Let’s continue with our basic chord primer, and check out some of the more common open-position chords. Unlike power chords (covered here) and barre chords (which we’ll cover in the next couple days), these chords are all played just in the open position (meaning that they use one or more open strings.
However, if the open string note(s) can be fingered as the formation moves up the neck, it can be considered a movable formation. (Or, you could just move the fingered notes up the neck, and keep the open string note(s). You may end up with something that doesn’t “fit” in terms of theory, but so what? If it sounds good, then it is good.)
Originally I had intended to post the open-position chords for all five CAGED positions, but the final result ran nearly 2,500 words. I think it would be a lot simpler and more effective to break it down and devote a separate post for each of the five positions. So we’ll start with open C position chords.
We’ll focus on major, minor, major 7th, dominant 7th, and minor 7th chords mostly, with a few exceptions based on convenience of play in open position. The beauty of open-position chords, especially when you play them on acoustic guitar, is the sound of open strings combined with fretted notes. While power chords are fun and easy to play, since they are comprised of just the root and the fifth, there’s not a whole lot of depth to them, beyond what you might want for writing a basic riff.
The interval that determines whether a chord is major or minor is the third (see the Resources page for basic cheat sheets on intervals, as well as chord and scale construction). All of the intervals affect the nature of the chords they’re used in, to varying degrees, but the third is what specifically makes it major or minor.
As always, some basic theory is useful to know, just so there’s a common terminology being used, and we’re all on the same page with what’s being referred to. But the most important thing is to recognize the sound, how major, minor, seventh, and other chords all sound different from each other in certain ways. Learn the sounds first, and you can worry about what things are called later. That will fall into place at some point.
To keep this simple, we’re just going to go through the standard CAGED position open chords. Refer to the CAGED cheat sheet on the Resources page if you need. Because of the standard EADGBE tuning, these five keys will account for probably 90% of the open chords you will play and actually use. Yes, you could technically construct some G# altered dominant min/maj7 Frankenstein chord with a couple of open strings in the middle, but it’s easier to learn the more conventional forms before heading down the path less traveled.
So let’s start with the C chords. Here’s the classic C major, with its intervals marked at the bottom of the chord chart:
It may be difficult to tell from the photo, but in this instance, the pinky finger is not doing anything, you’re just using the first three fingers, per the chord chart. However, you could use the pinky at the 3rd fret of the high E string (G note), which gives you another p5, an octave higher than the open G.
C minor chords don’t really work well in open position, because you need an Eb note for the minor third, and there’s no open Eb. Instead let’s try the C major 7th (CM7).
Nice and simple, just two fingers and three open strings. Go back and forth between the major and the M7, and hear the subtle but important difference in how they sound. That major 7th note (the open B string) lends a little bit of tension, in comparison to the basic major chord, which just “wants” to resolve. This is one of many cool tricks to keep in mind with chord construction, that help provide more color and aural texture to your own compositions.
Now let’s try the C7 (dominant 7th) chord. This one might be trickier, as it uses all four fingers.
The flattened (or minor) seventh interval (Bb instead of B) provides yet another “flavor”; again, compare and contrast it with the M7 and major chords.
Stay tuned for a review of the next position in the series, the open A position.