A quick rundown of optimal guitar chord finger placement for basic open chords, barre chords and some common triadic shapes.
There's plenty of conventional wisdom when it comes to finger placement for certain guitar chords.
Moreover, chord shapes - in and of themselves - often dictate which fingers we use simply by their shape. Yet, this is not always clear or objective. In many situations, beginners will find themselves struggling with basic guitar chord finger placement, unclear of which finger to use and where to use it. In this article, I'm going to cover all the proper (or at least the most common) finger placement for the following chord shapes:
- Common open chords
- Sixth string root barre chords
- Fifth string root barre chords
- Common triadic chord shapes
With barre chords, it's easy to establish a single shape and finger arrangement to be used at any fretboard position because the chord is movable. The same is true for barre chords with roots on the fifth string and certain triadic chords. Beginner level open chords are a bit more varied.
Whether you're learning finger placement for open or movable chords, the easiest approach is to simply memorize the most optimal finger arrangement.
Matthew Crump of Vanderbilt.edu tells us:
"For guitarists, we expected that years of practice would produce strong associations between visual depictions of the chord fingerings on a fretboard and the corresponding sounds of each chord being strummed."
Crump's assumptions are true.
Thus, we're looking to associate a visual arrangement of our fingers with a particular type of chord and the sound(s) thereof. Sometimes that means you'll be leading with your pointer finger, middle finger or even your ring finger.
Whatever the case may be, you need to see the arrangement first, then store it away to be forever associated with the corresponding chord shape.
The easiest approach is to memorize the most optimal finger arrangement.
In other words, we'll take the time to figure out where our fingers go for each chord. This article will show you how to decipher and parse those arrangements. It's up to you to work them into your chord vocabulary and memorize them.
Let's start with some open chords you might already know. If you want more help with a broader list of basic topics, checkout our main how to play guitar summary page.
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G Major and G5 Chord Finger Positions
We'll look at two forms of the open G chord.
Both are open forms that will be led by your middle finger. When I say "led by," it means that your middle finger will be playing the root note (and the lowest note) of the chord, thus leading the chord change when you move into the shape. In other words, your middle finger will be the first one down onto the fretboard.
Here's how I would advise placing your fingers for each G chord. The numbers on the chord diagrams represent the fingers on your left hand, one thru four via the above "finger key." I've also labeled each one with text describing the finger suggested, just to make sure there's no confusion.
In both G chords our middle finger is likely going to be the most comfortable option for leading the chord and playing the root G note. Both times that note falls on the sixth string at the third fret. We use the middle finger because it puts our pointer and ring finger in a more optimal position to fret the chord's additional notes.
Open C Major and C5 Chord Finger Positions
We can repeat the process for the C chord, looking at the open C major and C5. For the C5 we simply move our middle finger from the root G note on the sixth string, to the C on the fifth string at the same third fret.
However, the open C major has an interval on the first fret, which means using our middle finger to fret the root note would be inconvenient and more difficult.
Instead, we use our ring finger to fret the root note, freeing up our middle and pointer fingers for the other two intervals at lower frets.
Here's a photo of the chord being played (same one we used for the banner):
The location of intervals on lower frets requires our finger positioning to change, despite the fact we're playing the same root note.
Open E major and E Minor
Two of the easiest guitar chords to play are the open forms of E major and E minor. Both chords utilize a lot of open strings while the fretted notes are conveniently spaced, putting minimal stress on your fingers. For both chords, I'd recommend leading with your middle finger.
The only difference between the two chords is that the minor chord drops the interval at the first fret to create the dark tone of the open E minor.
Open A Major and A Minor
We'll deal with these two chords separately since their positioning is vastly different. Despite there being only one interval that separates the two chords, the open A major chord shape is a bit more difficult to play because it crams all three notes onto the same fret without any string breaks between them. To make it easier you can omit the last interval (on the second string) and let it ring as an open B. In either case, you should lead the chord with your middle finger (playing the fifth of the root) and grab the octave interval (third string) with your ring finger.
Here's the finger position diagrams for both methods of playing the A major chord:
The open A minor is far more intuitive and easier on your fingers, since it drops that last interval down to the first fret, allowing you to easily grab it with your free pointer finger.
Here's the diagram:
You can play around with these and even try barring the A major. Another option is to lead that chord with your middle finger (the diagram leads with the pointer finger) following up with the ring and pinky fingers.
D Major and D Minor Finger Positions
For our two D chords I'll cover two different ways to play the D major and one way to arrange the minor version.
Our root note comes from the open D string, which allows us to grab the fifth of that root with our pointer finger and the octave (second string + third fret) with our ring finger, which is in perfect position to do so.
At this point you can add the major third interval with your middle finger, which would be at the second fret on the first string. Here's how that diagram would look:
At the same time, you can leave the high E string muted for more of a D5 sound, which can still sub in for a D major chord.
