I'm trying to find the "easiest" way to find diatonic chords on the guitar. I'm thinking that I should just focus on the 6th and 5th strings and use barre chords. So I just decide on a key and then I count up the 6th and 5th strings for my entire scale and then I place a barre chord using one of the four main barre chords depending what string the root of the chord is on and if that diatonic chord is major or minor.

Does this sound reasonable or are there better ways to find the diatonic chords of a scale on the guitar? I don't particularly like barre chords so I'm just wondering if there's better ways.

  • 2
    The way I think of them is just as two basic shapes that get 'tweaked' a bit: music.stackexchange.com/a/43595/18896. Not many understood me; you might! My basic point is that the E, A, and D chord shapes are all actually very similar to each other, just moved across one string; and likewise, the C and G chord shapes are very similar to each other. Jul 4, 2019 at 23:12
  • @topomoto I think your other answer you've linked to probably belongs more here than there because it is (seems) more generic – diatonic – than pentatonic. [Also likely the reason it was less understood in that context]
    – Rusi
    Jul 5, 2019 at 3:36
  • You are going to have to use barre chords in some keys, exclusively. Being a guitarist (a good one) will almost inevitably include extensive use of barre chords, or messing about with a capo all the time. And even then, barre chords crop up. It's well worth getting used to barre chords - on a well set up guitar, they're no problem to most of us. Doing what you suggest is based around barre chords, so finding an 'better - easier' way is impossible, omitting barre chords.
    – Tim
    Jul 5, 2019 at 5:13
  • @topomorto - don't think the other answer is too much help here - OP's asking about chord shapes, whereas the other is concerning scale shapes. Whilst the two are intertwined, it's probably more simple to address each as a separate entity at this level.
    – Tim
    Jul 5, 2019 at 5:20
  • @Tim Perhaps the flipside of that would be that thinking of chord shapes and scale shapes differently (when in fact one is simply a subset of the other) potentially makes it seems like to make further progress, there's more to learn than there really is. I daresay there are arguments in favour of both approaches... Jul 5, 2019 at 10:55

2 Answers 2


..focus on the 6th and 5th strings [to locate roots] and use barre chords

My guitar lessons where a long time ago, but my memory is this is what I was taught, even if it was explicitly explained. You don't even need to go up to the 12th fret.

But, I feel like the result is my internal, mental map of the fret board is like this...

enter image description here

...there is a huge gap! It's like a Medieval map of the world with all of the New World missing.

It wasn't that I couldn't play anything on those strings 1-4. I could play just the portions of E and A form barre chords on strings 1-4. But I couldn't (still can't) move fluidly to any chord change when the voicing involved just the middle strings 2, 3, and 4, because I had to refer back to strings 5 or 6 to get my root and the rest of the chord's position across the middle strings. The "easy" short cut of finding chord roots on strings 5 or 6 became an anchor around my neck.

Eventually I made two charts...

Primary chords:

enter image description here

Thirds and sixths (with string 3 giving the tone to make complete triads):

enter image description here

...to help me better learn chords on strings 1 to 4 and to understand the repeating of the fretboard at the octave at fret 12.

Those images may not be an aid for you directly (they aren't the complete charts and I labelled them for my purpose at the time) but if you look for the chords root within them you will see that the roots fall in various places on strings 2,3 and 4.

If I had continued to practice guitar, learning this surely would have been indispensable, and eventually I would have learned all the roots on all the strings.

I don't particularly like barre chords so I'm just wondering if there's better ways.

The open chords and modifying the basic E and A form barre chord are an easy approach for strumming chords for a huge variety of songs. But if you want something else, there are options.

I'm not sure why you don't like barre chords. Certainly they tire the hand and limit you in terms of voicings and neck positions.

I'm suggesting one option to play triads on the middle strings 2, 3, and 4. To do that you should learn the roots on those strings rather than strings 5 and 6.

  • This is good. And you should try it with all-fourths and it'll be greatly simplified. Jul 7, 2019 at 1:47

Using the E(m) and A(m) shapes, the chords in a key come in two L-shapes. Two of the major chords will be an E and an A-shape on the same fret (one of which is the I-chord), and then the third major chord is the E-shape 2 frets lower or the A-shape two frets higher (depending on which was the I-chord). The three minor chords form a similar L-shape.

In a major key, the major chords are located like this:

|   | A |   | A |   |
|   | E |   |   |   |

if the E-shape is the I-chord, or:

|   |   |   | A |   |
|   | E |   | E |   |

if the A-shape is the I-chord. The minor chords are located in a similar L-shape like this:

|   |   |   | Am|   |
|   | Em|   | Em|   |


|   | Am|   | Am|   |
|   | Em|   |   |   |

which gives us these combinations:

|   | A |   | A |   | Am|   |
|   | E |   | Em|   | Em|   |

or, lower on the neck:

|   | Am|   | Am| A |   | A |   |
|   | Em|   |   | E |   |   |   |

if the E-shape is the I-chord, or:

|   |   |   | A |   | Am|   | Am|   |
|   | E |   | E |   | Em|   |   |   |

or, lower on the neck:

|   |   |   | Am|   |   | A |   |
|   | Em|   | Em| E |   | E |   |

if the A-shape is the I-chord.

The same four combinations of major and minor L-shapes also work for minor keys. Combination 1 and 4 when the Am-shape is the i-chord, and combinations 2 and 3 if the Em-shape is the i-chord.

These L-shaped pattern are easy to memorize, so once you've located the chord that is the I or i-chord in the key, the other chords are easily located. Using just the A(m) and E(m) shapes may be a little simplistic, depending on your level, but I think it's the easiest way for a beginner to quickly figure out the chords in a key and be able to play along with others or a recording.

  • 2
    This does work really well from a 'mechanical' point of view. However, it's still necessary to actually know what and where your starting point is, so one might as well learn the diatonic chords in name and location anyway. having said that, in busking situations, what you describe is what I fall back on very often - using the 'I' position as the datum point, be it the E or the A shape place. +1.
    – Tim
    Jul 5, 2019 at 5:03
  • @Tim Well, the question asked for "easiest" , and this is about as simple as it gets. If you want to play in Gm, and you can count up the frets from open Em to Fm, F#m and Gm, you're there. Almost no theory required, except that the half-tone steps are between B-C and E-F. Jul 5, 2019 at 21:45

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.