I have a very basic understanding of theory, though I wanted to share my observations while deconstructing the open chords while learning them:

Take for instance A7:

x    0     2    0    2    0
     A     E    G    C#   E
    root  5th  m7   3rd 5th

Here, I notice the order in absolute pitch seems irrelevant :

root 5th 7th 3rd 5th (the 7th is below the first 3rd in both pitch and position)

My beginner observations are that maybe in practise:

  • The 'order' of pitch is a compromise for simple fingering, i.e. A->Amaj7->A7 is realised with the G string from frets 2,1,open rather than E string frets 5,4,3)

  • A bonus: octaves/unisons, a sort of embellishment, can be added to free strings

    • i.e. open A with 2 A's and E's: (_ A E A C# E) though only so long as the root note is preserved (E A E A C# E for example could be an E chord)
  • what note the chord ends on not always intuitive in the open chords

    • While open A,C,E all end in open E, open A sounds highest ending in C#
    • Open D ends in F#, ending higher than all A,C,E (E) and F (F).
    • So.. to the listener
      • The bass note ascends in pitch with open G->A->E->C->D->F
      • The treble note ascends in pitch with open (E->C->A)->F->D->G

..Quirky! Perhaps it is one reason the guitar simply sounds so unique and flexible.

What do you think about my general observations on the open chords? What are yours?

I'm not sure if this is general theory I should be discovering, or some sort of study of practise where I am involving theory.


You're correct, many of the commonly used guitar chord voicings aren't like the stereotypical simple stacks-of-thirds you may have learned from music theory. Some voices are doubled, the third, fifth, sixths, sevenths, ninths, ... basically every voice except the bass note can be ordered differently in different chord grips. The bass note is an exception, because it has to be the lowest voice. Whatever is lowest, rules the rest. If you take a normal open C major, but play the low E string as the lowest note, then it's C/E, or the first inversion of C major, no matter how the rest of the notes are in the higher strings.

At first you may think that it's a "compromise" - but you can also see it as an asset, and a part of the guitar's sound. Just like the timbre of each instrument has its own characteristic set of overtones, the guitar has an additional characteristic thing, chord voicings. Later on, as you get more experienced, you can learn to master the different voicings and their unique sounds. This can be learned in many ways and through different exercises, but in general it just takes lots of practice.

For example barre chords with a root-fifth-root stack on the bottom, that's just very nice, because it creates a strong powerful sound. On the other hand, you don't have to play the doubled root octave, you can mute it. Or if you drop it by a semitone or whole tone, it's a nice major seventh or seventh. And you can choose which note to have as the highest note, which is more distinguishable and melodic than the ones in the middle. If you want the seventh or sixth there, it's easy to add.

I think this is in many ways better for beginners, because the sound is richer and more open straight from the start, by default. In comparison, beginning keyboard players are usually taught to play just stacks of thirds for every chord, and learning even simple inversions takes some extra learning. Boring! But if you play guitar, you get all these nice voicings without any extra effort, without even knowing what a voicing is. So it's not a compromise, it's more like, it's in the design of the guitar to be a good chord-playing instrument. (People more knowledgeable about history might correct this)

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It matters what the bottom note is (but it might not be the guitarist's problem if there's also a bass player). If the 3rd is too low in the voicing, the chord will sound muddy. Apart from that, when strumming, the order of the upper notes isn't a deal-breaker.

When you get beyond simple strumming, you can start thinking about voice-leading. But there will inevitably be compromises. You just don't have the same choice of voicings on guitar as e.g. two hands on a keyboard.

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  • Ah yes, I guess making the most out of all the strings is what open chords do best.. good for strumming and accompanying another instrument or singer.. regularity and purpose for every string and note could be reserved for voicings where it really matters. – Sasha Mar 30 at 17:09

Give the standard tuning a guitar has, which is in itself a bit of a compromise, each chord shape is, at a basic level, 'grab what you can where you can'.

For the simpler open chords, the premise is often put the root as low as you can, and try to play at least a 3rd and 5th, with any doubling as a bonus.

Let's take your A7. A C♯ E and G. True, the A sounds good as a base (bass) note - although there's not a lot wrong with paying the open E under it. On the next string (the D string) an E is convenient. The G string open works (of course, we need a G) but it could be played on 2d fret as another A. Then there's an opportunity to put M3 in on the 2nd string, 2nd fret, leaving the top as an open E. OR, on 3rd fret to put m7, the G. Either as the only G, or as a second along with the 3rd string open. You could even press 4th st.2nd fret, 2nd st. 2nd fret and top string 5th fret. Still playing A7...

So, yes, order can't be a deciding factor, like on piano, as long as all the ingredients are there in the mix, somewhere.

It gets challenging with bigger chords on guitar, though, as when you get to ones which need 6+ notes, an obvious problem comes to mind. Then, notes need to be omitted. The first to go is generally the 5th - P5 anyway: if it's +5 or -5, it really needs to be one of the played notes!

So, yes, compromises abound with guitar chords, and obvious choices often go out of the window, as our hands just can't get into some contorted positions!

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  • Thanks, I guess I take away the fact that I can transpose parts of the chord around as I please, to place extended components like m/M7 top or bottom or in the middle ..or to end the chord in an octave or not to end in an octave if I simply want! lots of flexibility for the same chord! Guitars are neat .. – Sasha Mar 30 at 17:31

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