Major Chord Inversion Guitar Lesson

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Major Chord Inversions

Everyone knows how to play an Amajor chord... it's generally one of the first chords a guitarist learns. But how many different Amajor chords do you know? If you've been playing guitar for a while, chances are you can come up with a couple more ways to play this chord.

You may be surprised, however, to learn there are many, many ways to play this, or any other major chord. The following lesson will illustrate 12 different ways to play any major chord.

Why Learn So Many Ways to Play a Major Chord?

Learning all these variations of major chords can be a major benefit to both your rhythm and lead guitar playing. Some guitarists - like Pink Floyd's David Gilmour - use major chord shapes extensively when soloing. Other guitarists - like the Red Hot Chili Peppers' John Frusciante - use major chord shapes almost exclusively in their rhythm playing.

Many of these alternate shapes get used frequently in reggae and ska music. After learning them, they will become part of your musical repertoire, and you'll find yourself using these shapes more and more, without thinking about it. They are also a great way to increase your knowledge of the fretboard.

A Bit About Major Chords

Let's explore what a major chord is. Any major chord you have ever played contains only three different notes. Any more, and it becomes something else (like a major7 chord, or a major6 chord, etc.) Obviously there are a lot of times when more than three notes are strummed... an open Gmajor chord uses all six strings, for example. If you check each of the notes in that Gmajor chord, however, you'll find that there are only three DIFFERENT notes played. The remaining three strings played are merely repeated notes.

The major chords we will explore today leave out any such repeated notes, so there are only three strings played in each chord.

02
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6th, 5th, and 4th String Group Major Chords

Randomly pick a major chord (e.g. Gmajor or Amajor) and play the first chord voicing above, making sure the root of the chord (marked above in red) is on the root of the major chord you're trying to play. Finger the chord as follows: pinky on 6th string, ring finger on 5th string, and index finger on 4th string. This first shape is referred to as a "root position" chord, because the root note is the lowest note in the chord.

There are two ways to figure out how to play the next chord illustrated above.

  1. Find the root note on the 4th string, and form the chord shape around that. If you're not comfortable with the note names on the 4th string, try
  2. Counting up four frets on the sixth string. This will be the starting note for the next chord shape. Use your ring finger on the 6th string, and barre the 5th and 4th strings with your index finger. This is referred to as a "first inversion" chord. Move between the root position and first inversion chord.

To play the last chord voicing

  • find the root note on the 5th string, and form the chord around that note.
  • Alternately, count up three frets on the 6th string, and start the new voicing on that fret (ring finger on 6th string, middle finger on 5th, index finger on 4th). This third chord shape is referred to as a "second inversion" chord.

To bring these voicings full-circle, count up five frets on the sixth string, and play the root position chord again. Move back and forth between all three voicings for the chord you've chosen. They should all sound similar - all three chords shapes contain the same notes arranged in a different order.

Example: to play an Amajor chord using the above voicings, the root position chord starts on the 5th fret of the 6th string. The first inversion chord starts on the 9th fret of the 6th string. And the second inversion chord starts on the 12th fret of the 6th string.

03
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5th, 4th, and 3rd String Group Major Chords

If you look at the above diagrams, you'll notice they are exactly the same shapes as the previous chords formed on the 6th, 5th, and 4th strings. So, follow the above rules for these chord shapes, and you'll have learned three more ways to play a major chord.

Once you're comfortable with the above chords on string groups 6,5,4 and 5,4, 3, try using these same shapes to play different major chords (eg. F, Bb, E, etc.).

Example: to play an Amajor chord using the above 5th, 4th, and 3rd string voicings, the root position chord starts on the 12th fret of the 5th string. The first inversion chord starts on the 4th fret of the 5th string (or the 16th fret). And the second inversion chord starts on the 7th fret of the 5th string (or the 19th fret).

Once you're comfortable with the above, try moving on to the two remaining string groups.

04
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4th, 3rd, and 2nd String Group Major Chords

The concept of playing this group of major chords is exactly the same as it was for the previous groups. To play the root position chord, find the root note of the major chord on the 4th string of the guitar. If you're having trouble finding the note on the 4th string, find the root on the 6th string, then count over two strings and up two frets. Play the first chord above, fingered as follows: ring finger on 4th string, middle finger on 3rd string, and index finger on 2nd string.

To play the 1st inversion major chord on this string group, you'll either need to locate the chord root on the 2nd string and form the chord around that, or count up 4 frets on the 4th string to the next voicing. You'll barely need to adjust your fingering at all from the last voicing to play this one. Just switch your middle finger to the 2nd string, and your index finger to the 3rd string.

Playing the 2nd inversion of the major chord means either trying to find the chord root on the 3rd string, or counting up three frets on the 4th string from the previous chord shape. To find the root on the third string, find the root on the fifth string, then count over two strings, and up two frets. This last voicing can be played any number of ways, one of which is just via barring all three notes with the first finger.

Example: to play an Amajor chord using the above 4th, 3rd, and 2nd string voicings, the root position chord starts on the 7th fret of the 4th string. The first inversion chord starts on the 11th fret of the 4th string. And the second inversion chord starts on the 14th fret of the 4th string (or it could be played down the octave at the 2nd fret.)

