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I'm a beginner trying to teach myself guitar, and I thought I understood how chords work but the D major chord just confuses the heck out of me.

From what I know, chords are built out of triads, and for D, that's D, F#, A.

enter image description here

So I can see that in the later part of the chord, when it goes from D to F#, and before it, when it's A, but I don't understand what's happening with the open D string. Why does it do directly from D to A when there's a whole F# there?

I don't know if I'm missing something or maybe if I need a break from all this, but help would be appreciated.

Thanks in advance!

  • Hi, could you explain or clarify what you mean by "later part of the chord"? Are you referring to the string number? Also, what do you mean when you say "When it goes from D to F#". – nivlac Jan 31 at 23:34
  • Hi! Thank you, sorry for my poor wording. I just meant like the D on the B string and the F# on the E string. That part makes sense to me. The part I don't understand is why the F# that's on the D string is skipped over. – aroundthecoroner Jan 31 at 23:44
  • 2
    The main reason the chord is played like this, is to have a D as the lowest note. You'll notice that when you learn basic open chords (A, D, E and Am, Dm, Em) the number of strings that are played (5, 4, 6) is chosen to have A, D and E as the lowest note. – Your Uncle Bob Feb 1 at 1:10
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    The standard E chord goes from E to B (skipping the G#) and the standard A chord goes from A to E (skipping the C#) - aren't these similar in that respect? – topo morto Feb 1 at 1:12
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    @Tim That's true, chords don't have to have the root as lowest. But in general, open chords DO have the root as lowest, and for good reason. It's easy for both teaching and learning. – only_pro Feb 1 at 16:59
19

I think the confusion here is that it doesn't matter what order the notes are in. Think of a piano for second...you can pick any D, any F# and any A anywhere on the piano regardless of what order or how much space is in between the notes and you will still have a D major triad. You can also pick 2 or 3 of any notes and you would still have a D triad. Same with guitar.

The voicing will be different but the name of and quality of the chord is the same. Different voicing may be said to be open or closed, depending on the space between the notes, and may be considered in an inversion depending on the lowest sounding note but it will still be the same chord.

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    This is in principle the right answer, but your statements as to “anywhere ... regardless of the order” really are a bit too strong. It is not that arbitrary. – leftaroundabout Feb 1 at 0:55
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    Indeed. The D chord actually demonstrates that the order is important. You don't play the open A string in order to have a D as the lowest note. – Your Uncle Bob Feb 1 at 1:07
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    @YourUncleBob -- you certainly can play the open A string here; that is just a D in second inversion. – David Bowling Feb 1 at 1:11
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    @DavidBowling You can, of course, but beginners are taught to play versions with the root note in the bass because that makes it more obvious to the untrained ear how the chord progression moves up and down. – Your Uncle Bob Feb 1 at 1:14
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    @YourUncleBob My experience (having taught a couple of beginners) is that it's not about the progression, it's about the strumming accuracy. If you're a bit off in hitting the D, the worst that happens is you catch the A which still sounds reasonably OK. If you tell them to include the A though, they'll regularly catch the E which of course doesn't sound OK. For the A chord (002220), I haven't seen a tutorial which suggests omitting the bottom E, even though the chord voicing is identical to the D chord (until the top E, of course). – Graham Feb 1 at 12:41
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You wouldn't be able to play the D and the F# at the same time because they are on the same string.

The only way to play both notes would be to play the D on the 5th fret of the A string, resulting in this chord:

Alternative D major chord

This is far more difficult to play and the sound of the chord is arguably very similar.

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    Note : the easiest way to play this chord is to barre with your index and play a C-shape chord. It's still not as easy as the conventional D chord, though. – Eric Duminil Feb 1 at 12:25
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    I find the sound of the 2nd-fret C-shape barre chord to be much more pleasing than that of the open D chord or the 5th-fret A shape because of the minor third between the F# and A. Unfortunately, while the hand shape isn't particularly hard to play, it doesn't fit nicely into most common progressions. – supercat Feb 1 at 16:49
  • This doesn't seem to address what seems to me to be the OP's real question. The OP is under the impression that chord voicings always go 135, or is wondering if other voicings are OK. It's not really a guitar fingering question, it's a theory question. – Ben Crowell Feb 2 at 17:06
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You've found out that basic chords are triads. That means three notes, all different. In a major triad, those notes are 1, 3 and 5 of the major scale. What you're missing is that they can be played in any order, and still make a major chord.

