I was playing a song where E7 was written as 022130 as opposed to 020100 which I'm used to playing. It sounds "stronger" and "rounder" to me, similar to playing G as 320033 as opposed to 320003. I suppose the differences in feeling are caused by the order of the notes on the strings (inversions?), which notes are repeated, etc. Maybe also the musical context, but how?

My question is: What can I read or study to learn which different feelings the different ways of playing chords evoke, and why that happens?

(I'm not asking about these particular examples.)

Related: In chord progressions with F->G I often just move the F-bar instead of playing the "normal" 320003 because it's more convenient. They feel pretty similar to me, but it would be interesting to know how they differ, i.e. what I'm sacrificing/changing?

9 Answers 9


This is a great question. If you keep playing you will spend a long time trying to answer it for yourself.

There are many factors, and in the end such decisions are largely personal as @Tim has pointed out in his answer. In and of themselves chords don't contain any emotional content, and you might notice that the same chords feel different in different contexts. It may be helpful to attach terms like "jagged" or "buttery" or "anxious" to chords, but recognize that this is personal and provisional. Chords have much subtler colors than can be captured by such simple names. Learn to listen carefully and to decide for yourself how chords make you feel in different settings. To a certain extent this seems to suggest that you are on your own when trying to understand how chords work and how to choose from the many ways to play any single chord. But there are some things that might be helpful for you to think about.

One of the things that I was taught early on is that economy of motion is important. That means that, as a general principle, it is good to find ways to play what you need to play which involve small movements rather than large movements. This thinking can lead to a way of playing which is easier to execute, and can also help to find ways of connecting different chords smoothly.

Part of this is physical: make it easier to play by finding convenient chord voicings (this is particularly helpful when playing fast chord changes). Often there is more than one fingering for the same chord voicing, and the same principle applies: choose the fingering that is convenient, that is, choose the fingerings that make it easy to get to where you want to go from wherever you are coming from.

Another part of this is sonic: voice leading is the discipline of connecting the notes in each chord to the chord which follows. Further, different chord voicings have different sounds, and you may choose one voicing in a particular instance because you like the sound. Then you may choose the next chord voicing because it is a logical movement after the first chord.

These concerns of the physical disposition of the notes of a chord voicing on the fretboard, the physical movements involved for the player, the particular sound a particular chord voicing makes, and the way that chords and harmony are moving in the music are all intertwined. It is a lot to take in. Keep thinking about it and trying to understand what works for you.

Here are some examples using a ii - V7 - I chord progression in A, that is: Bmin7 - E7 - A.

$A.2.$D.0.$G.2.$B.3.$e.2 | $E.0.$A.2.$D.0.$G.1.$B.0.$e.0 | $A.0.$D.2.$G.2.$B.2.$e.0
$A.2.$D.0.$G.2.$B.3.$e.2 | $E.0.$A.2.$D.2.$G.1.$B.3.$e.0 | $A.0.$D.2.$G.2.$B.2.$e.0

First, for economy of motion to the final A you might prefer one of these over the other:


There is no correct answer here, other than that it is what works best for you. You should be able to play A both ways so that you can choose when circumstances permit.

Also note that in the second example the note that is under the pinky (D) is the same for the first two chords, then moves down a half-step in the final chord. This note is the 3rd of the Bmin7, the 7th of the E7, and after moving down to C♯ is again the 3rd of the A. This note movement is satisfying, and I would probably favor this second version of the above two examples. Or notice how strong the movement of this pair of notes from the second example is (with contrary motion when changing to the final chord):

$G.2.$B.3 | $G.1.$B.3 | $G.2.$B.2

You can combine these notes with the roots of the chords to get a complete picture of the underlying chords:

$A.2.$G.2.$B.3 | $E.0.$G.1.$B.3 | $A.0.$G.2.$B.2

There are so many things that we could talk about, even with just this simple example. What about Bmin7 in second inversion, E7 in root position, AMaj7 in second inversion? The important thing is to listen for yourself and decide which you think sounds best.

Here is another example, this one is Bmin7 - E7 - AMaj7:

$A.5.$D.7.$G.4.$B.7 | $A.5.$D.6.$G.4.$B.5 | $A.4.$D.6.$G.2.$B.5

This progression uses a Bmin7 in first inversion, an E7 in third inversion, and finally an AMaj7 in first inversion again. You might find these particular chord voicings challenging to play, they require a bit of a stretch. Notice how different the same chords used in the first example sound now that they are played without the root notes in the bass. Also notice the sound of a minor 2nd between the 7th and the root of the AMaj7 chord. This minor 2nd gives this voicing a distinctive sound:


Notice how the notes lead to each other. This time the note under the second finger (D) is the 3rd of the Bmin7, remains the same for the E7 where it is the 7th of the chord, then moves down a half-step to C♯ which is the 3rd of the AMaj7. Also, the note under the third finger (A) is the 7th of the Bmin7, moves down a half-step to G♯ which is the 3rd of E7, then stays in place becoming the 7th of the final AMaj7.

It turns out that the way that 3rds and 7ths of chords move around is pretty important.

