Understanding Movable Chord Shapes


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Once you’ve mastered the basic open position “cowboy chords,” the way most players begin to move up the neck is with barre chords. Once you get past the technical challenges, barre chords are simple to work with. There are just 4 basic shapes that can be played anywhere on the neck. After a while you might find that the 4 big barre chords are blunt instruments, so to speak. Big in sound but short on subtlety and color.

If we return to some of the familiar open chord shapes and treat them as moveable shapes like barre chords, we can open up a whole new set of sonic possibilities. Take the simple D chord, for example. Its comfortable 3-finger shape makes it easy to slide along the neck, and because the 3 notes form a complete triad – the simplest form of a chord – we can use that same shape to create all 12 major chords.

Movable Chord Shape Example

The most common way we see the moveable D shape used is against an open D drone. A drone is a constant note that doesn’t change while other notes move against it. Playing the D shape chord against the open D string won’t work on every fret, but in the right places it sounds great! Check out example 1:

Movable Chord Shape

We start off with our old friend, the familiar open position D. Sliding this shape up 2 frets moves the D triad up a whole-step to E. Since we still have a D as the lowest note or bass note, we would indicate this chord as E/D. An E chord over a D bass.

Continuing up the neck, move the D shape up one fret to the 5th position. This moves our E triad up a half-step to F. It’s worth mentioning that the three notes of the F triad, F, A, and C, create a Dm7 chord when played over the D bass. So while the chord is expressed in our chart as F/D, we could also call it a Dm7. Either name is correct, but calling it F/D makes the most sense in this example because it’s consistent with the way we’re naming the other chords, and also illustrates the way our triad is climbing the neck. Following this logic, moving this form up two more frets creates a G triad against our D drone, or G/D.

Movable D Chord Shape

Movable D Chord Shape Now at measure 5 we encounter a new, unfamiliar shape.

While you might not recognize it at first, this form is actually derived from the open position A chord. Imagine that the 5th fret is the nut, making the first note an open string. The remaining two notes would be part of that familiar A shape. Played on the 5th fret, this form blends with the open D string to create another version of the simple D chord. The same shape appears again in measure 7 on the 3rd fret, creating a C/D chord.

Movable A Chord Shape

Movable A Chord Shape But before we get there, we encounter this shape in measure 6. This form might look a little more familiar: it’s the three upper notes of a barred F chord. Played on the 5th fret, F moves up two whole steps to A, which gives us A/D over the D string drone.

Combining these two shapes from measures 6-9 gives us a smooth progression of D, A, C, and G, neatly descending the neck over the D drone to resolve back into our original D form. Now let’s take a look at what we can do with picked arpeggios using these forms.

Movable Chord Shape Progression

Here’s example 2. This example is very easy to play and uses just a single form, the familiar D shape. Notice how the chord progression moves against the D drone:

  • G at fret 7
  • A at fret 9
  • F at fret 5
  • G at fret 7
  • D at fret 2
  • E at fret 4
  • G at fret 7
  • D at fret 14
Movable Chord Shape Progression

Try picking the arpeggios with a repeated down-down-down-up pattern, with the final upstroke preparing the hand to strike the open D string at the beginning of the next measure.

Movable Shapes in the Key of A

These moveable three-note forms appear on other strings too. For our next example, our moveable shapes will shift over to strings 2, 3, and 4. We’ll move to the key of A and use three shapes against the open A string. Just like with the D form, not every shape works on every fret when we include open strings. Check out example 3:

Movable Shapes in A

Just as we did before, we’re using three formations derived from familiar open chord shapes. Take a look.

Three Chord Shapes The A chord that begins example 3 comes from the 1st position F form, using only the notes on strings 2, 3, and 4 and shifting the shape up to the 5th position.

The second form may not seem familiar, but take a closer look: this shape comes from the open position C chord, with a fretted 3rd string note replacing the open string. We could also think of it as a variation of an open position D chord, re-voiced to drop the 1st string note down an octave to the 4th string. This shape appears several times in example 3: as an E in measure 2, a D in measure 4, an A in measure 5, and a G in measure 7. The 3rd form should be recognizable as an A shape, and appears as an E chord in measure 6 (at the 9th fret) and as a D in measure 8 (at the 7th fret).

A Shape Chords with Drone

Let’s try using these forms with arpeggios. In example 4, we’re using the shapes from example 3 but also adding an open E string drone. Fret the “A shape” chords with three fingers to allow the E string to ring freely. Note the final Aadd9 chord created by allowing the B string to ring open, a nice variation on the A chord that begins the exercise. To keep the arpeggios fluid, pick d-d-d-d-u-d-d-u, following the same concept we used in exercise 2 and allowing the upstroke to set up the lower note that follows.

This is Exercise 4

With a little practice, you shouldn’t have much trouble memorizing these shapes over the course of a weekend. To see another example of these forms in action in the key of A, check out Chris Liepe’s JamPlay lesson on “Expanding Your Rhythm Playing”, starting at 3:57.

Expanding Your Rhythm Playing by Chris Liepe

Taught by Chris Liepe

In week 2 of his 6 Week Rhythm Guitar Series, Chris breaks down the key of A major.

Watch the full series. Once these shapes sit comfortably under your fingers, start looking around for other places they appear. Songs like “End of the Line” by the Traveling Wilburys or “Substitute” by The Who use forms like this to great and memorable effect, among many others. Happy practicing!

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Thanks for reading.

I hope I've been able to make an impact on your playing.

Thanks again for joinning us for another edition of Weekend Warrior with special guest author David Isaacs!


Dave Isaacs
Nashville Session Musician

Dave Isaacs Nashville Session Musician In a community full of world-class musicians, Dave Isaacs is known around Music City USA as the “Guitar Guru of Music Row”. The New York native has called Nashville home since 2005, and has built a reputation as an ace guitarist and top teacher, mentor, and musical coach. Dave has helped countless aspiring and pro musicians, songwriters, and performers expand their musical knowledge, improve their performance skills, and achieve dynamic new levels of success.

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