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When finger picking open chords one is supposed to do Thumb - bass string (root string), Index - third string, Ring - second string etc.

The bass string used should be the "root" of the note. e.g. If playing an E chord, one should pluck the E string, if playing a D, then the D string.

My question is:

If one is using barre chords to, say, play an A# chord (based on E shape on E string), then which bass string should be plucked? The A or the E string?

  • Thank you so much for the prompt answer – AlanMw Sep 28 at 17:25
  • @YourUncleBob - make it an answer! – Tim Sep 28 at 18:50
  • @Tim Okay then. – Your Uncle Bob Sep 28 at 21:13
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    Are you sure A# is the best spelling? – Laurence Payne Sep 29 at 11:15
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Barre chords are transpositions of open chords; the root note stays on the same string:

  • An open E chord has the root on the 6th string, and so does any E-shape barre chord.
  • An open A chord has the root on the 5th string, and so does any A-shape barre chord.
  • An open D chord has the root on the 4th string, and so does any D-shape barre chord.

Any open chord that you can transpose as a barre chord will follow the same rule, e.g. a C chord has the root note on the 5th string (third fret), so a C-shape barre chord also has the root on the 5th string (third fret above the barre).

This is of course also true for the scale degree of the other notes in the chord; which strings play the root, third, fifth, ... in an open chord doesn't change when you play that shape as a barre chord:

scale degrees in barre chords E, A, D, C and Em11

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In addition to Your Uncle Bob's very clear answer.

There isn't really 'you are supposed to...'. The bass note is often the root, and yes, played with thumb. Main reasons - thumb is just where it needs to be, and the sound is good for a bass note.

Fingers can and do go where necessary. That's not always the case then of index here, ring there etc. A lot of the finger patterns I use vary considerably. There's one which uses thumb on 3rd then 4th, and a couple of fingers on the top two strings. So nothing is written in stone. I quite often use pinky - others rarely do. Sometimes (often) you make your own 'rules'!

With finger picking, there's sometimes an option to play an alternating bass pattern - 1-5-1-5. For that, using E shapes, 6 and 5 are used. For A shape, the reverse (with the barre obviously on all 6 strings!). That works also for C shape. G shape is tricky, with 1 and 5 being strings 6 and 4 - not too good. And D shape works somewhat with 4 and 5, again with an extended barre.

  • I think the question "which bass note to play" would be a non-issue, if the OP learned to play alternating bass. What do you think? So many questions here get pages of theoretical explanations in answers. But try it a few times in practice and the issue is clear. – piiperi Sep 29 at 11:47
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    @piiperi - 'which bass note to play?' For beginners, the root is the one that aounds most convincing, so needs to be known. In fact, a lot of sites cite chords with the root as lowest note, despite lower notes being available to play easily. Not that I agree with that! We get asked too many 'theoretical' questions, I'm sure, but that's partially what the site's about, so any answers containing practical advice, such as yours, contain a bonus. – Tim Sep 29 at 12:47
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    @YourUncleBob I mean that it's an unnecessary question caused by taking too small practical steps, and too much theory talk. Playing alternating bass is not rocket science - actually it's a very simple thing. If you are taught to play alternating bass, in practice, straight away, the question "what string should I play" doesn't arise because the notes are introduced to you already. "Play root, fifth, root, fifth". We give long blah blah answers to unnecessary questions, thus validating and enforcing the theory-first way of learning, which is the root cause of music being difficult, IMO. :) – piiperi Sep 29 at 16:24
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    Actually, I mean, we are obviously doing it wrong, as a culture and society, or something. By answering incorrectly formed unnecessary questions, we're treating symptoms. It will never end. This is just a meta observation - I don't know if anyone agrees. – piiperi Sep 29 at 16:29
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    Just a point, Uncle Bob's answer was spot on in terms of what I needed to know.. I am learning to play based on what I can find on the internet. Needing to know the correct/optimal base note was not a "theoretical" question, it was something not been mentioned in the lessons I was doing.l Many thanks guys – AlanMw Oct 1 at 14:18
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Q: What bass string to use?

A: Use the string that has the note you want to play as the lowest note. If you want to play the chord's root note as the lowest note, then use the string that has the root note. If you want to play some other note as the bass note, then use whatever string has that note.

The bass note and the root note of the chord are not necessarily the same thing. The bass note is the lowest played note, and if it's not the root, then the chord can be said to be an "inversion" - or it can be an alternating bass line, which doesn't really sound like an inversion, when the non-root note is played on a weaker beat.

If you learn to play alternating bass, then you'll have to learn which of the notes in a chord fingering is the root note. In a common alternating bass pattern, you first play the root as the bass note, then the 5th as the bass note, and repeat. Root, 5th, root, 5th, ...

Here is Dm and A7 played with open position chords:

Open position Dm and A7 with alternating bass

Here are the same chords with barre grips:

Dm and A7, barre on 5th fret, alternating bass

And here's what it sounds like:

If you want to play "fingerstyle" guitar, then the alternating root - 5th bass pattern is a basic thing you need to know. After you get that going fluently, you can start using more advanced bass lines.

  • I really appreciate the additional info provided by Tim and Piiperi. – AlanMw Oct 1 at 14:18

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