In today’s guitar lesson, we will be looking at open chords. Let me first start out by saying; open chords are great on the guitar. Once you get them under your fingers in the initial stages of learning the instrument, you have a great selection of easy to fret shapes that, with the use of a capo, can be transposed into any key. Furthermore, the combination of open strings ringing out with fretted notes just sounds really good, so it’s no wonder we guitarists tend to avoid those more difficult to play barre chord shapes as often as possible!
Out With The Old…
However, while those basic open major and minor shapes are fairly easy to play once you get the hang of them, you may find that you get bored with the same sounds as you use them time and time again. If you’re looking to spice up your songwriting, or looking to add a cool twist on a cover you’ve been working on, then allow me to present you with some interesting substitutes that you can use instead of your basic major and minor shapes.
The great thing about all of the suggestions I present below, is that they still retain the spirit of open chords on the guitar, in that they are relatively easy to fret, as they don’t require you to barre any of your fingers. Furthermore, each shape below is still classed as an open chord, since they all make use of open strings. However, you may or may not be familiar with the voicings presented below, as they are not as common as your basic open chords first learnt on the guitar. I will provide chord diagrams for each chord shape, as well as a suggested key for you to practise in. Without further adieu, let’s have a look at our first open chord substitute:
Substitute for: Any A major or minor chord.
Who said that open chords have to be played around the first fret? Try this easy to fret A substitute for a cool, interesting sound. A sus2sus4, as the name implies, contains both the suspended 2nd (B) and suspended 4th (D) of an A chord, with the 3rd (C#) being omitted, giving you a lush, Andy Summers style ringing quality.
Substitute for: Any Bm chord.
Funnily enough, this method of playing a Bm11 chord is actually a lot easier for most guitar players to fret than a standard Bm chord. This 3 fingered shape has its root note on the second fret, and contains the notes B, A, D and E, the root, b7, minor 3rd and 11th respectively. Ed Sheeran makes good use of this chord as a replacement for Bm in a number of his tunes, although perhaps the most clear example of its use is in The Tubes’ soft rock song “Amnesia” where it is the first chord heard in the intro.
Substitute for: C Major chords in the key of G Major, E minor or C Lydian.
Also known as Cadd9#4 or simply “The Whitesnake” chord, because of its appearance in the monster power ballad “Is This Love”, Cadd9#11 is a lush, moody open voicing containing the notes C, F#, G, D & E (root, #11, 5th, 9th, 3rd.) Unlike our previous chords on the list, that F# note means that this chord is key specific, meaning you can only really use it when you’re playing in the key of G Major or E minor, but it’s still a fun shape to experiment with.
Substitute for: Any Dm chord in the key of D minor, A minor, F Major or C Major.
Another moody, ballad style open voicing, this time fingered on the 5th fret of the guitar, this voicing of a Dm9 is fantastically easy to play, and might just go a long way in proving that D minor truly is the saddest of all keys. We’ve omitted the 5th of D (A) here in favour of a more streamlined spelling of D, C, F and E (root, b7, minor 3rd, 9th respectively.) That semitone between the F and the open E also creates a beautiful dissonance, as previously seen in the Cadd9#4 chord with its own semitone between the F# and G.
Substitute for: Any E Major chord.
This voicing of an Eadd9 chord might be a bit of a stretch for some, but it’s definitely worth persisting with. A small adjustment of one note in your familiar open E Major chord will give you this sophisticated, lush sounding Eadd9, which is perfect for dreamy ballads or laid-back summer style tunes. From left to right, you’ve got your root, 5th, 9th, 3rd, 5th and octave (E, B, F#, G#, B & E.) Try experimenting with throwing this chord into any existing progressions you’re already familiar with, or better yet, use it as the basis to write your own entirely new sequence.
Substitute for: Any F chord in the key of F Major, C Major, D Minor or A Minor.
Another more interesting chord voicing that is surprisingly easier to play than its open chord equivalent, FMaj7 sus2 is another hip, modern sounding voicing that really jumps out at you when you hear it for the first time. It omits the 3rd (A) of F in favour of the suspended 2nd (G) hence the sus name. However, unlike other suspended chords you may have played, this modified F chord contains the Major 7th (E) adding an extra layer of harmonic interest.
Substitute for: Any F#minor chord.
A pattern is definitely emerging in this lesson, as here we have yet another sophisticated, modern sounding replacement chord that is actually easier to play then its standard equivalent. Those who are yet to master barre chords are often delighted with this substitute for an F# minor, which is fretted on the 4th and second frets of the guitar. Starting on the 5th, which is the C#, this voicing also contains the notes F#, A, B and E (the root, minor 3rd, 11th and b7th respectively.) If you want to check out this chord in action, then check out Radiohead’s classic “High & Dry” from their 1995 album “The Bends” where it is the first chord in the progression.
Although you don’t want to be substituting your basic open chords at every opportunity, the suggestions presented above our great tools to have at your disposal if you’re looking for a slightly more interesting sound to spice up your harmonic palette. Whether you decide to experiment with subbing a few chords in existing songs you already play, or use the shapes above to write a completely new chord progression, I hope you find a use for them. As always, have fun, and I’ll see you next time.