In closed position, they are sequential - each note is as close to the next as possible. Easy on a piano, as the notes are all there to be played. Nothing in the way. In fact, you can even play two or three of each note name, given enough fingers.In open voicings, as long as all the notes are there, they are spred out away from each other, rather than in sequential order.

The way the guitar is tuned cuts some options down in number, as it's impossible to reach certain notes while holding others down. So compromises need to happen. Yes, really with a D major chord, we need three notes, D F♯ and A. But it doesn't matter if there is one of each, or more, and the order can be changed too.

Generally speaking, on guitar, beginners are encouraged to play chords with the chord's name note as the lowest - that's called root position. The chord sounds strongest in that way, so initially, we're taught that D consists of four strings being played - as you show. Open D being the lowest. Then we have to find F♯ and A. If we played the F♯ on the D string, it would lose the open D. So we find something on the 3rd string. A is convenient. On the 2nd string, another D fits, leaving F♯ played on the top string.

You could, if you wanted it sequential, play D on 5th string 5th fret, F♯ on 4th,4th and the top three notes as before. Or play with an open A, making a second inversion of the chord. Or even press bottom string on 2nd fret, and the top three as you say, for a first inversion of D major.

To sum up - D, F♯ and A are needed for a D chord. The order doesn't matter, as long as there's one of each, minimum. On guitar, it's not always possible to play the notes in the order you'd like. In fact, sometimes, with more advanced chords, some notes have to be omitted - you just can't fit them in. But that's a story for another day.

7

Okay, so..
The Chromatic Scale consists of all twelve notes; that's the entire fretboard.

The Major Scale consists of the first, third, fifth, sixth, eighth, tenth, and twelfth notes of the Chromatic Scale; starting from the desired root note (so D in this case).

D     D♯    E     F     F♯    G     G♯    A     A♯    B     C     C♯
1     2     3     4     5     6     7     8     9     10    11    12

A Triad is basically any Diatonic Chord (Non-Chromatic) that consists of 3 notes.
Particularly the Major, Minor, Augmented, and Diminished chords.

The Major Triad consists of the first, third, and fifth notes of the Major Scale.
(Or you might say: A Major Third and a Perfect Fifth above the Root).

D     E     F♯    G     A     B     C♯
1     2     3     4     5     6     7

So in the case of the Key of D, the Major Triad (the D Major Chord) is D, F♯, and A. It doesn't matter which particular frets or strings you use to conjure these notes, and it doesn't matter which order they ring out. It doesn't matter how you hold your hand or which fingers go where when you play it. It just has to be those three notes. It's about the intervals between them, relative to the root.

D

More often than not, you will probably want the root note to be the lowest/deepest note. You don't have to, but that's typically how it's done. It's not a rule, it's common convention. Anyway, your chord diagram depicts what is probably the easiest and most common way to do it; without requiring some crazy finger acrobatics.

DMajor

  • I like how thorough your answer is. It might benefit for a tldr on top. Especially because the op is a beginner. – xerotolerant Feb 2 at 2:12
  • The latter diagram might benefit from expansion to at least 7 rows, since x-5-7-7-7-5 is a practical, and not terribly uncommon, way of playing a D chord. – supercat Feb 2 at 20:40
  • @supercat I used the diagram from the question as a template. The idea's just to show information missing from the traditional open chord diagrams. I was going to touch on barre chords but thought that might be approaching information overload. – tjt263 Feb 2 at 21:38
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You‘re on the right track. Very seldom a beginner of guitar playing is really interested in what tones he is actually playing when he holds / pushes down a string with his fingers in a bend somewhere on the frett. Generally he is satisfied to know just the name of the chords. But you want really to know what notes are there and why you do what you‘re doing. That‘s what I call smart!

