As an acoustic player in the church, the bread and butter of what we do is strumming using open chords. We spend a ton of time using these "open chords" and while that might seem a simple place to start, there is so much to discover there and its the basis for more advanced things further down the road.
You might think, “thanks, but I already know my basic chords, etc.”
Sure, but do you know how to play them at every position up and down the neck? Do you have versions for loud strumming, fingerpicking, drone chords, and variations adding color? As an acoustic player in this context (and really any context) you can develop the skill to have many creative options for any song you approach, in any key, at the tip of your fingers.
So, let’s start with the idea of open chord families. You may have noticed that you end up playing, or using a capo to play, in the same types of open chords all the time. The key of G, the key of C, E, A, D, etc. Even in something like Bb, we usually capo 3 and play in G shapes (not cheating, but more on that later). You might even find yourself choosing favorites, i.e. you really like playing in the key of G and E, but the key of A? Not so much. . . .
These open chords we use might get a bad rap for being simple, but they are used constantly because they sound good and do what they do really well. Ya, you can do others things too, but this is one of the things you can do on the acoustic guitar that sounds fantastic. These chord voicings use opens strings and use the natural and beautiful resonance of the instrument.
So, the first step is realizing that each of these "keys" are really a collection of chord shapes that we associate with a key, like G, but in reality they are moveable with a capo, barring, etc. Each of the so called "keys" have unique tricks to them, kind of like sound personalities. I tend to think of them as chord families or shapes. Again, the chord shapes we associate in G aren't always in the actual key of G (like when we use a capo) but we associate those group of chords, or "family," together. For example:
The G chord family (G, C, D, Em, Am)* has powerful, big chord shapes. Bass lines work well in it and it has generous open strings that allow for lots of “color” with ease. It also has some beautiful shapes for finger picking and you can even slide chord shapes around. You can capo up to the 7th fret and its still very usable.
The E chord family (E, A, B, C#m, F#m)* favors sliding, moveable shapes because of the open strings that work so beautifully with it. That gives it a unique, very open and powerful sound. It can also be very melodic and intimate with beautiful dissonance. It can have a unique drone sound to it as well. You can capo this shape comfortably up to about the 3rd or 4th fret.
Here’s a good example: the 'A' chord family (A, D, E, F#m, Bm)* I remember really disliking playing shapes from this group thinking it was uninspiring, less open, smaller shapes. In fact, it usually meant immediately capo’ing the second fret and playing in G shapes. However, we need to realize the unique things every chord family can do really well on the guitar. Now I’ll specifically use the shapes in the "A chord family," or even capo to this key if I want, among other things, some powerful drone chords high up on the neck.
(* I, IV, V, vi and ii chords in each key, i.e. the ones we typically use in songs. For a simple way to understand this really useful number thing, go here.)
Does this make sense? I guarantee, we can all dig more deeply into the basic chords we use. In fact, they are not really all that basic, its just our use of them tends to be :). I've been playing for a long time, and am still always eager to explore this. So, let me challenge you to think about:
- What is unique about each of these open chord "families" you play in?
- What strengths can you find in each, specifically:
- What do you like for big strumming chords?
- Which shapes work better for fingerpicking?
- What don’t you like about any of them?
- Challenge yourself to find something useful about a key/group of chords you tend to avoid.
Do you find yourself stuck using the same chord shapes all the time? Examine what you do and try something new this week. Dig in to each of these “chord families” and we’ll pick things up in more detail next week. As always, if you need more help private lessons are available.
Until then, keep practicing and thanks for serving!