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I'm new to guitar, but am an experienced pianist, which is relevant.

On the piano, a root form Cmaj triad of C-E-G can be made minor by simply shifting the E a semitone down. This is true for all major triads. If you can form any root form major triad, you also know how to form the minor triad: just shift the major third down a semitone by moving your finger over one key.

Similarly, you could form an augmented or diminished triad by moving the 5th up or down a semitone.

This doesn't seem to be the case on guitar. It seems I have to memorize a new position for every chord. This seems....challenging. It would appear there are three possibilities:

  1. There is some formulaic way to form minor, augmented, diminished, 6th, and 7th chords, etc, e.g. "Move the third string up a semitone."

  2. All chord positions must be memorized individually by rote.

  3. You must develop an intuitive understanding of the fretboard so that you can freely and automatically transition from one chord to another by simply knowing which strings need to be adjusted in which way. Nothing is memorized here, rather the player forms chord positions improvisationally simply by having an excellent mental model of the fretboard and musical chords in general. This seems like it would be out of reach for most people who aren't born with a strong natural talent.

One of these three things has to be true, or some combination. I can't think of any other way. I'm kinda hoping it's #1 but I'm expecting it's a combination of #2 and #3 with a dash of #1 in some cases.

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    I'm a bit unclear on this question. On the guitar, when playing a major chord, if you want to make it minor, just shift all thirds down by a semitone and it's minor. Likewise with augmented, diminished, etc. Not knowing which of the notes you're playing is the third (or fifth, or whatever) of the chord is a problem to be overcome on both guitar and piano - the fact that it can be more straightforward on piano (but isn't always!) is the only real difference. – Todd Wilcox Aug 19 at 5:41
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    @ToddWilcox exactly so. On the piano it's trivial to know where the third lies, and to adjust it, or the fifth, etc. It's formulaic and can literally be learned in a matter of seconds. But on guitar, knowing where that third, fifth, etc is seems to vary immensely. It seems to be unpredictable and challenging to be aware of. That's what I'm asking here, indeed-- is there a way to reliably predict which string will be which note of the chord. – temporary_user_name Aug 19 at 5:55
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    @temporary_user_name -- on a single string the notes are laid out linearly, just like a piano, so no problem there. On multiple strings the best approach is to learn where the notes are in some fundamental chord shapes so that you can begin to see what the relationships are. There is more regularity than you might expect from string to string, and working with string groups, as I advocate below, will help with this. The B string is the only string not tuned a 4th above its lower neighbor, and that is the one that breaks the symmetry. Learn how that transforms patterns on the neck. – ex nihilo Aug 19 at 6:26
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    This question seems to involve a slight misapprehension. On the piano, triads are only the simplest of many ways chords can be played; they're more likely to be spread, inverted, and/or to involve more than three notes. (For example: C3+G3+C4+E4, or C3+C4+E4+G4+C5.) Changing the more complex chords is non-trivial — though it may not require as drastic changes as on the guitar (for reasons explained in other answers and comments). – gidds Aug 19 at 10:59
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    "On the piano it's trivial to know where the third lies." I disagree. If you learned your instrument primarily by ear, as many guitarists have, you'll play what sounds good or what matches the recording, and while you may (hopefully) instinctively hear the major or minor quality of the chord, you wouldn't make any assumptions about where the 3rd "should" be. It's definitely something you learn, and given the wide variety of voicings possible on guitar and piano, not something that one necessarily picks up in a few minutes. – schadjo Aug 20 at 13:36
26

Just like piano, you have to know the instrument to comfortably be able to form chords; unlike piano, most notes on the guitar can be played in the same octave at 3, 4, 5 locations on the fretboard. This makes it challenging to develop a mental map of the fretboard, and it may seem like a daunting project at first. Systems like CAGED (which I am frankly not too excited about) are supposed to assist you in developing a such a mental map, and they can be somewhat helpful in this regard. CAGED in particular seems most useful in helping to connect scale patterns to chord tones, but I personally don't think that it has much value in helping one understand how to voice chords on the neck.