If you can't play the last example, it is a bit difficult, try to play it higher on the neck where the frets are closer together. Here it is in D (Emin7 - A7 - DMaj7):

$A.10.$D.12.$G.9.$B.12 | $A.10.$D.11.$G.9.$B.10 | $A.9.$D.11.$G.7.$B.10

Note also that this chord can be thought of as a Bmin7 in first inversion, or as a D6 in root position:


It is really common to see the above voicing used as a D6.

  • 1
    Thank you so much! I learnt a lot from this answer. The example was very helpful. Thank you!
    – Anna
    Commented Mar 12, 2018 at 10:44
  • What happened to the chord fingerings/tabs in this answer? They look like this to me $D.6.$G.2
    – miniHessel
    Commented Mar 31, 2018 at 19:31

Reasons for choosing a particular inversion and/or voicing, particularly on guitar, are rather personal than anything else.

Any resource will have been written with that in mind. So it won't help much. You're better off using your ears and choosing whichever you think sounds best, and possibly, as you mention, is easier, more effective to get to and from.

Be aware that those two E7 shapes can be combined as in 020130. Certain voicings suit certain styles in a way, and the more open G always sounds less harsh than the one using 2nd string 3rd fret, to me. But a couple of guys I play with occasionally say that's the 'proper' way to play a G. Not a good mindset, but what do I know?!

The other factor which creeps in regarding inversions is that it's generally accepted that the root position (root note lowest) sounds most stable, with the 2nd inversion (3rd with 4 note chords) sounding weaker or not so convincing as the rest.

Regarding your last para: there's only subtle differences between certain chord shapes. We tend to catch the highest and lowest notes from the sound of a chord, and with guitar, it's often difficult to discern the notes in between. With open strings versus fretted, though, there is more of a sound difference than a note make-up difference, thus the open G will tend to sound different from the barred G. That and when you're playing a 'pulsed' rhythm, using the fretting hand to stop strums short, it works far better on barred chords, and also if the rest of the chords are barred, the sound is more consistent.

  • The relevance of voicing and inversion probably depends on the style of music the asker is trying to play. In my experience (and according to Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voice_leading), voice leading is critical in classical music, and less so in jazz and modern popular music. Just something to bear in mind. Of course, as you mention, the ear is the real source of truth.
    – mfsiega
    Commented Mar 9, 2018 at 17:27

Two other things to consider when choosing chords shapes:

  1. Wrist and hand positioning. The same chord progression may be more comfortable and reliable in a certain position or voicing than others by minimizing the amount of reaching or uncomfortable wrist positions. This will help you voice the chord fully by having all the frets held properly, and reduce the possibility of injury long term. When you are practicing, taking a moment at each chord to look at your hand, wrist and arm, and ask yourself - am I squeezing too hard? Is my wrist in a comfortable position or twisted? As you learn more possible voicings for each chord, you can choose finger patterns that are appropriate for your hand size and go well together in the progression.

  2. Voice leading. Voice leading is the practice of considering each note in a chord, and how it moves to the notes of the next chord. This technique is often described as making music sound 'smooth' or 'clean'. By moving as few notes as possible when changing chords, the chord change will have a more coherent, gentle sound. Changing lots of notes by, for example, moving a barre chord up and down the neck, will sound more dramatic and jarring. Both are valid choices depending on the sound you want, but that is also something to consider when picking what finger pattern to use for a chord.

  • While I'm pretty much a "hack" at guitar, these are also the major reasons for selection of chord voicings/inversions when playing piano accompaniment (as opposed to having to play with the melody included). Commented Mar 9, 2018 at 20:15
  • 1
    Your no.1 is so true! I can never understand why open C an open G chords are taught (by some) so early. Wrist and hand positions are so different between C and G, changing, for a beginner, is not easy.
    – Tim
    Commented Dec 24, 2019 at 11:04

Learn to play a lot of different songs from different genres. Most musical elements do not carry a lot of feeling on their own, the context is key. So you won’t be able to just play different chord voicings and understand how they work in isolation. What you want to do is learn to play as many chords and voicings and patterns in different contexts.

The short answer is, study and practice and study and practice and then study and practice some more.


There are lots of online resources if you search for 'alternative chord shapes' and similar. Here's one, picked at random.


Yes, the inversion (which note of the chord is lowest) and voicing (notes close together or spread over several octaves) make a difference. Guitarists can also choose to use open strings in some chords, which gives a particular effect.

You can learn the various possibilities. Only you can decide what feelings they evoke though. Have fun exploring!

