The ToneWay® Project: helping people play music

Moveable guitar chords

We are expanding our Toneway Jam this February by walking a new group of folks through the “Getting Started” material. The new players will be mostly guitarists, and many are beginners. I'm wondering if I should take a slightly different approach with respect to guitar chord shapes.

What I'm finding from the guitar players in the group (and generally) is that people learn the open chords first. This means that the chords they learn first are not moveable. So to change keys, they either have to transpose the chords, or use a capo. Neither of these is a problem, but I'm observing in jams that people are not using their new chord number skills (or using a capo), but instead are falling back on the regular old “cowboy” chords. To me, this is limiting, since changing keys becomes more difficult, or at least can't be done on the fly. I find, for example, if I call out chord numbers, people get bogged down doing the mental arithmetic (lets see, the key is C, so the IV is F…) rather than thinking “the key is C and it's a I-IV-V song, so I'll play this I-IV-V pattern I've learned, based on a root located at the third fret on the A string… Oh! the singer wants to change to the key of D? No problem, I'll just slide the whole works up two frets.

So… I'm wondering if it wouldn't be easier (in the long run) to demonstrate only moveable shapes? Perhaps that would get people to approach chord progressions as sequences of shapes (with the root on either the low E or the A strings) that can be played in any old key. That's how I approach mandolin playing. One disadvantage to this approach is that the fingering might be a bit tricky for beginners - full barre chords, for example, require too much hand strength. Moveable Freddie Green swing-style chords might be too stretchy and can sound odd to the uninitiated (and aren't really used in bluegrass or old time). Maybe partial barre chords, played with skipped or muted strings, are the way to go.

Or might it be more effective to put a heavier emphasis on capo use? I'd be interested in people's experiences and thoughts. And not only on guitar and mandolin.

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I always use partial chords for the F, Bm, B, shapes… just hold and play the top 4 strings. Using a capo and just playing the 1,4,5, chords for in keys of D and G, plus the playing the partial chords for the F, B Bm shapes gives the 3, 7, 6, and 6m chords in the keys of D and G. The 2 chord is one of the 'at the nut' chords. I suppose that is what you call the 'cowboy' chords. That give me the 1,2,3, 4,5,6,7, chords for every key.

I'd imagine the bar chords are really for classic guitars with gut / nylon strings, and the electric ones like you say.

Take an old, but decent guitar, and just saw (shave / plane down) the neck on the 1st and 6th string sides until you have a narrow neck. Restring it with the top 4 strings and you'll have a fine tenor guitar. (I did that on my old Yamaha guitar when arthritis first hit me hard. )

Tenor ukes are fine too, if you put a low G string on them. Their higher pitch 'cuts through' better. And open tuned… it's heaven!


Wow, I'd love to see a picture of that DIY tenor guitar! You're a brave man, Carl!


Movable chords are a fine tool for strictly playing strumming patterns but I like to utilize runs to transition from one chord to the next. After years of using “cowboy” chords I find learning new fingering patterns to use those runs in a movable fashion rather difficult for an old brain like mine. Because of this I personally like a capo.


It's a matter of sound and style as well as physical strength. Bluegrass and country music requires the open-string sound. If my students had to learn bar chords they would quit after the first lesson. Also bluegrass jamming skills require you to watch chord shapes if you don't know the song. That's hard to do if someone is using bar chords or odd shapes. People who want to do Swing or Jazz will learn the moveable shapes as they progress.


Susan's correct - being able to “read” the guitarist's chord shapes is very useful, and speaking from experience is much more difficult if unusual shapes or odd fingerings are used. I've decided to go the capo route, mostly for those reasons. Plus, playing three note swing or jazz grips half way up the neck sounds out of place with this music.

Speaking of jazz grips, I got to try out a 1953 Epiphone Triumph archtop jazz guitar today. Lovely, punchy, and LOUD old guitar. Sadly, I have a hard time justifying the cost.

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