You need to get a basic collection of chord shapes under your hands so that you can play them without thinking, and in such a way that you know what note each finger is covering. If you can develop an instant recognition of the notes on the fingerboard, that is helpful (and I would suggest working on this), but what you really need to know is which note is the root, which the third, and so on.

A very useful way to begin is to get comfortable with some basic chord voicing types, learning how to modify those as needed. Here is how I suggest proceeding:

Learn to play triads on the four 3-string groups

%3/2.2/1.0/0.X/X.X/X.X/X[G]       %X/X.10/4.9/3.7/1.X/X.X/X[G]
%X/X.X/X.5/3.4/2.3/1.X/X[G]       %X/X.X/X.X/X.12/3.12/4.10/1[G]

One useful strategy for learning the fingerboard is to focus on string groups. Learn how to play the triads (major, minor, augmented, and diminished) on each of the four 3-string groups, in root position and both inversions. While you are doing this, stay aware of where the root is, where the third is, and where the fifth is. Just like piano, to turn one of the shapes above into a minor triad, lower the third; to turn one of the shapes into an augmented triad, raise the fifth. It would probably be a good idea to spend a week focused on each string group. Practice in every key; try playing common progressions (in every key); try mixing in inversions.

Learn to play shell voicings

%3/2.2/1.3/3.X/X.X/X.X/X[G7]    %3/1.X/X.3/2.4/3.X/X.X/X[G7]
%3/1.X/X.X/X.4/2.6/4.X/X[G7]
%X/X.3/2.2/1.3/3.X/X.X/X[C7]    %X/X.3/1.X/X.3/2.5/4.X/X[C7]
%X/X.3/1.X/X.X/X.5/3.6/4[C7]

If you don't already know about shell voicings, learn about them now. Shell voicings contain the root, third, and seventh of a chord (the root and the guide tones); these voicings capture the essential character of seventh chords, and are a really useful tool to have in your kit. These are great for when you are playing from a chart that you have never seen before and you need to simplify the harmony as you begin to find your way. They are also somewhat spare, so they leave some space for other players to fill in.

Pay attention to where the root is, where the third is, and where the seventh is. Lower the third to make a m7 chord; raise the seventh to make a M7 chord; lower the third and raise the seventh to make a mM7 chord; drop the seventh by a whole-step to make a sixth chord. You could try to learn the inversions with these, but I would just focus on learning them in root position to start. Try them in common chord progressions; play them in every key.

Learn to play drop-2 voicings on the three 4-string groups

%3/1.5/4.4/2.4/3.X/X.X/X[GMaj7]    %X/X.10/1.12/3.11/2.12/4.X/X[GMaj7]
%X/X.X/X.5/1.7/4.7/4.7/4[GMaj7]

If you don't already know about drop voicings, learn about them now. To start, I would focus on drop-2 voicings (I have shown some drop-2 voicings above), and maybe add drop-3 voicings after you get good with those. They are very common on both piano and guitar, and provide a systematic way to think about a lot of seventh chord voicings. As with the other voicings, pay attention to where the root is, where the third is, where the fifth is, and where the seventh is. Move these notes around to get 7 chords, m7 chords, m7b5 chords, 7#5 chords, M7#5 chords, etc. Learn all of the inversions, and practice them in common chord progressions in every key. When you start working with drop voicings, you will find that some fingerings are difficult to play at first, and sometimes when you modify a shape to create a new chord you end up with an unplayable fingering, meaning that you may need to find a new fingering for that chord voicing, or you may need to try another voicing altogether.

Use the voicings that you know as a base to create new chord fingerings

If this all seems like a lot of work, it is. There are really only a few types of chord voicings listed above, but there is a lot to do in order to really get those voicings under your hands. Once you do that, you will have a good base to build on, but almost immediately you will be able to apply these voicings to real music. Even if you are shaky on the inversions, having a command of the root position voicings I listed above will give you a lot to use.

