I've just started learning guitar, having only ever played piano, and this really confuses me.

On a piano, to play a C major triad chord I simply hit C, E, and G...I don't hit any other notes or it's a different chord.

But on guitar, you hold down the frets on some strings and leave the rest open and you strum and you call it a chord even though all those open strings are getting thrown in there too! It's a major triad plus a bunch of other notes!

Why does it still sound good? You could never do that on the piano. Why do guitar chords seem to work differently?

  • Also consider that some chords don't have open strings in them (because those chords shouldn't contain the notes on those open string). That's when you mute the notes (for example with a finger/or thumb over neck if it's a possibility for you) to ensure you don't get rogue notes that clash with the chord you are trying to play. For example - D major - you don't play the E string (you can actually play the open A though if you want) since the notes in the chord are D/F#/A (you play the other D on the B string)
    – Charleh
    Aug 7 '19 at 11:55
  • This question would benefit from an example from the OP. There are a few different possible answers depending. Sometimes guitar players can ignore certain notes extra notes, for example playing an Am7 when an Am is called for. Or an A9 when an A is called for. But sometimes the strings are muted because they would sound bad if struck. A variety of answers.
    – Nacht
    Aug 7 '19 at 13:10
  • 4
    There are plenty of chords with more than 3 pitches in them. How far did you get in your piano playing? Aug 7 '19 at 13:24
  • Open strings are still notes...
    – user91988
    Aug 7 '19 at 14:45
  • @CarlWitthoft by "you could never do that on the piano" I did not mean that you cannot form chords with more than 3 pitches...I meant you cannot add other notes into the chord without it becoming a different chord. This is because I didn't realize the open strings were octaves of the notes I was already playing for the chord. Aug 8 '19 at 17:06

A guitar in standard tuning has E-A-D-G-B-E as the tuning of the open strings. That means that when you want to play a chord that contains any of these notes, you can play the open strings. Consider the Em chord:


You fret the A and D string at the second fret to play the notes B and E, but the four other strings are already tuned to E, G or B, so you can play these as open strings, and the result is an Em chord consisting of the notes E-B-E-G-B-E.

%%score V1 V2
V:RH clef=treble
V:LH clef=bass
% 1
[V:RH] "open strings"[DGBe] | "Em chord"[EGBe] |
[V:LH] [E,A,] | [E,B,] |

If you're playing a chord where most or all open strings are tuned to notes that are not part of the chord, e.g. when playing Fm, you cannot play it as an open chord:


The Fm chord requires the notes F, Ab and C, none of which is available as an open string. So you can either play Fm as a barre chord, e.g. as indicated in the chord diagram above, or you fret a combination of the notes F, Ab and C anywhere on the neck and strum only those strings, e.g.:


Why does it still sound good? You could never do that on the piano. Why do guitar chords seem to work differently?

Just as another way of looking at it,

  • On the piano, pressing a key both chooses the note (decides what note you want to play), and makes the note sound.

  • On the guitar, most of the time, the left hand chooses which note you want to play, and the right hand triggers it. However, when the note you choose is an open string, your left hand gets a rest, as the note is already 'selected' by default - you just have to trigger it with your right hand.

This separation of choosing/fingering and triggering/plucking the notes is one of the major differences between keyboard and (other) string instruments. In general, this is why keyboard-like instruments allow you to play more notes at once, but guitar-like instruments allow more possibilities in articulation.

  • A minor nitpick, but maybe you can replace "left hand" and "right hand" with "fretting hand" and "strumming/plucking hand" to account for all us left-handed guitarists!
    – dwizum
    Aug 8 '19 at 14:39
  • @dwizum I did consider that, but I was wary of putting too many abstract terms in a beginner-level answer. Perhaps I can leave your comment to counterbalance my lack of inclusivity...
    – topo morto
    Aug 8 '19 at 15:20

I don't hit any other notes or it's a different chord.

The simple answer is that all those open strings are either C, E or G. On a C chord with an open bottom E string, your notes are ECEGCE. If you put your finger on the 3rd fret on the bottom E string, it's GCEGCE.

All that changes is the inversion of the chord, nothing else.


First of all your assumption is false. You do NOT fret the notes of the chord and play the open strings with it. This works for C because coincidentally the open strings are just repeats of the the chord tones. The standard open string C chord form with all strings played would be (E, C, E, G, C, E). This happens to work for many other open string chord forms, but not all.

On classical guitar we do NOT strum, we select up to 4 notes to play with the right hand. Sometimes we drag the thumb across two consecutive strings to play 5. I've never seen a guitarist use their pinky on a regular basis to play chords but it is possible. So, you see, even if open strings are left undamped we do not play them. For this reason many classical guitar arrangements are difficult to play with the plectrum. Mel Bay borrows a lot from Carcassi and in some cases they are not rearranged, leading to impossible to play (without some edits) exercises and etudes. Even when you do not play the open strings, we want them to resonant with the other strings to increase the overall volume and tone of the guitar. If this is not required or desired then we often dampen the open strings with our left hand fingers to avoid vibration when strummed. Mel Bay's rhythm guitar bible goes into this in great detail. He offers several versions of each chord, played in all keys, that cover all strings (but only playing 4 of 6 at a time). The pick is supposed to strum all 6 strings for regular volume and tone throughout a piece. Keep in mind that this specific approach was meant for big band playing where the guitar is not the center piece and needs to be a steady rhythm player. Mel teaches students to allow the pads of the left hand fingers to graze the open string to dampen them. This way when you strum the entire set of strings you only hear what is necessary.

In short, chords do not work differently, but it seems that you do not fully appreciate how the guitar works yet.

  • 2
    All comments have been purged here. If you have feedback for this answer, keep it constructive. Any comments that are not constructive will be removed. Remember we are all working together for a common goal of providing answers.
    – Dom
    Aug 9 '19 at 1:10

To understand the difference between what you described when chording on piano and chording on guitar, you must go back to the piano and play a C chord with your left hand at the same time you are playing a C chord an octave higher with your right hand. On the guitar you are actually playing one and 2/3 octave of notes and only notes used to make a C Major chord exclusively. That's why it works.

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