I had another student ask this question and my stock answer is that "Chords aren't necessarily the strings we depress but the ones we PLAY" I always get a weird look when I give that answer, so anyone got a better one to this gem?

Me: Ok, in simple terms, a Cmaj chord is made up of 3 notes, the 1st, 3rd, and 5th in the scale of that particular major chord. So in a C scale, CDEFGAB, the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes are C, E, and G. So that's our Cmaj chord.

Student: Well aren't we holding down the C,E and C notes?

Me: Ummm. Well yabbut.

  • 3
    If you are indeed talking about the fact they are playing open strings as well, as the answers already suggested, have you taught them the names of the open strings at the point they ask this question? I’d think learning the names of the open strings comes first. And if so this should be fairly obvious. – b3ko May 24 '19 at 12:26
  • 5
    Please give your question a more descriptive title, so that others with the same problem can find it. – Your Uncle Bob May 24 '19 at 12:29
  • 8
    Am I the only one who can't understand what the question is here? Is the question, "what is a chord?" Please clarify. – ex nihilo May 24 '19 at 13:04
  • 5
    "I had another student ask this question..." what question? You didn't write that out. What exactly is the student question? – Michael Curtis May 24 '19 at 13:48
  • 1
    This question is strange. Weren't the open strings taught to the students? – Michael Curtis May 24 '19 at 15:19

Because this is an open chord shape. That means the fingers do some of the work, and the nut does the rest.

From https://fretello.com/skill/c-major-chord-open-position/:


We can see that the fingers hold down two Cs and an E. The 'O' shapes above the nut show the work it is doing for us - "holding down" another E, and a G. (Well really it's the tuners and possibly string tree that are doing the 'holding' - the nut is acting the same as a fret does on the strings we are fretting)

When the student gets on to 'moveable' chord shapes, they'll be fingering all the notes in the chord.

  • An even better example might be an "inside A chord x-0-2-2-2-x played with a barred finger. First string second fret would be an F#, but if one only plays the middle four strings there won't be an F# in the resulting chord. – supercat May 24 '19 at 20:27

This seems so obvious I might be missing something. If there's an open string that produces the note needed for a chord, it gets played open. Guitars aren't always played using fretted notes. there are six notes there already which might be chosen as appropriate.

I tend to approach chords from a different angle. Cmaj. needs one/some of C E and G. Let's find one of these notes on each string, remember it, and see if we can reach all the chosen ones together at the end. Surely a student playing a G note on an open string wouldn't try to find a C or E on that string?


I think the wording of this question is some how obscuring the actual problem.

Surely you taught the students the open strings, what pitches they are.

If the student plays each note of the chord separately and says out loud the name of each tone including the open strings it should be clear to them a G gets played. All three tones of the triad are present.

Maybe the point would be made even more clearly by showing that open strings 4,3,2 all make a G chord D G B without fretting any strings. Then they could fret xx201x to get E G C for the C chord tones. Play and name each tone individually. That should demonstrate chord formation clearly.

After that the other things to add which seem to confuse beginners is doubling tones of chords and inversions/voicings. That obviously would come later. But it's probably worth mentioning in some way early, because they will probably get bad, confusing information about those topics from other sources (the Internet.)


Try this:

You (the student) are not "holding down" any notes. A note only exists after the string has been put in motion, i.e. plucked. There are many cases where we will hold down strings that are not going to be plucked immediately, either to reduce strain on our left hand or to help prepare for subsequent notes or chords.

  • I think this might need a lengthy explanation to a complete beginner. I use 'complete beginner' as surely someone who'd been playing for more than a couple of months wouldn't be asking that question. Or it had been explained by their teacher... – Tim May 24 '19 at 11:27

had another student ask this question and my stock answer is that "Chords aren't necessarily the strings we depress but the ones we PLAY" I always get a weird look when I give that answer, so anyone got a better one to this gem?

Perhaps this is clearer?

A chord is the sound you hear when you play (ie strum or pluck) a combination of strings you hold down and some you don’t (‘open’).

Note: Barre chords differ in that one finger clamps all strings across the fretboard, so no string is left open.


Instead of "strings that play", use "strings that sound". The student is thinking they aren't playing the G, because they're not fingering it - but the guitar is still sounding it as an open string.


I think it would help your students understand by clarifying the following three different terms.

Chord - A chord is a combination of 3 or more pitches played simultaneously. If a note is played, it is part of the chord; if it is not played, it is not part of the chord. This may be what your student is referring to.

Harmony - A harmony is a theoretical construct that offers context to a chord and insight into its function within a piece. A C major harmony, for example, contains all Cs, all Es, and all Gs at every octave. A chord is typically a manifestation of a harmony containing a few of its notes; without a chord, you cannot play a harmony directly.

Fingering - A fingering is, of course, an instruction on what to do with your left hand, typically involving pressing or damping some or all of the strings. A fingering will usually conform to the harmony, but in a range constrained by the physical limitations of the instrument and the musician's hands. Not all notes in a fingering need to be sounded; for example, a musician might finger a C major open chord but not sound the low string-- in fact, they might even use their pinky to damp the low string so they can easily play the harmony in root position.

All three of these terms describe very similar things that are nonetheless different in important ways.

So your student is right; technically, the chord is what you play, and the harmony and fingering are something different.

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