When you encounter a chord that you want to play, try to see how it fits with the voicings you know. Shell voicings are particularly useful for this in that they give you the root, third, and seventh, which you can modify to get the right type of seventh chord, and add notes or extensions to color. Need to play a G7#11? Take a G7 shell voicing and add a #11 (or think of it as a G7b5 and add a b5):

%3/2.X/X.3/3.4/4.2/1.X/X[G7#11]

Need to play a CMaj9? Take a CMaj7 shell voicing and add a 9:

%X/X.3/2.2/1.4/4.3/3.X/X[CMaj9]

Note that the fingerings in the above G7#11 and CMaj9 chords take the shell voicings shown earlier, but use different fingers for some of the notes. It is important to be able to play any chord shape using as many different fingering options as you can. ggcg makes good points about this in his answer below. Especially with simple shapes like the triads and shell voicings shown above, practice playing them using different fingers, and practice using different fingerings to move from one shape to the next; when you find a rough patch in a chord change, figure out an efficient fingering and practice it. Eventually your fingers will know where to go and how to get there.

You really do need to know the notes on the fingerboard well, but the way of thinking I have described above is more about knowing where the chord tones and chord extensions are in relation to chord shapes that you already know. Once you gain some facility with this, you will be an unstoppable chording machine.

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    CAGED isn't a "system" that people can get "excited" about (or not). It's simply a way of introducing chord shapes on guitar—chord shapes every guitarist knows and uses—with a mnemonic. That's it. I'm not sure how or why anyone could be opposed to learning what it means. Basically you just need to understand that the common bar chords beginners start with can be shifted up the fretboard to make different chords. That's all CAGED means... – Apologize and reinstate Monica Aug 19 at 19:18
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    @only_pro -- I am quite aware of what CAGED means; it is not really about introducing chord shapes, and it is not that effective as a method for teaching ways to voice chords on the guitar. It has some merit as a way of helping learners understand how scale shapes relate to chord shapes, and some merit as a way to map out scale degrees, but there are certainly other effective approaches. And no, I am not too enthused about CAGED as a system for understanding the fretboard, which is how almost everyone seems to view it. – ex nihilo Aug 19 at 23:40
  • I think what you’re explaining here is called 3NPS (3 notes per string) system? – foreyez Aug 26 at 19:32
  • @foreyez -- In my answer? No, just some useful chord forms to build from; note that those shell voicings can be thought of as fragments out of the familiar barre forms (though I don't really think of them this way), but simplified to useful chunks. If you meant my comment about "other effective approaches," then 3NPS would be one good candidate. Jens Larsen mentioned a third system in one of his videos (check his vids out if you haven't already; probably my favorite on YouTube). – ex nihilo Aug 26 at 20:19
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    @foreyez -- I really don't have anything against CAGED as an encapsulation of some important fretboard knowledge, but I do think that it gets over-sold a lot. I definitely agree that it can be useful (I really don't think that it is the answer here, though), and at the end of the day, players have to use what is working for them today. In my opinion, the best thing about CAGED is that it encourages players to think harmonically when they are playing lines; that is no small thing. – ex nihilo Aug 31 at 2:26
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In the abstract, of course it's true (as it is on any instrument) that moving the third in a major chord down a semitone will give you a minor chord.

Practically, there are times when this is straightforward on guitar, times when it's a little awkward, and times when it's impossible.

A 'straightforward' example would be moving from E to E minor:

E Em

We can see that you just move the major third down a semitone, as easily as you would on the piano.

An 'awkward' example would be moving from (this fingering of) C to Cm:

C Cm

Fingering those 3 notes at the same time might be a little tricky for some players, and you have to avoid playing the top E string.

An 'impossible' example would be trying to change this this A#9 chord to minor:

A#9

Because the major third there is on an open string, moving it down would require moving down a string - to the string you're already playing your root on.

I think you can see learning to get this right as a combination of the formulaic, and rote learning. The 'formulaic' bit is that playing chords on guitar, as on piano, is just a question of putting your fingers in positions corresponding to different degrees of the scale - so as soon as you can 'spot' your scale shapes on the guitar, you can do this. If you bear in mind which scale degree is being held by which finger, that will be a shortcut to being able to change your chords more intuitively.

