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4 Tips to Understanding Guitar Chords

Even for seasoned musicians, playing chords on a guitar is one of the more challenging skills to master. While many other polyphonic instruments have very simple and straightforward ways of playing chords, the guitar is a bit more demanding for several reasons.

For starters, guitars have four octaves, which is higher than most other stringed instruments. This allows for a wide range of tonalities that can prove tricky to navigate. Additionally, the guitar is one of the most demanding instruments to work with from a technical standpoint. Unlike an electric keyboard, an electric guitar requires more frequent tuning, and guitar players have more room to determine how the instrument sounds. Working through this initial obstacle can make picking up the guitar much harder. 

But once mastered, playing chords on the guitar allows for endless possibilities for different harmonies and tonalities. This variability is achieved through the use of movable chord shapes. Apart from MIDI-controlled instruments that can transpose electronically, the guitar (and some other stringed instruments) is the only instrument to have this ability. Understanding chords can radically change how someone plays the guitar.

The guitar is a globally revered instrument and one of the most popular. Any musician worth their salt knows how to utilize this amazing instrument. Here are four ways to master chords on the guitar.

1. Learn All the Notes on the Neck

The first step towards knowing how to play guitar chords is learning all musical notes on the neck. There are 12 notes on a guitar fretboard spread out over six strings and four octaves. The best way to learn them all is by learning all the notes on the bottom two strings of the guitar (the E string and the A string) and then learning how to find a higher octave based on those low notes. 

For example: 

– Two notes that are 12 frets apart are one octave apart. 

– Two notes on the bottom four strings that are one string and seven frets apart are one octave apart. 

– Two notes that are two strings and two frets apart are one octave apart. 

– The high E string has the same note placement as the low E string, but it is two octaves higher.

It can take a while to memorize all the notes on the neck, but it’s not impossible with practice. 

2. Learn the CAGED System

This is where chords start becoming more useful. The CAGED system is a way to understand the different movable chord shapes that guitar players can use, how they can be transposed, and what keys they originate from. The open chord shapes in the keys of C, A, G, E, and D can move all over the neck and play in any key. This allows guitar players to play in various keys without having to learn specific chords for each key. 

Taking these different base chord shapes and moving them into different keys is called transposition. Movable chord shapes make the guitar one of the easiest instruments to transpose on, and it allows guitar players to play with a large variety of different voicings whenever they please. 

Two of the most commonly used shapes in the CAGED system are the C and G shape chords. These are found in many songs and are incredibly popular due to how comfortable they are to use and how good they sound. Their shapes require relatively few barre chords, which makes it much easier to play these shapes. Learning the other three shapes is important for all dedicated guitar players, but the best place to start will almost always be C and G shapes. 

3. Learn How to Play Barre Chords

For many guitar players, barre chords are some of the most difficult chord shapes to learn. However, these are very important chord shapes that show up in many areas of guitar and can be mastered through dedicated practice and a little effort. 

Essentially, barre chords raise open CAGED shapes to play those same chord shapes with different root notes, which turns those chords into new chords. For example, if one plays an E shape chord with the lowest note on the 7th fret, it will turn the chord into a B chord. However, due to the open strings in the E chord shape, the first finger needs to lay across all of the strings. This means that the guitar player will be playing all six strings of the guitar at once. 

Many players exclusively use barre chords because they are very simple to move around the neck. Once the finger strength and muscle memory is built up, these chord shapes are easy to use and access for any guitar player. 

4. Learn How to Use a Capo

Of course, even those who choose to use barre chords exclusively can understand and appreciate the use of a capo. Fundamentally, a capo will replace the first finger holding down all the open strings and essentially bring the functional tuning up to wherever the capo is placed. 

For example, if a guitar player is playing in the key of Eb, a capo will allow them to play in much easier shapes instead of having to barre every chord they play. 

In this situation, a capo would allow a guitar player to: 

– Play C shapes with the capo at the 3rd fret

– Play A shapes with the capo at the 6th fret

– Play G shapes with the capo at the 8th fret

– Play E shapes with the capo at the 11th fret

– Play D shapes with the capo at the 1st fret

Most often, guitar players will choose to play chords at the lowest possible capo position, meaning they would likely choose C or D shapes. However, playing at higher capo positions allows for different chord voicings, which can sound interesting and useful depending on the song’s context. 

How Unison Can Help

Guitar works best when it is accompanied by high-quality samples and instruments. Unison has created various instrumentals, presets, and other tools for producers everywhere. 

The Unison Serum collection has a wide range of different preset instruments for all kinds of songs. The Unison MIDI collection has many different chords that can help producers create chord structures that speak to them. The Unison Vocal Series enables producers to surround their instruments and arrangements with gorgeous, lush vocals that grab the listener’s attention. 

Your best music is ahead of you, and Unison is here to help make sure your musical dreams come true. 

 

Sources: 

The History of the Guitar | Roadie Music

The Guitarist’s Guide to the CAGED System | Premier Guitar

How To Transpose Music | HelloMusicTheory

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