Here’s a chord shape that many banjo players use. At the 4th fret, as shown here, it’s an Em (E minor) chord.
(Note: the tuning in this lesson is open G: gDGBD)
But this familiar shape is more than “just” an Em chord. In fact, it’s at least 36 different chords.
First, notice that all four full-length strings are fingered. This makes it a “closed” chord shape (no open strings), and can be moved up and down the neck to make other minor chords. I’ve marked the root of this shape with an R. As you move this shape up and down the neck, that R on the second string will be your root. For an Em, it’s an E. If you move it up one fret, the root will be F and the full chord will be Fm. So, this one shape can be 12 different minor chords—not to mention the additional octave-up duplicates that you can finger above the 12th fret.
That’s 12 chords. Not bad for one shape … but that’s only the beginning. Let’s see why this is an Em chord. This is an Em chord because it’s an E chord with the 3rd (or in this case, both 3rds) lowered by one half step (1 fret). Here’s the E chord (made out of the closed D shape) with the 3rds marked, along with the Em chord. Compare the two shapes. The only difference is that the 3rds are lowered by one fret.
Now the fun begins. Play a C major chord by barring the 5th fret. (This is the open G shape, but moved up to the 5th fret to be a C). Again, I have the root marked in the diagram below; it’s on the 3rd string. If you lower the root, you get the same shape as the Em chord we played. So it’s an Em again. But it’s also a CM7 (C Major 7th), with no root. We lowered the root by one fret to become a 7th—that’s a Major 7th, not a flatted 7th that would be in a “regular” or dominant 7th chord. It’s not a big deal that we’re missing a root. The bass or guitar will no doubt hit it, so nobody will miss it. And even playing solo, you can usually get away with this shape for a Major 7th.
Again, this is a closed shape, so you can move it up and down to make 12 different Major 7th chords (plus octave-up duplicates above the 12th fret). I put an R on the diagram where the root is—you don’t play it, but it’s helpful to know where it is when you move it up and down the neck.
So far this one shape is 24 different chords. But there’s more.
First, a word about Major 7th chords. In Bluegrass and old time, we don’t use Major 7th chords much, but they show up a lot in swing, jazz, new age and a good number of pop and rock songs. Maybe we’ll look into examples in another article, but for now, let’s get more out of that one chord shape.
Next, let’s start with a G chord as shown below, made out of what I like to call the E shape, but many people like to call the F shape. (Call it what you want … a chord by any name will sound as sweet ….) This shape has two roots, marked below. I also marked the 5th.
If we raise the 5th two frets (one whole step) to become a 6th, this becomes a 6th chord, a.k.a. Major 6th. (It no longer has the 5th, but that’s OK.) And it’s the same shape as the Em and CM7. It’s closed, so it can be used to make 12 different 6th chords.
So, that one familiar shape that many of us use as an Em can be used to make 36 different chords.
Yes, there are many different ways to play 6ths and Major 7ths, and some sound better in certain situations, but when you’re learning a new song or you’re at a jam and find yourself faced with a new chord, it’s easier and faster to play it in a way that’s already familiar to your fingers.
One more thing. It may seem strange that the same shape—the same notes—are both a major and a minor chord. But that just shows how much context plays a part in interpreting sound. If you’ve used this shape as an Em, then you know how that sounds. Here are examples of the same shape being used for the other two chords.
G6: Here’s a typical swing progression, used in many songs:
G6 |A7 |D7 |G6 D7 |
G6 |A7 |D7 |G6 G7 |
I uploaded an MP3 of this progression, called G6.
For those interested, the other shapes I used in the progression above are:
D7 (after A7): 10 7 7 7 or 7 7 7 10 (I walk down the 10 to 9 to 7 back up to 9)
D7 (after G6): 4 5 3 4 or 4 5 3 x
G7: 5 4 3 3
CM7: Here's a nice progression using CM7 that walks the root down:
I uploaded an MP3 of this progression, called C Major 7.
C |CM7 |C7 |F |
C7: 5 3 5 5
F: 3 2 1 3
Michael Bremer is a writer, editor, publisher and banjo player. He is writing and publishing the Banjo GED series of instructional materials.
He also writes and edits instruction books for Hal Leonard.
Monday, August 12, 2013 @11:23:49 AM
if the banjo is in G tuning,an Em would be the two D strings,1st and 4th,fretted at the second fret. That's all. What you have pictured there is...........a chord I'm not familar with.
Monday, August 12, 2013 @12:21:43 PM
Em, the way you play it, is a great chord, but it's not the only way to play Em.
The notes of an Em chord are: E, G and B.