The rote bit comes in because though it's fairly easy to formulate chord shapes on the fretboard, it's less easy to predict which ones are going to be easy to actually play. Rote learning the 'dictionary of chord shapes' will give you an idea of what these are, and as you learn them, you will also see which of these shapes are variations on which others, which is another route to starting to think of chords in a more connected way.

  • I'm mystified why you want to change an A#9 (Bb9?) chord into a minor chord. There are 5 different notes on a 9th compared to 3 in a minor chord. Too different. – Tim Aug 18 at 7:07
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    @Tim I wasn't really concerning myself with whether you'd want to - simply whether you could! – topo Reinstate Monica Aug 18 at 7:13
  • And the answer was..! And why are the bottom and top strings muted - both are P5, and work well with the chord (which can be moved up the neck easily). – Tim Aug 18 at 7:32
  • @Tim I don't think I'm understanding you - E isn't P5 of A#..? – topo Reinstate Monica Aug 18 at 7:37
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    @Tim -- "...why you want to change an A#9 (Bb9?) chord into a minor chord." Isn't topo talking about changing an A#9 to an A#m9? That seems sensible enough to me, but maybe I'm missing something. – ex nihilo Aug 18 at 14:21
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Due to the way guitars are tuned, just moving a string one fret lower, etc., can work sometimes, but not work in other cases.

Firstly, changing a chord from major to minor is, as you state, leaving root and fifth, but dropping the M3 down to m3.

It will work with some major chord shapes! Take the basic open E shape, which can be moved up with a finger taking the place of the nut - a barre. That E shape has only one M3 in it - on the third string. luckily, it's fingered one fret above the nut/barre. So here, it's a very simple task to leave off the finger that plays that M3, as then, it gets played as m3 exactly where the barre is.

A shape chords work similarly. There's only one M3, this time on second string, two frets above nut/barre. Simple job again to drop that down one fret to m3, as there's a finger available for it.

Now let's look at an open G shape - which is again moveable up the neck, with a barre. But here, there are usually two M3s - 5th string and 2nd string. Yes, it's possible to drop the 5th string to m3, but the second string is an open. Solution here is to mute that open string, or place a finger 3 frets up from the nut/ barre.Open C shape has the same sort of problem - two M3s, one of which is an open top string. O.k., that can be changed into P5, or muted, while the other (on 4th string) could be moved down a fret. But by the time that shape is barred, fingers and their feasible positions start to cause problems.

Like David, I'm not a particular fan of caged, but the shapes are a convenient way to portray changes as considered in the question.

This is starting to expand, but I hope it can be understood that the idea works sometimes but is impractical at others.

Because of this, most guitarists bite the bullet and learn to play each chord in its own right - I wouldn't be surprised if some, a few, a lot of them weren't aware of why there's a difference of one fret between major and minor shapes - sometimes. It's academic, and doesn't actually make much difference as long as the correct sound comes out.

For those who are theory driven, finding fingering for a changed chord - major to augmented, for example, is a matter of knowing what needs to change, and then swwapping fingers around to obtain those notes - possibly sacrificing other existing notes in the process. In most cases, it's easier to look up chord shapes that are already used - no real point in re-inventing the wheel.

  • First few paragraphs you explain caged patterns, and then you say you're not a particular fan of caged! Caged is (by far) the greatest method/explanation I've ever encountered about the guitar. – foreyez Aug 31 at 2:18
  • @foreyez - just because I use a 'system' to explain something - in a way, hopefully - that will be understood by OP - doesn't mean I have to ike it, surey? Here, it's only used as an illustration of the open chord shapes. The way a guitar is tuned, it is easy to use shapes that are moveable, but in fact, unlike piano, often difficult to change from maj. to min. for example. And most people tend to use those shapes, at least as beginners. – Tim Aug 31 at 7:10
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There is already a lot of info here but here's some more.

"Formulaic"?

Do you not like practicing? The guitar is a bit of an enigma because of the plethora of ways to do the same thing and all are important.

First: Rote learning is not a bad thing. In fact many researchers in the field of consciousness would argue that rote learning is what leads to deep understanding.

