 18:49
  • I can’t get those alternating bass patterns to work without muting the bass note I’m not playing. Meaning, when I play the G under a C chord the A string is muted and there’s no C. Likewise with the E-A combination. It might be more of a factor with my particular guitars, but even with piano music I don’t see a lot of harmonic sixths or fourths in the lower registers. – Todd Wilcox Mar 5 '18 at 21:07
9

In the same way that a first inversion C chord played on the lowest notes of a piano will sound less satisfying to most ears than one an octave or two higher, a first inversion open C chord with that unrestrained, booming E string is unlikely to satisfy the way a more balanced D/F# will. It is true that one can tame the beast somewhat with finger picking and arpeggiating, but it will always be a problem child compared to the more tractable D/F#.

  • 2
    Yes... chords generally don't subjectively "work" as well down in the bass range, and at the lower end of the guitar, you're already in the range where some things can sound a bit ropey. – topo Reinstate Monica Mar 5 '18 at 13:19
  • 1
    Also, it is the lowest note, so consistency would be difficult. e.g. if a song were C, Bm, Am, then a C/E would raise questions about Bm/D, Am/C (I know other chords aren't required to have inversions, but still the question would be asked). IMHO, this is one reason why D/F# works: it offers options both above and below. – Michael Easter Mar 6 '18 at 10:58
  • Thanks for addressing why the D/F# is more common. What do you believe makes the D/F# more balanced? Is it because it is fretted and thus not "unrestrained" or is it because the 3rd in the D/F# is paired with the 5th on the open A string whereas the 3rd in the open C/E (the open E String) is paired with the root on the (C played on 5th string)? Or a different reason? – Rockin Cowboy Mar 7 '18 at 21:36
  • @MichaelEaster Great point about the open E being the lowest possible note on guitar. It has been my experience that the D/F# is often used as a passing chord or as part of a bass walk down resolving to an Em chord. You can't "walk down" any farther than the low E which may explain why we don't see the first inversion of open C used as often as the 1st inversion of open D. – Rockin Cowboy Mar 7 '18 at 21:41
6

Many times a 1st inversion is used on the V chord to substitute for the vii° and to give you a bass note that leads back to the tonic. C is the dominant of F major and that is a very difficult key to play on guitar and not many songs are written for guitar in F (or many songs at all really) when it can be dropped half a step to E. That could be one possible reason it's not common.

Guitar books are generally for beginners and teach how to play each chord starting on the root. I am confident the books also show a D chord muting the E and A sting even though you can play a D/A just as easily as a C/E.

But on a side note I actually use it a lot when going from a C to F and it sounds fine and I like it.

5

It helps to think of the harmonics when it comes to the chords.

Playing a C-Chord, with G-C as the bottom two notes

G-C are the 3rd and 4th harmonics: C-C-G-C - so the "real" base of the chord is actually an octave and a half beneath that G.

Playing a C-chord, with E-C as the bottom two notes

E-C is a bit higher up the harmonic series: C-C-G-C-E-G-Bb-C. So the real base is more than two octaves lower than the E.

If you're playing E-C in a high register? Then it's not a problem - two octaves down isn't a problem, and would be a pleasant note. But if you're playing the lowest string on the guitar, and then mentally adjusting it 2+ octaves downward?

If you want to do an experiment, go to a piano and play the following intervals further and further down the piano's register:

  • Octave (1st and 2nd harmonic)
  • Fifth (2nd and 3rd harmonic)
  • Fourth (3rd and 4th harmonic)
  • Major Third (4th and 5th harmonic)
  • Minor Third (5th and 6th harmonic)
  • Diminished Fifth (5th and 7th harmonic)

... you'll find the further away from the fundamental the interval gets, the higher the register has to be before it's pleasant to the ears.

3

Playing a five string chord on guitar has a different sound and texture than playing a six string chord, even if the chord is technically the same, and the further up the neck you play the shorter the strings get and the more different they sound. Chords that utilize open strings are so popular because they sound good as well as being easier to play than barre chords. Since the open C major is one of two 5 string major chord shapes playable on the guitar it makes sense that teachers would emphasize this to get the student used to playing 5 strings. Being able to mute the low E string is something everyone should learn and not avoid simply because they think it's too hard.

A student should always first learn to play in root position since it sounds the clearest with regards to harmonic intent. The A major chord shape could also potentially use the low E as a second inversion tone, but again, there's no point in practicing this when you could be practicing playing the E or G major chords instead.

Many of the songs I have learned to play use the first inversion of the D Major Chord D/F# and I play that chord in many of the songs I cover and it sounds good.

