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Chord Nerd Tip #9: The 1 – 4 String Skip

Posted by Banjolio on Friday, May 9, 2014

like this

In open G tuning, you have two D strings; the first string and the fourth. In an earlier tip, we took advantage of this with the 1 – 4 String Swap, which is useful when you are playing chords with different notes on the first and fourth strings: 6th, 7th and other “fancy” chords.

When playing one of the three basic major chord shapes, as shown here …

… the same note is played on both D strings, so swapping strings doesn’t do anything. But there is a way to take advantage of this to add some variation to your sound.

First, remember that a major chord has three notes: the root (1), the 3rd and the 5th. That’s it. Three notes. When you play a major chord on all 5 strings of a banjo (or all 6 of a guitar), you’re still only playing three different notes. You’re doubling (or tripling) some of them, but there are only three different notes.

In the three shapes, I labeled the chord parts (1, 3, and 5), so you can see that while each shape doubles one note, there are only 3 different notes.

Now, look at the G shape. Focus in on just the three lower strings (strings 2, 3, and 4). You have a 1, 3 and 5; a full major chord. They aren’t in the 1, 3, 5 order, but that’s OK. It’s still a major chord.

Now, still on the G shape, look at strings 1, 2 and 3. Again, you have a full major chord with just those three strings.

Look at the other shapes: it works the same for them, too. You have a full major chord with either strings 1, 2 and 3, or strings 2, 3 and 4.

OK, so … what good is it?

Say you have a song with a repeating chord pattern … in other words a song. You can play the chords the same way over and over, or you can mix it up a little and one time through you play on the just lower three strings (plus the 5th string), then next time on just the upper three (plus 5th). When playing backup, this will give you variation in sound without overplaying and stepping on the soloists.

Here’s a nice little example where you play the same chord shapes twice, but because it uses the upper three strings the first time through and the lower three strings the second time through, it sounds like one long descending chord progression.


Try this progression with other picking or clawing patterns. And play around with other progressions and see what you can come up with.

You can also use these 3-string chords to help build solos. You may already do that without thinking about it. Take a look at your up-the-neck licks. Often you’re holding these chord shapes.


Michael Bremer is a writer, editor, publisher and banjo player. He is writing and publishing the Banjo GED series of instructional materials, and also writes and edits for Hal Leonard.

Banjo GED #1: Chords! Chords! Chords! teaches you everything you could ever want to know (and more) about playing chords on a 5-string banjo in G tuning.

Banjo Aerobics (published by Hal Leonard) is a book of exercises to help you gain technique and better understand the banjo neck.

Clawhammer Cookbook (published by Hal Leonard) is now available. Here's a link to it on Amazon:

3 comments on “Chord Nerd Tip #9: The 1 – 4 String Skip”

bausin Says:
Monday, May 12, 2014 @12:16:38 PM

Why isn't the D shape called the C shape? If you move the other 2 positions down the neck until you get the first open string, you get the G and E shapes.

Banjolio Says:
Monday, May 12, 2014 @1:17:17 PM

You are right.
It can be called the C shape.
I think most people call it D because that's the most commonly used one when the chord is closed (all 4 strings are held down).
I like D (and E for the shape many people call F) because GED has a good ring to it. Easy for me to remember.

bausin Says:
Monday, May 12, 2014 @1:43:57 PM

Guitar players have the CAGED system. Since the 2, 3, and 4th strings are the same, it would be nice to be consistent with those positions. But ECG is a little macabre. :-)

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