Second: Knowing a formula for generating chord forms does not translate to muscle and nervous system memorization. In other words knowing what you should do will not translate to having your hands do it at a moment's notice. So rote practicing all possible chord forms and chord transitions is critical to developing good chops on the guitar.

Third: I may have missed it but I don't recall seeing anyone cover the multitude of ways to finger the exact same chord form. It's not enough to know which frets and strings make up a chord form but also which fingers to use. There are some chords charts in the above answers that show fingering but not all possible fingerings.

The last point illustrates a main reason for choosing what and how to practice. The choice of finger permutation is critical to smooth chord movement form one to another within a progression and this is the end game in western music. A good approach to guitar (and a good instructor will point this out early) is to learn pairs of chords rather than chords. Classical guitar methods, like Carcassi, include a cadence typically something like (I, IV, I, V, IV, V7, I) in every key as exercise number 2, right after the Major scale of the key. The same voicing can be fingered multiple ways, and one is not correct while the others are incorrect. Movement serves as a motive for making the best fingering choice. In my opinion this is the formula you want to learn. It is no coincidence that the formula also follows the rules of multi voice harmony theory in the sense of creating small movements in the middle voices, creating resolution (7-8, 4-3) when appropriate, etc. This carries over to Jazz too, perhaps not as much in modern music.

The CAGED method mentioned above is certainly great for understanding how the open string chord forms translate. And Pat Martino's approach to chords is very cool. I would add to this the following resources:

  1. Ted Greene, Chord Chemistry

  2. Mel Bay, Melody Chord Playing System

  3. Mel Bay, Guitar Chord Bible

  4. Carcassi, Classical Guitar Method (selected exercises/lessons)

  5. William Levitt, Guitar Method vol 1 through 3 (great introduction by example of chord melody and evolves nicely to Van Eps style guitar pieces)

  6. Jim Ferguson, All Blues for Jazz Guitar (Despite being so specific he covers fat chords and closed chord forms in one)

  7. Mike Christensen, Jazz Guitar Method.

Each of the books mentioned above takes a slightly different approach to chords, emphasizing specific features of chord playing.

To the comment about translating the chords up and down and across the finger board there are a few things worth mentioning. First is that you can move chord forms up the neck easily. The guitar has transnational symmetry this way. A point that is often missed by even experienced guitarists is that, while you cannot move a chord form from one string to another and keep the character of the chord (e.g. maj or min), you CAN absolutely move a chord form (3, or 4 notes) from one string to another on the same fret and you will generate a progression! This does not work all chord forms but for many you can generate your ii-V7-I in major and minor keys. This is not a preferable way to play a progression as it does not follow a smooth, closed (or close), form of movement, but it helps very much when it comes to improvising.

When it comes to learning how to make use of all the information it's best to have some examples pieces to work on. Along these lines a few good recommendations in my opinion are:

  1. The Van Eps chord melody etudes

  2. A similar book by Bucky Pizzarelli exists but may be out of print.

  3. Fernando Sor, 20 Etudes

Any good beginner book, Levitt, Bay, Carcassi, etc, will introduce simpler versions of these etudes as an introduction. Tackling any of these as a beginner would be a turn off. They can be quite challenging. But as I mentioned earlier, these types of pieces are the end game, and the reason you want to learn 10 ways to play a chord on the guitar (not only voicing, but fingering of each voicing). The very first Sor etude introduces fingerings of simply triads that would not appear in any chord book. The purpose of the fingering is to free up an appropriate finger to play a bass line or a melody line.

Again, the formula for executing chords should not be a static form but the function, the purpose served by the chord in the context of the entire progression or musical piece.

