11

See below the chord diagram for a D Maj chord on guitar in standard tuning.

Notice how the 5th string is X'd-- not to be played. But the 5th string is A when played open, which is part of a D Maj chord consisting of D-F#-A.

So why is that string not played? Is it because it's considered important for the lowest played string to be the root note? So we open on the 4th string to start with a D?

(I'm totally new to guitar.)

enter image description here

  • 1
    Btw, Justin is a good choice for online guitar lessons. But he does indeed tell you to play chords on 4 or 5 strings without much background information in the first lessons, and without explaining how to strum only 4 or 5 strings. – Your Uncle Bob Aug 12 at 5:57
  • 1
    I'm left wondering by who's 'standard' are we working with here? – Neil Meyer Aug 12 at 14:27
  • @NeilMeyer - by whose standard? The vast majority of publications, including guitar examination boards syllabi, use the 4 string D chord. It is very common - most likely to embed the sound of root chords. – Tim Aug 12 at 16:13
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    OK but I assure you the guitar police is not going to arrest you for blasphemy if you play the A in the root. There is no standard play what and how you like. – Neil Meyer Aug 12 at 16:15
  • Because you'd then have the E and A, which aren't the topic, overshadowing the D. HOWEVER! ... please try tuning down the low E to a D ... then you'll hear why it's x'd for E. – Randy Zeitman Aug 13 at 0:08
11

An awful lot of guitar tutors , books and sites seem to feel that every guitar chord must be played in root position. In fairness, it is the most solid sound of a chord, in comparison to the 1st and 2nd (and 3rd) inversions.

The open G shape, and open E shape chords automatically give root positions, and A shape and C shape give root if played from 5th string. Both can (and often do) use the 6th string in strumming with little detriment.

Since with the open D shape, the D note (root) is found lowest on the 4th string, that's what is shown - a four string root version. Can also be played with open A string - 2nd inversion, and with 6th string 2nd fret - 1st inversion. Both of which can sound good in certain places. Another option is to detune the bottom string to D, giving a lovely deeper sounding 6 string root position chord.

Also bear in mind, as a newbie, that there are 12 options for fingering that D chord! 2 or 3 will be useful, depending where you came from are where you go to. Don't always accept that the fingering shown is the 'correct' one.

Like Your Uncle Bob, I find that Justin's is one of the better sites to take notice of.

  • 1
    there are 12 options for fingering that D chord! - so obvious, it needs to be said. As a bassist, trying perhaps to exert more control than I should have, I once directed a guitar player, "just play the D chord!" He responded, which D chord? – dwizum Aug 12 at 15:32
  • Another option is to drop all strings by two frets, and use a capo that covers all but the bottom string on the second fret. This will require using an extra finger on an E chord to fret the bottom string at the second fret, but will allow a much better sounding D chord without the fingering disruptions associated with drop-D tuning (beyond the need to shift everything up by two frets). I wonder why guitars never have a 6th-string extension analogous to the "C string extension" seen on upright basses? – supercat Aug 12 at 15:57
  • Disliking the use of capos, which seem to put strings out of tune too easily, and the fat that only some capos could do what you say, and the expense of a 'Spider' capo, another option is a machine head which pre-set will drop the string a tone. D-tuner. In your scenario, just on the bottom string - or maybe 5 of them, on the others? – Tim Aug 12 at 16:23
6

It is common to teach beginners chords with the root in the bass as a first introduction. However inversions and alternate voicings are perfectly acceptable. Since the low open A string is the 5th of the D maj chord it is not offensive to put it there. The same is true for the lowest, open E, string and the C maj chord. E is the 3rd of C and it is fine to include the low E in the bass of the C chord, resulting in a 1st inversion. It has a minor 6th as the lowest interval and can sound a less consonant than the root form of the chord, but again it is still a C maj chord. By the same reasoning you can play the open E in the bass of the A maj chord.

Some books do in fact include all possible open strings that are part of the chord. I personally think it's important to provide all these options to the student but just to make things easy for a beginner I'd start with root forms (note corresponding to the chord name in the bass) and then add to these forms in time. From another perspective the Mel Bay approach for playing through band chord charts (which is not widely followed these days) seeks to have the lowest note played on the low E string for all forms. The D maj might be played as follows (2, 0, 0, 2, 3, 2) or (2, 0, 0, 2, 3, x) etc. where numbers = frets, 0 = open string and x = damped string. The second chord form has a geometry very similar to an F# dom7 chord. This is useful for transitions from D maj to B min (the relative minor) with F# a common tone.