In the open shape--the one you like--the notes on the four long strings are: E, G, B, E: the three notes of an Em plus and extra E (root).
In the shape I showed, the four long strings are: G, B, E, G: also the three notes of an Em, plus an extra G (3rd).
So, it's another way to play the same chord, yet have a slightly different sound because the notes (the same notes) are in a slightly different order.
Why learn different ways to play a chord?
- To get a different sound.
- To be in a different position on the neck so you can reach extra melody notes (try stretching to hit the A on the 1st string 7th fret when holding the open Em).
- To have more fun: when you play something over and over it's more interesting to do it in different place ... at least is if for me.
- To get your money's worth: you paid for all those frets, why not use them?
Thanks for your comment. I'm sure others were wondering the same thing.
Two more points:
1. you can also play an Em farther up the neck: on strings 4,3, 2, and 1, fret: 9, 9, 8, 9 respectively. I'll do another article that goes into detail (with diagrams) on this if anyone's interested.
2. That same shape you mentioned is also a G6 and a CM7 chord. I'll explain that in another article, too.
Wednesday, August 14, 2013 @2:01:25 PM
Michael, thanks for the nice post. I've been spending some time trying to learn this type of info. I'll be watching for more posts like this.
Monday, September 9, 2013 @10:39:31 AM
Michael, I recently purchased your Banjo GED#1 and I can't praise it enough, it is very well written and presented, I highly recommend it to all. Thank you.
Brian Miller Says:
Monday, September 9, 2013 @11:49:17 AM
Your article presents a lot of good information. I humbly apologize if the tuning is so obvious to the readership that this is a stupid comment. I am a beginning Tenor player (but long-time big band and pit orchestra guitarist) working my way through the Mel Bay Tenor Method to get comfortable reading in standard tuning for augmenting my opportunities to play. A passing mention of the tuning somewhere in the beginning of the article would be helpful for me. Thanks
Monday, September 9, 2013 @12:49:08 PM
Good info! I also have the book, and it is great. Yes, it is a 'theory' book, but presented in a very approachable and immediately useful way.
Monday, September 9, 2013 @1:37:17 PM
@BrianMiller The tuning he has is for a 5-string banjo gDGBD, so with a four string banjo you'll only care about the last four. This is the standard tuning for 5-string banjos.
Monday, September 9, 2013 @2:03:06 PM
is the tuning gDGBD?
Monday, September 9, 2013 @2:39:09 PM
This was a great entry--very interesting, especially for a beginner like me. Thanks!
Monday, September 9, 2013 @3:34:53 PM
Yes, the tuning here is Open G: gDGBD. It's a common and useful tuning ... but there are lots of others. Brian Miller: this tuning is closer to Plectrum tuning than tenor tuning, so the shape here won't work on a banjo tuned in 5ths ... I'd like to learn tenor someday ...
Monday, September 9, 2013 @4:03:52 PM
These minor chord shapes are great substitutions for 6ths, 9ths, and major7ths. Even though they lack the root note when used in this manner, they contain the necessary "color" notes to complete the harmony or imply a specific chord voicing.
Examples for the E minor positions: (E, G, B)
Played against a G major chord will produce a G6. The "E" is the "color" note
Played against a C major chord will produce a Cmaj7. The "B" is the "color" note
Played against an A major chord will produce an A9. G and B are the "color notes"
You can transpose these positions anywhere on the neck for limitless possibilities!
Monday, September 9, 2013 @5:14:50 PM
Nice, substantive article. A very useful piece for banjo teachers everywhere.
The logical next step would be for the teacher to ferret out examples of standard songs, bluegrass and otherwise, that use one of those three chords: the Minor, the Major 7th and the Major 6th, and demonstrate where along the melodic line this same position falls and what its job is.
I'm a visual kind of guy so I relate well to chord shapes and root positions within the shapes. Good stuff, banjolio.
Thursday, September 12, 2013 @1:13:11 PM
Good stuff! can I ask what the other chord shapes used are for the swing progression the A7 and the D7. thx.
Thursday, September 12, 2013 @1:39:35 PM
Thanks for requesting the other chord shapes, purplez.
I added them to the article near the progression.
Thursday, September 12, 2013 @1:51:12 PM
Monday, October 7, 2013 @1:02:25 PM
I read your Nerd 2 first...both are good for we who are slowly moving out of "raw beginner" state. I've memorized songs up the neck, and they work too. Julio taught me the 1,4,5 chord shapes which make it relatively easy to play in any key without capo (except for the pesky 5th string). Somehow, I never quite "got" the minors, and so appreciate this article. your writing style well manages my leaning style. Thanks.
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