You knew already quite a lot when asking. What you didn‘t know - it seems - was: that triads may be inverted and that playing triads in a chord progression only in root position wouldn‘t sound the same like they do as shown in the chord patterns for begiiners, especially when you play the chords by fingerpicking. E-guitarist playing a hard rock style consider this point in a different way. What you can do now after all the helpful answers on this site is lookong up the building of triads, their inversions and learn more about chord progression.

As you know now the tones of a chord are not always in the same row as in the triad of a the root position you can define any chords in any bends of your guitar.

My advice is: Study the triads by notating and comparing them in all possible symbolic levels: the image they show in the note staff, the tab, the chord pattern, the pattern on a keyboard, the abstraction of towers of simple note names in letters.

1

A chord doesn't necessarily consist of only 3 notes. An orchestra might have 50 different notes playing at once, but it can be considered a chord if the note names are all correct, D, F#, A. What you're playing is D - A - D - F#. You could also play 5 strings: A - D - A - D - F# (though it doesn't sound as good, because that places too much emphasis on the dominant note, A). But you can't play the low E string because then the note (E) would not fit the chord.

There are other fingerings for a D chord on the guitar.

BTW, some chords have 4 notes, and some have 5. It's just the simple ones that have 3. :-)

  • Bottom string can be played on 2nd fret - it's F#, making a 1st inversion D. – Tim Feb 3 at 11:01
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When using standard tuning, if one plays a chord using an open d string as the lowest note, the lowest note one will be able to play along with that will be an open g string. The lowest note of a D chord one would be able to play would be an a (second fret g string). One could then use the remaining two strings to play a d' and f#' above those. Personally, I think that a d chord played in that fashion sounds rather wimpy, but that's the common way of playing a d chord.

Two alternative ways of playing a d chord are x-5-7-7-7-5 (barre the 5th fret across the A and e' strings, and then use the other fingers to cover the 7th fret of the d, g, and b strings) or x-5-4-2-3-2 (barre the second fret across the g and e' strings, use middle finger 3rd fret b string, and the other two fingers on the A and d strings). The latter approach sounds very nice, but is unfortunately likely to be awkward to work into a progression.

For myself, I almost always play using G-D-d-f-g#-b tuning, fingering a D chord as x-0-4-4-6-7, which gives voicing D-f#-a-d'-f#', which sounds amazingly rich, full, and deep. Standard tuning only goes down to E, however, so that chord voicing isn't possible there.

An alternative is to down-tune all strings a whole step and then put a 5-string capo on the second fret. Playing an E chord would require fingering the capo'ed fret on the sixth string, but one would gain an awesome D chord fretted (relative to the capo) (-2)-0-4-2-3-2.

  • Whilst this is interesting, it doesn't address the OP's question asking why the notes don't go sequentially. – Tim Feb 3 at 11:05
  • @Tim Actually, "It sounds wimpy" (paraphrasing) is kinda spot on for this one. A couple of us tried our best to explain a few theoretical concepts as thoroughly as possible, but at the end of the day, it sounds wimpy. That's the real reason nobody plays it that way. The standard finger formation simply sounds (and feels) better. It's.. superior. – tjt263 Feb 5 at 7:59
  • @tjt263: I'm saying the common x-x-0-2-3-2 form sounds wimpy compared with either the Standard-tuned x-5-4-2-3-2, drop-D 0-0-4-2-3-2 or 0-5-4-2-3-2, or Flat Finger Tuning x-0-4-4-6-7. I don't think people use x-x-0-2-3-2 because it sounds great, but rather because in Standard tuning the improve alternative is hard to play and doesn't fix the lack of a low D. – supercat Feb 5 at 15:41
  • @supercat Oh, sorry. Speed reading. Thought we were on the same page there for a minute! – tjt263 Feb 5 at 15:44
  • @tjt263: What chords were you thinking were inferior to open D? I'm not a huge fan of the x-5-7-7-7-5 but I can't think of anything else that I would regard as inferior to the open D chord. Maybe I'm spoiled by by playing the chord with a low D as well as the minor third between f# and a, but as far as I can tell the only reason the x-x-0-2-3-2 is popular is that it's more practical to play than any alternatives in Standard Tuning. – supercat Feb 5 at 16:00

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