05
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3rd, 2nd, and 1st String Group Major Chords

This pattern is probably becoming fairly clear by now. First, find the root of the chord you'd like to play on the 3rd string (to find a specific note on the 3rd string, locate the note on the 5th string, then count over two strings, and up two frets). Now play the first chord above (the root position chord), fingered as follows: ring finger on 3th string, pinky finger on 2nd string, and index finger on 1st string.

To play the 1st inversion major chord, either locate the chord root on the 1st string and form the chord around that, or count up 4 frets on the 3rd string to the next voicing. Play the first inversion chord like this: middle finger on the 3rd string, index finger barres 2nd and 1st string.

The 2nd inversion major chord can be played either by finding the chord root on the 2nd string, or by counting up three frets on the 3rd string from the previous chord shape. This voicing can be played as follows: index finger on 3rd string, ring finger on 2nd string, middle finger on 1st string.

Example: to play an Amajor chord using the above 3rd, 2nd, and 1st string voicings, the root position chord starts on either the 2nd or 14th fret of the 3rd string (note: to play the chord on the 2nd fret, the chord shape changes to accomodate the open E string). The first inversion chord starts on the 6th fret of the 3rd string. And the second inversion chord starts on the 9th fret of the 3rd string.

Feel you've got a pretty good idea of how to play these chords? Let's move on to usage and practice of major chord inversions.

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When to Use Major Chord Inversions

Since all of the previously illustrated major chord voicings have the same notes as "normal" major chords, you could theoretically use any of them when you were required to play a major chord. This is where personal preference becomes your guide - some guitarists will elect to use these shapes all the time, while others will use them more sparingly.

There are circumstances where these new voicings will certainly sound out of place, even if they're technically correct. Assume you are the lone guitarist in a "campfire situation", accompanying a group of people singing. You would certainly not want to choose the A major chord shape on the 12th fret of the first string, amidst a bunch of other "normal" open strummed chords. In that situation, you'd want the full sound of open chords. If you were the second guitar in that situation, however, you could let the other guitarist play open chords, while you played some of these inversions for added color. This would add a fuller sound to the music.

How Do I Use These New Chords Effectively?

Learning the previous twelve shapes for major chords was the easy part. To start using these voicings to their fullest effect, you'll need to invest a good deal of practice time. A goal to set for yourself is to be able to move smoothly from one chord to the next in a progression (referred to as "voice leading"). This will often mean moving from a root position chord to a 2nd or 1st inversion chord, a concept quite difficult to master at first.

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Paul Simon's "Call Me Al"

paul simon call me al tab

The above example, Paul Simon's "Call Me Al", contains a nice example of these voice leading principles. It is also a perfect illustration of what you should hope to accomplish using these new voicings.

Study the above tablature. The progression moves from a 1st inversion Fmajor chord, to a 2nd inversion Cmajor chord, to a 2nd inversion Bbmajor chord. The sound of each note in each chord moves smoothly (and minimally) to the next, and the progression is very pleasing to the ear.

Compare the tablature on this page with that on the following page.

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Example 2: Paul Simon's "Call Me Al" (Improper Chord Inversions)

paul simon call me al tab

Notice that, although the chords are exactly the same here as in the previous example, this version doesn't sound nearly as effective. By simply sliding the 1st inversion chord to different places on the fretboard to play the appropriate chords, you've eliminated all the nuances voice-leading creates.

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Example 3: Paul Simon's "Call Me Al"

paul simon call me al tab

Before we move on, consider this one last example of "Call Me Al" above. This example uses the same progression, and also uses the proper principles of voice-leading. Yet, we've started the progression on a different inversion of the Fmajor chord, so it will again sound different than the previous examples.

This example represents an alternative set of chord voicings Paul Simon could have used for "Call Me Al". The voice-leading is strong, and the overall result is much more pleasing than the second example.

Practice: Play the above progression for "Call Me Al" starting on various inversions of the Fmajor chord on different string groups. This will lead to different inversions of each following chord, hence slightly different sounding progressions.

Got all that? Let's move on to the final step: Chord practice tips

10
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How To Practice Major Chord Inversions

Trying to use these new chord shapes will be daunting at first. The thought of picking up a guitar and playing a 1st inversion Amajor chord that doesn't even have the root on the bottom probably seems impossible. In order to start using these chord shapes more confidently,

the key is to know which string the root in each voicing is on.

When you have internalized this, you can form the chord shape around that root. Learning major chord inversions this way will make the task of finding the root position chord, and counting up to the proper inversion, unneccessary.

Here is a suggested practice schedule to help you learn these new chords as quickly as possible:

Step 1:

Randomly choose a major chord to work with (E.g. Dmajor)

  • Play only the root position chord on each of the four string groups.
  • Play root position, 1st inversion, and 2nd inversion chords on each of the four string groups.
  • Try playing the chords down the neck starting with root position. E.g. Amajor on 5,4, 3 string group. play root position at twelvth fret, then 2nd inversion on seventh fret, then 1st inversion on fourth fret. Repeat on other strings where possible.
  • Try picturing the root position chord shape on each string group, without playing it. Then, play each 1st inversion shape.
  • Picture the root position and 1st inversion chord shapes on each string group, then play each 2nd inversion shape.
  • Play the 1st inversion major chord shapes on each of the 4 string groups, without playing the root position chord.
  • Repeat the above with 2nd inversion chords.