Using Three Note Chords.

Robert Johnson

This section expands upon what we have already learned and hopes to illustrate what can be achieved when this knowledge is made available . . . you do not have to rely on chord books or magazines to show you new chord shapes.

The most convenient strings to use for 3-note chords are the 6th, 4th, and 3rd or the 5th, 3rd, and 2nd. You will notice that in each case there is a string jump between the bass note and the two middle notes, which gives a good blend of sound and also makes it easier to play. You can use any combination of strings you want, but these are the best ones to start with.

The technique used to play these chord units must be controlled and accurate. The string being missed out or skipped in each combination must be muted. I recommend experimenting with a flatpicking technique, but you will probably find that just forming the chord with the fretting hand will cause the string to be muted. However this is done, you must ensure that accuracy in playing the chords is the top priority.

The chord units should also be strummed or picked 'as one' so that the notes combine to give the required effect. This technique will come as a result of practice, so do not be discouraged if you cannot get it to work straight off.


The beauty of breaking chords into any three elements means that there are a large number of permutations available to us, each with its own unique sound and effect. The inversion used for any particular situation is a matter of preference, and the more you experiment with combining intervals, the more tools you will have for doing the job.

Miles Davis Let us take a simple example to highlight this principle in a working context. We are confronted with a chord progression in a song you are working on that changes from Gmaj7 to Amin9 ( a I-minII progression). We are looking for a few options that will complement a piano that is playing the strong notes of the chord, and the guitarist's job is to add texture and emphasize the harmonic structure of the chord change without clashing or competing with the pianist's inversions. In short, we can't rely on the good old barre chords we learned years ago at the 3rd and 5th fret positions.

We must first identify the notes that make up the chords themselves. To do this, we can take our knowledge of chord formulas to discover that Gmaj7 consists of the I, III, V, and VII, and Amin9 consists of the I, bIII, V, bVII and IX. Then we must give these intervals their correct notes using the major scale pattern. You should now be easily able to recognize Gmaj7 as G B D and F#, and Amin9 as A C E G and B.

Now we can find a 3-note chord shape that includes any of the notes we have just identified. We will have to omit one or more of them in any of our solutions; this is a matter of personal choice coupled with experimentation at this stage. A good place to start is to leave out the root note, as this will be clearly defined by the piano or the bass player. It is also a good idea to begin by using the 6th, 4th and 3rd string combination, as this will be easier to play and work from initially.

Putting the 5th note on the bass string is a very tried and trusted technique and would work well in almost any situation. This then would put the D note on the 6th string and would leave us to find a convenient fingering so that we could include the other two notes, the B and the F#. This is where you will have trouble if your fretboard knowledge is not watertight. If you need to use the octave pattern to find the notes, then by all means do it. Many professional players use this method to work note positions out in pressure conditions because it works so well and discreetly!

If you have correctly located the notes, your chord shape will look like Fig 4.2. Once you have settled on a chord shape, you will need to repeat the process for the Amin9 chord. What we are aiming for in this sort of progression is to be able to change between the two chords with the smallest amount of finger movement; to put it another way, to link the chords with minimal harmonic movement. This will enhance the chord change in a very subtle way but will create a very smooth change to the ear.

fig 4.2

This process takes much less time than it first may seem, but it does require practice. This, however, is easy to provide as you can take any common chord progression that you already play and use and work out three different ways of playing it. I am in no way advocating the over-analysis of the role the guitarist has to play in band situations - the best things often come out of by simply jamming - but I do believe that being able to create different solutions for any chord progressions you will be a more interesting and well-rounded player.

When you have got the hang of this method and can apply it to some primary chords, you are ready to move onto altered chords. These present us with much more scope for inventing chord shapes since they consist of many more intervals. If we consider the chord of A9b5, for example, you will find that it consists of A, C#, Eb, G, and B. The greater amount of notes in the chord gives us more possibilities for creating new inversions and leads on to chord substitution (as an example, you could identify C#, Eb, and G as a Eb-7 chord).

An alternative to spending time working out new chord shapes is to form the chord shapes you already know, and use the flatpicking technique to play the 3-string combination already used by simple fingering a barre chord. This will limit the possibilities you could have come up with, but it will work and is easy to do under pressure (in a recording situation, for example).

I have put down a few more solutions for the Gmaj7 example for you to try out.

Gmaj7 3 Note Chord Examples

Examples For You To Try Out

Try to invent some 3-note chord patterns for the chords below. I have included the chord notes to save you a little time.

Chord Notes
Gmaj9 G B D F# A
F#min7b5 F# A C E
Dmin11 D F A C G
A7#5b9 A C# F G Bb
Cadd9 C E G D
Gsus2 G D F
Amin7 A C E G
F7#9 F A C Eb G#
Bbmaj11 Bb D F A Eb
C#6/9 C# F G# A# D#

Once you have converted these into chord shapes, try moving them around the neck as some shapes will sound better in some keys than others. If you come across one that is particularly nice, jot it down as a chord window for future reference as you may forget it due to the large amount of new shapes that you will no doubt uncover. When you have built up a number of new chord shapes, try to incorporate them into your playing as soon as you can.

Copyright Dale Churchett © 1995. All Rights Reserved.