  • Thanks for your answer Laurence! I can figure out different chord shapes. I'm looking for a resource on how the different shapes feel and why they are used. Similarly maybe to how everyone knows how minor chords or dominant 7th chords or diminished chords feel. I'm new to music and I'm sure I could go exploring blindly and would have figured out that minor chords sound sad by myself, but I believe it's helped me a lot to hear these ideas already condensed.
    – Anna
    Commented Mar 9, 2018 at 11:44
  • Minor = sad is a glib over-simplification. As would be any other description of how a particular chord 'feels'.
    – Laurence
    Commented Mar 9, 2018 at 13:22
  • I appreciate your open-minded approach and I'm sure it's healthy for experienced musicians or people who have grown up around music, but I'm hoping for an answer other than "figure it out yourself" to help my development.
    – Anna
    Commented Mar 9, 2018 at 13:35
  • I'm rather partial to the sound of the resolution 022434 (E7) into x02225 (A) but didn't notice those forms on that page of beautiful open chords.
    – supercat
    Commented Mar 9, 2018 at 23:16
  • I understand. You want a set of rules to follow. I'm afraid there isn't one. And, as you've seen, when people attempt to give you what you want, they get impossibly complex and subjective.
    – Laurence
    Commented Mar 10, 2018 at 0:08

The answers so far are quite good, but they don't specifically address your E7 question (IMO). E7 is an interesting chord because of the tension between the D and the E notes in the chord. When you play 030100, you have an open D, but it is fairly low and isolated, so the tension is minimized. But when you play 022130, the D and E sound only a whole step apart, maximizing the tension between the two. So when you resolve into an A chord, the greater tension has a greater feeling of resolution.

I prefer G as 320033 because my (cheaper) guitars have intonation problems with an open B. My middle finger tends to mute the lone B, so I end up with the "power" chord of 3x0033. If I am writing in the key of C, however, or the melody starts on a B, I will play 320003 to create the harmonies I want in the song.

In other words, try all the variations you know (and learn or figure out more) to see what sounds best to your ear. You might even try playing the same song in multiple keys! Remember, you're an artist and the colors in your palette are the voicings of your chords.

  • Good answer. In particular, for the resolution to (standard-voiced) A, the open-d-string version doesn't really make any sense voice-leading wise, because the seventh is resolved upwards though classically, it strongly wants to resolve downwards as it does in the high-d version (to c♯). — Regarding those intonation problems – you're aware that the major third in 12-edo tuning is too high “by design”? This is particularly obvious when it rings out on open strings and/or doubled; the problem may have nothing to do with the instruments. Commented Mar 9, 2018 at 23:08

When you are deciding what chord version to use, I think you can take into consideration the melody line.

For example, I also prefer 320033 - it is almost a power chord (5 of 6 strings are playing 1st and 5th) so it sound pretty cool. However, some time ago I played one song and realized that 320003 sound much better there. I understood why it happens this way when I tried to play a melody line alone. It turned out that it starts with the 3rd (i.e. B note). Since in 320003 this note occurs twice, it sounds much better in this song.

So when you play a song, try to repeat/highlight the notes from the melody line in your chords.


What can I read or study to learn which different feelings the different ways of playing chords evoke, and why that happens?

The simple answer: You can't.

It's very easy to look at whether your lowest note is the tonic, or looking at whether the chords give you a particular bassline or pedal notes, or anything like that. That's all stuff you can learn with theory. What it can never tell you is how it feels. And that's because it's an entirely subjective experience for every person.

For your E7, having the seventh on the B string makes that a higher pitch. Since guitars will generally emphasise those high-mid notes, and the unwound strings will generally sound more "jangly", that can give you a more "obvious" seventh sound.

For your G, the 320003 version can sound a little more "mushy" on the low end with the B on the A-string, which becomes an issue with electric guitar. The classic barred power-chord (slide up your F) tends to avoid that problem. However the barred version generally uses higher-pitched notes within the chord, which you'll notice sounds different. The open strings on 320003 will also tend to sound more "jangly", which is another factor. As for 320033, that B on the A-string is less prominent, which makes it sound more like G5 (a power chord), which generally will sound a bit harsher.

Those are some generalisations about how the different voicings might sound. For how you feel when you play them - to quote the Hollies, "I can't tell you, but I know that it's mine". :)

  • With a little help from my friends, I thought it was the Beatles.
    – Tim
    Commented Mar 10, 2018 at 15:41

You can change the notes in a chord, but not all notes are equally important.

The most important notes to indicate the "color" of a chord are the third (telling you if it's major or minor) and the seventh (telling you what type of seventh chord this is). What you're doing with the two E7 voicings is moving that D, which is the seventh, up an octave. In general you want to avoid having more dissonant intervals (like a 7) in the lower register: it gets muddy, especially because you are not playing the third (the G sharp). If you keep the more dissonant intervals in the higher register, you can get away with playing chords with a lot more color (dissonance) to them.

You want to think about what is musically happening as you play chords different ways, but there's a problem: you're playing guitar, a uniquely beautiful and uniquely frustrating instrument. The best book I've found about how to choose chord voicing for musical effect is The Jazz Piano Book by Mark Levine (not the theory book, although it's also good). Each chapter introduces one new idea on how to choose what notes to play (or leave out) of a chord, with tons of examples listed. The benefit to learning theory on piano (even the cheapest midi or toy) is that you can make a change and hear it immediately: I wasted years trying to get ahead on guitar because I couldn't play (and hear) the examples. For guitar books, Ted Greene's Chord Chemistry is sort of related, as are any number of books on getting started in jazz guitar (I also like Jody Fisher's books). No guitar book is as clean and simple as the Jazz Piano book, such is the nature of the guitar.

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