This is because D is the second highest note of the guitars lowest octave and thus it loses a lot of low end and can sound uncomfortably high compared to other open chords around it.

3

Different chord inversions work best at different places in a progression. First-inversion chords are best in cases when the bass note is a half-step below that of the preceding and/or succeeding chord. In the case of the C/E chord, that would most likely occur when the neighboring chords are a six-string F chord or Bb/F. Guitar pieces for beginners don't generally contain either of those chords, and thus wouldn't have any place where a C/E would be particularly appropriate.

Note, btw, that it's easy to mute the sixth string while playing a C chord, using the same finger that is fretting the fifth string (typically the ring finger). Indeed, for many people it would be easier to deliberately mute the sixth string (by placing the finger slightly toward that string), than it would be to let it ring freely (placing the fifth-string finger precisely between the fourth and sixth strings without touching either).

  • @RockinCowboy: The primary point of interest was that it may be easier than trying to avoid strumming the sixth string, but since the OP was able to play C/E and was having trouble with strumming, I was suggesting that--at least for the OP--muting the sixth string would be easier than both. – supercat Mar 8 '18 at 15:11
2

Two main reasons really

  1. It's poor voice leading. Doubling the third is rarely a good idea to begin with, let alone in the bass; it is almost certain to result in parallel or hidden octaves or an abused leading tone.

  2. It sounds pretty bad without a capo. If you're higher up the neck it is bearable. Lower frequencies are harder for your ear to differentiate. In general you will find composers will space notes more sparsely the farther down you go on the staff.

1

I know you can get pretty complex with the music theory behind the answer, but the simpler answer is, because it sounds "best" to have the root note of the chord as the lowest tone. That helps your ear place the chord in context with the song, especially when playing the guitar as a solo instrument.

Note that if you are playing with a bass player, all bets are off and you can get really creative with your chord voicings, it's the bass player's job to anchor the chord with the root note on the beat or as needed. Jimi Hendrix often used this voicing with the major 3rd as the root, although higher up the fret board.

Regarding D/F#, that is often used as a transition chord, but you won't often hear a song written in the key of D use a D/F# voicing - on the root chord, you want to hear that root note in the bass.

-1

There's really two issues here:

  • Why do books and tutorials tell you to start on the C on the second string?

Because the standard answer is that you play a chord starting on the root. If the bass note is not serving another purpose (such as making a cadence stronger or providing a walking bass line), then use the root.

  • Why do guitarists rarely play C over E?

They don't, many guitarists will play that low E string whenever a C appears for a fuller sound, to add a little more bass, or simply because they don't feel like muting that string.

There's nothing inherently wrong with it and it's itiomatic of a lot of guitar music.

  • 1
    I wonder who you mean by those “many” guitarists who play the low E whenever a C appears. I don't know any, and I'm definitely glad I don't play with any. This kind of thing can be really annoying when you're playing a bass instrument. – leftaroundabout Mar 5 '18 at 15:49
  • 1
    @leftaroundabout You probably wouldn't notice. Particularly if you're playing a bass note an octave or two lower. – AJFaraday Mar 5 '18 at 15:50
  • 1
    Sure I would notice, like I do in the case of D/F♯ or F/A. — You can't play that C a whole octave lower – well, you can on a 5-string bass, but that's really a pretty extreme deep end. The only option you have to not get a muddying clash in the bass range is to also play E, but then it is really clearly an inverted chord and wants to resolve to F. – leftaroundabout Mar 5 '18 at 15:57
  • 1
    @leftaroundabout A bass guitar's open strings are an octave lower than a guitar's four low open strings. Yes, that means that the guitar's low E is a third above the lowest C on a standard bass. It really doesn't clash, tho. Unless, perhaps, the guitar's got a huge amount of bass range on it's EQ and the bass, erm, doesn't. – AJFaraday Mar 5 '18 at 16:00
  • 2
    Well, I don't know what you mean by huge amount of bass range. I do like it when the guitar has a sound that makes it able to get a bit fat in the bass range, be it for a harder rock riff or for percussive-infused rhythmic stuff on an acoustic guitar. And yes, it can also be nice for e.g. a long-ringing final chord if the guitar adds a really low major third only slightly above the bass note. But not for always just leaving any low string ringing whenever it happens to be a chord tone. – leftaroundabout Mar 5 '18 at 16:12
-3

C/E is not the first inversion of C since then the second note would be G, not C. So the bass note is quite more detached than if we were actually talking about a proper first inversion.

protected by Dom Mar 6 '18 at 15:41

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.