When it comes to why certain chord forms are used it is not necessarily because roots inversions are preferred, in fact they are not, it is driven by what forms will move smoothly into (and out of) each other. The rules for "smooth movement" come from harmony theory. The Mel Bay method creates progressions with a lot of close, or small, interval movement (even though the chords can feel awkward to play). Another guitar method that emphasizes smooth chord movement is W. Levitt's guitar method in 3 volumes.

As I stated above, as a beginner you have to start somewhere so why not learn the standard C-A-G-E-D forms all in root position. Levitt's work is quite ingenious as he teaches simple chord melodies (3 part harmony) first, then later teaches the chord forms in block diagrams. This introduces the student's ear to good harmony before getting locked into a limited set of shapes.

In closing I'd say that the simple answer to your question is that it is NOT standard to present chords with the root in the bass. You are assuming and answer based on you specific example you have before you.

  • 1
    I would never venture to guess what most of anyone does as I haven't met a lot compared to the population size. However I would point out that Carcassi, Mel Bay and Levitt all introduce chords in inverted form even at beginning stages. The rational for this is to introduce correct harmonization and interval movement. – ggcg Aug 12 at 15:16
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    C/E is much more intrusive and potentially problematic than D/A. Saying “the same is true for” is quite misleading. C/G is usually fine. – leftaroundabout Aug 12 at 16:00
  • @leftaroundabout I disagree that it is misleading, I think you are taking part of my answer out of context, and it is certainly not problematic. It depends on the chord movement. Chords don't just exist in a vacuum. – ggcg Aug 12 at 16:03
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    Well, nothing exists in a vacuum in music. My point is that whilst in >90% of situations a strummed D/A will work just as well even if a D is called for, the C/E will make a very significant difference compared to a root-C. Sure you can use it if you really want, but I would consider it a very bad habit to always play C chords by default with low E in the bass. This kind of thing is really annoying for bass players. – leftaroundabout Aug 12 at 16:07
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    @leftaroundabout - I think the problem with C/E is more than just 1st inversion. When strumming, it's useful to be able to strum the strings, and have control over them all. Having an open bottom string in that chord means it often gets left to ring open. Bad news. C/G works better. – Tim Aug 13 at 8:13
4

Indeed. You play it like that to have the D in the bass. You can of course play the A string (and even use your thumb to fret an F# on the E string) if it fits the arrangement, but then the chord would be considered an inversion. But it's more or less standard to play the open D chord on four strings and the open A and C chords on five strings, especially in beginners' courses.

D A C

(Although the jTab plug-in used on this site shows the D on five strings. Oh well, it's not a hard rule, and it depends on the circumstances.)

3

Is it because it's considered important for the lowest played string to be the "titular" note?

As other answers have said, in general a 'D' chord doesn't have to be played in root position (with a D as the lowest note). However, root position often will be what is wanted:

  • It generally has the strongest, most consonant sound
  • The root position chord will especially often sound more consonant when played through distortion, which is important in a rock guitar context
  • The movement of the bassline is often important in rock and pop music - playing different inversions may be less faithful to the bassline of the original piece.

Of course there are plenty of occasions where the A in the bass will be what's wanted (e.g. if that is more faithful to the desired bassline). In these cases, sometimes the chord will be notated D/A, using a slash.

  • Would rock guitar even use an open D chord? Es and As are the order of the day. And when there's a bass player putting down roots, the guitarist is saved from having to put them down. – Tim Aug 12 at 7:41
  • @Tim in a full arrangement, yes, the bass player is in charge of the bassline - but a beginner guitarist who may not yet be playing with a full band, or any guitarist who is playing without a bass player, may want to play chords that in themselves sound like a decent approximation of the full arrangement. (I assume the "would rock guitar even use..." question is tongue-in-cheek..! :) – topo morto Aug 12 at 8:20
  • Point taken. Although I've never played any Rock music that incorporates an open D chord. No doubt others out there will not believe that... – Tim Aug 12 at 8:23
  • @Tim, is Alex Lifeson a rock guitarist? Or Jimmy Page? Or are they too old to be considered as such. There is so much music out there with the open D in it. – ggcg Aug 12 at 11:49
  • Old Rock guitarists were the instigators of Rock guitar (funnily enough!), although Jimmy tended to play in E and A a lot, but also used a good few different tunings. – Tim Aug 12 at 12:24
0

There is no reason you cannot imitate a cadential 6/4 chords progression and end on a D chord in second inversion ie with the open A in the bass and have it end on the A chord.