The minor version requires dropping the major third interval on the first string down one semitone, landing it on the first fret (an F). In this case, you would need to use your pointer finger to fret the minor third and drop to your middle and ring finger for the other two notes, making it significantly more difficult than either D major versions.
Here's the diagram:
You can hear this chord really clearly on "What It's Like" by Everlast. It's the first one he plays at the beginning of each progression.
Barre Chord Finger Position Diagrams
Now that we've covered the most common open chords we're ready to tackle finger positioning for barre chord shapes. In most cases, you'll be dealing with the following notes in a barre chord, with a root note on either the low sixth or fifth string:
- Root note
- Perfect fifth interval
- Octave (of the root)
- Major or minor third interval
These notes form the core of almost every common barre chord, regardless of whether your root is on the sixth or fifth string. Remember, these chords are movable, meaning they can migrate to any fret and adopt a new root note without changing shape. Let's start by placing a barre chord, with its root on the sixth string, at the third fret.
Root Note on the Sixth String
As you can see, you'll use your pointer finger to lead the chord's root on the sixth string. From there, your other fingers are in almost perfect position to grab the additional notes.
For a minor version, you would simply barre the minor interval (minor third) with your pointer finger, since it would fall on the same fret as the root.
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Root Note on the Fifth String
If the root of your barre chord falls on the fifth string, the finger positioning is a little different. Because of the way a guitar is tuned (assuming a standard tuning) the major third interval - in this case - gets bumped up one fret, meaning you'll need to barre the three intervals.
If you didn't want to attempt to barre those three notes together, you could omit the octave (on the third string) and only play the fifth and major third on the fourth and second strings.
The minor version will look and feel more like the major version of the sixth string root barre chord.
Note that the minor third of this chord is still one semitone down from the major third, meaning the theoretical transition between the major and minor version of the chord is still only one semitone. I would advise spending some time playing the chords and using these finger positions at a few different fret locations. Practice moving between the sixth and fifth fret forms of the barre chords and moving from fret to fret.
As a guitarist, this finger position is one that should be extremely familiar to you, regardless of where the root of the chord might be.
A Few Triads Worth Mentioning
For the purposes of this article, you only have to know that triads are three-note chords that are used by guitar players a lot, meaning it's worthwhile to examine the finger positioning for a select few.
Like the barre chords, these shapes are movable and will take on the note value of wherever the root might land on a given fret.
You only have to know that triads are three-note chords that are used a lot by guitar players.
For our examples, we'll list each one with its root note at the third fret.
Triadic Chord Shape #1
This shape is similar to how we play a C chord and is also one of the most common ways to play an F chord. Just like before, we'll tuck our pointer and middle finger down onto the lower frets and grab the two intervals, while our ring finger plays the root.
Triadic Chord Shape #2
The root note is on the fourth string which means we can easily grab the perfect fifth and major third to create a high-register, movable major chord. We could also drop the major third interval to create a minor chord.
Triadic Chord Shape #3
This is a kind of power chord in a major key, where your middle finger plays the root and your pointer finger tucks underneath to play the major third interval. Stretch your pinky to grab the octave two frets above the root.
How to Figure Out Guitar Chord Placement in Other Chords
While we've covered chords that you'll use often, we haven't presented an exhaustive chord list However, you can take some of the practicalities drawn from this lesson and apply them to chords we didn't address. For example, if you have a chord with a low root note and intervals that drop frets lower than the root, chances are good that you'll need to play the root note with your ring finger, thus freeing up your pointer and middle finger for those lower intervals, similar to how we handled the C chord.
You'll also learn when it makes sense to barre notes that are close together or to simply omit a note and just play a simpler version of the chord.
There's some speculation involved with this process and some freedom to not go entirely by the book. Because what might be comfortable and intuitive to you, might not be to me. Thus, it stands to reason that as you learn chords and figure out what's most comfortable, an optimal finger placement might be somewhat contextual, dare I say, subjective.
But what if it's just completely wrong?
If you're worried about blurring the line between subjective and just plain bad chord playing, a good question to consider is whether or not a chord finger placement is "functional." In other words, does it promote good dexterity and proper form in other instances of guitar playing?
If you're playing a chord and it feels unnatural or convoluted, chances are good that there's a better or more optimal way to place your fingers.
While certain arrangements might feel more comfortable, it should also make sense with where your fingers naturally land.
Ask About a Chord
If you have questions about a specific chord finger placement that I didn't mention here, drop it in the comments section below and I'll shoot you back my thoughts.
Any other questions or thoughts about the material are also welcome. The more we discuss different topics and angles of the content, the more helpful it will be for future readers.
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Banner image via Flickr Commons contributor Dusty J