  • 1
    Lots of really good points here, especially about flexibility in fingering options and the importance of considering chord movement instead of static chord shapes. There is so much to talk about with this topic, you could write a book.... Well, many have already been written, and you have listed some good ones! +1 – ex nihilo Aug 18 at 14:18
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    Thanks. The guitar is a tough instrument to master in my opinion. I think a lot has been lost in the last 50 years or so especially with all the self teaching YouTube videos. The key imo is to stick with a good teacher for a number of years. – ggcg Aug 18 at 14:22
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    Agreed; the advent of YouTube has been a double edged sword. Obviously you can't put the genie back in the bottle, and there are many positives that come from all of that available information (some of it good...); hopefully QA sites like SE Music can help to provide guidance and correctives, but there really is no substitute for good teacher or even mentor interactions. – ex nihilo Aug 18 at 14:30
  • 'Rote learning leads to deep understanding'? What planet were the researchers from? Just 'cos we do something thousands of times doesn't mean we understand it. Just means we can do it - probably perfectly after that! My case rests on musos who can play complex things, which doesn't necessarily mean they have any understanding of it - merely that they can play it - maybe even flawlessly! – Tim Aug 19 at 11:25
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The most basic way is knowing Barre Chord Theory. Barre Chord Theory is a subset of CAGED theory. Where we take the A and E forms and use barres to create chords across the neck. The A and E forms will give you the major chords, the Am and Em forms will give you the minor chords. Where you place the barre will determine what the chord is. The E forms are for barres where the root is on the sixth string, and the A forms are for barres where the root is on the fifth string. So you only need to memorize the notes on the 6th and 5th strings to do this. This will give you the ability to create any diatonic chord in any key. You can then create 7ths and suspended chords and others by adjusting the fingering.

  • 1
    What 's said is fine, but only caters for 40% of any theory quoted. How does it explain to OP about other changes which are sometimes possible in theory, like drop a string one fret, but which is actually physically impossible - unlike on a piano, which is more often than not, very easily achieved. – Tim Aug 19 at 11:30
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    @Tim beginners usually start off with barre chords for what OP is asking. The formulas for creating minors, sevenths, sus are detailed in that link I included "Barre chord theory". I saw the other answers but they seem daunting esp for someone new to guitar. – foreyez Aug 19 at 14:31
2

If you really want to learn a formulaic method for constructing chords, check out Pat Martino's system for constructing chords from augmented and diminished "parental forms". I don't use it, and I don't know anyone who uses it, but it's the closest I can think of to what you seem to be asking for.

Pat Martino chord concept - Augmented Forms - Guitar Fretboard shapes

Whichever method you choose, I don't think it's possible to avoid learning many different chord shapes through lots of practice. Even the Pat Martino method is not a be-all-end-all source for chords, you have to add proper bass notes, and you need to know the basic open position shapes anyway, if you want to be a guitar player.

-1

Short and sweet: yes, there are reliable and formulaic ways to form chords on the guitar.

Observe that you can position your left hand not only at the top end of the board, but at any position. Yes, you do have more strings to care about when you're not at fret #1 (i.e., the open strings are not so much relevant), but aside from that little complications, you can move a whole octave with your left hand.

In practice this means that if you know how to play a major chord in one position (not including open strings), you know all major chords by simply shifting around.

Obviously over time you learn many different variantions for each type of chord (i.e., different ways to finger the C-major chord at different positions on the board). But after some months or years of practice, you very much get used to it, and it's only a matter of getting faster - which in turn gets much easier when you intuitively "know" which note is on which fret on any string, without having to pause for a second to think about that.

And the finger patterns for the chords themselves are somewhat related to each other of course. It's 2-dimensional compared to the piano keyboard, but there are still plenty of patterns that get ingrained.

Finally, you get used to common patterns (e.g., C - G7 - ...), so if you are grabbing a major chord somewhere, getting to the fitting '7 chord gets very, very easy and intuitive without even thinking about which one it is.

-1

The answer is because of Standard Tuning ... the guitar is not being tuned in all-fourths.

Guitars and similar instruments are tuned in some variant of fourths (or fifths going the other way) to accommodate the 'modern' (18th C.) "diatonic" music theory. (Four fingers, four frets ... the fifth fret matches the next string's open note. With six strings this gives you at least two octaves. For instruments with less strings the tuning changes to insure a wide range.)

If you tuned in all fourths then each chord pattern wouldn't need to change (but of course one still has the concern of open strings).

In all-fourths you get one major chord pattern ... the E chord shape ... which would of course need to incorporate a barre if additional strings wanted to be added.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_fourths_tuning

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