This may be a bit next level for an intro course to handle but it is in essence sound theory. The further away a chord goes from its root position the more unstable and 'weaker' it becomes. Seeing as general strumming does not use the chord progressions with second inversions in them, or rather as a rule don't use them often, they want the strongest inversion of chord which is usually root position.

0

Most teachers/writers are attempting to teach "solo guitar", and a "D chord" on solo guitar needs a D in the bass most of the time. "A" is definitely a D chord member, but to play it would have the guitar sounding (and is generally notated or spoken as) "D/A" or "D Major, 2nd inversion". Such a chord is also of significant musical use but it's not the same as "D" technically, or aurally.

On solo guitar, you're often playing the bass line and accompanying harmony more/less simultaneously. In a "two beat" country tune you would actually probably play the following to emulate a bass player:

            D   D/A    A   A/E      D     D/A   D   D/A
From this valley they say you are leaving
         D    D/A        D    D/A        A    A/E   A    A/E
We will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile*

Of course this whole argument goes out the window if there's a bass player available to play a lower "D" for you (or, indeed, the entire bass line). As a matter of fact, if you have a bass player playing "D", you can play just an A and an F# and still get your D Major sound.

But the reason it's shown in your book(s) with D in the bass is, as I said, because that's correct for a tonic, root position chord on solo guitar which is what most pieces of music are likely to expect when "D" is required, unless the chord is especially marked or supposed to be over a different chord tone.


  • "Red River Valley", originally "Bright Mohawk Valley", American Folk Tune, author unknown
0

You can play the open A string when playing some songs with the D chord to get a fuller sound or in country songs like Good Hearted Woman by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. You can go along with the bass line of the song,which you pick the D string open and then the chord; than the A string open and then the chord.This is a root-D, 5th-A strum pattern in Country music(D-E-F#-G-A-B-C#)... We often teach that you go from the root note of the chord to get the best sound of the chord.In the case of a C chord, it is different. The open E string theoretically should work because there is an E, which is a major 3rd of the C Major scale(C-D-E-F-G-A-B), but when you strum all the strings with the open E- 6th string,the C chord it sounds dissonant or out of tune. I hope this helps..God Bless! Rob

-3

Quick answer: Just for "clarity". Root being the lowest is "standard" on guitar playing

Long answer: As many other fellow guitarists pointed you out, there's a lot of ways to play the same chord. In this specific scenario we are facing, A is a note on this D chord, so, it can be played and it won't cause any trouble. But, bear in mind that most of the time, humans feel like the lowest note is the root. That's why (most of the time) bass players are playing around the root and reinforcing it through the piece. Bearing that in mind, the same chord can take multiple names. For instance an A D F# chord, could be an F#m( with the augmented 5th) (F# Root, A minor 3rd and D augmented 5th). So depending on the "inversion" (or the way you order the notes) you can get an F# based-chord or a D chord. The same may apply to any other note on the chord (or even notes that are missing, but that's another thing). As this example, there's no A chord that would drive your ear to A-land, as D is the 4th of A and F# the major 6th, so this chord is not "strong" in a functional sense. As I said before, bass plays and important role here. If you play this chord and the bass plays an F#, that would drive your ear to the F# as the root. If, for instance the bass play a D that would drive it to the D.

So, playing an A in this particular spot I don't think can make much difference (D is way more "powerful" than an augmented chord, because of its stability), but notice how changing the order in which you play the notes on a chord (by order I mean in a highest-lowest scale) can drive the listener to believe it is on one tone or another. No one has the right answer in which tone would an A D F# chord played without further context, meaning that the same chords can serve different purposes depending on the composition.

But, as I already said, generally we tend to think that the lowest note is the root, and therefore that the chord we hear is in the tonality of the root. Of course there are many other factors that come in play here (inner tensions, chord progression, idiomatism...), but as a rule of thumb that will do it. That's why, probably they muted the A note.

Possibly it has other reasons too (you are already playing an A on your 3rd string and you don't want to play two notes an octave apart if this is not the root note for the same reasons I already explained), maybe simlpicity can be one of them (I like to play a G open chord with my ring finger on the 3rd fret 2nd string, although many people would leave that ring open), not confusing people...

Hope this helps out!

  • 3
    Minor augmented chords? This is close to getting -1 from me! There are several statements here that are opinions, rather than facts. Not really the way we work here. – Tim Aug 13 at 13:12

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