why is E not E?
May 26, 2007 4:18 AM   Subscribe

i'm a total guitar noob and have been learning for only a month now, so please forgive what may be a really dumb question. why is it that to play certain chords on the guitar (for instance, C major, or A minor) you don't play the open low-E string, but you do play the open high-E string. it's the same note, isn't it? so why doesn't it sound as good?
posted by sergeant sandwich to Grab Bag (22 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
As a general rule of thumb, but not strictly a rule, you'll rarely play all six strings on any chord, even if it is technically correct to do so. It's pretty much about the tone color of the chord. You will get a different color by playing the top 4 or 5 strings then playing the bottom 4 or 5.

It's not terribly crucial when you are playing by yourself, but if you are playing in a group, the difference can be striking. Playing all six strings in given chord can muddy up the sound, and obscure a bit what the other players or vocalist might be trying to do.
posted by psmealey at 4:36 AM on May 26, 2007

Also, the low E is not the root of the C or A chords.
posted by D.C. at 4:43 AM on May 26, 2007

Yes, on guitar chords, the lowest note played is generally the root of the chord.
posted by muddgirl at 5:27 AM on May 26, 2007

One common technique for C major, at least I've done it for years and seen many other players do so, is to play a lower G instead of a lower E (i.e. 332010). This certainly makes it sound more solid, and is especially useful if you're playing solo rhythm.
posted by wackybrit at 6:22 AM on May 26, 2007

It's common for "jazz" chords to not use any open strings at all, even in first position. If you're playing with a bass or piano, you might not even play the root, and certainly not on the bottom.
posted by tommasz at 6:45 AM on May 26, 2007

Best answer: It's important to think about how we actually hear and identify chords when we're listening to music. Your choice of voicing matters a lot, not just for the subjective experience of a given chord in isolation, but in how that chord voicing is place among other chords in sequence.

When you sit down and fret a C major on the guitar, there are a dozen different forms you could use that would all be technically and unambiguously a C major: basically, anything that contains the three factors of the chords (C, E, G) at least once and no other tones.

x32010 is the common standard. It's "root form"—the root note of the chord C is played as the lowest sounded note in the chord, which we find very satisfying and grounding as listeners. It's a real C major's C major, if you will.

032010 is, as spitbull said, the first inversion—332010 is the second inversion. Both sound less rested, less unambiguously settled down and resolved than the main form. If 'inversion' doesn't mean anything to you (it's theory jargon), the lay meaning is pretty easy to grab on to: an inversion of the root form is just a rearrangement of the same chord so that a different factor than the root note is voiced lowest. The chord is "inverted", in that sense.

You could also voice a C major in any of these ways, and still be sure in isolation that it's a C major form:

x32013 - high G for a different polish on top
3x2x1x - sparse, broad voicing that has a lot of sense of space
x320xx - a tight, low grouping (a "close form"): lots of oomph, not much sparkle
xxx010 - a tight, high close form: lots of sparkle but no assertive low end

And so on. Every one of those is a C major, but every one of those involves significant choice.

And as I suggested above, why you'd choose one over the other depends a lot on musical context. Why would someone ever want to play that ambiguous low-E 032010 form? Again, what spitbull says: passing tones and movement. A less-stable voicing of a chord may be an excellent way to set up a move to a different chord with a satisfying sense of (temporary) resolution.

Try playing that and then moving straight to a F major 133211 form. It feels almost like it was meant to happen, yeah? Try this sequence: root form C, first inversion C, root form F:


It has the feeling of not just jumping to the F but approaching it. You broadcast your harmonic intent a little bit that way. Not always desired, depending on the song, but it can sound really great when you want more of a sense of movement and less of a jarring jump.

Likewise the second inversion G-based form 332010. As a way to set up movement to an actual G major form, this can work similarly to the above: use the unstable inversion as a stepping stone to a root form of a different chord:

320003 (or 320033 or etc)

And either can work for a number of other chord moves. C to Dm? Try the first inversion of C, to the first inversion of Dm:


C to Am? Try the second inversion of C to the root form of Am:


These are just a couple of common examples. The key idea here is that you can think about two different things simultaneously in choosing a chord voicing:

1. The overall chordal (or "harmonic") structure of the song—C to G to Am to F to D7 and so on.
2. The melodic line of the base note as you move from chord to chord.

The first you've already got as soon as you know what your basic chord changes are, inversions bedamned. The second is the why and how of all of the stuff above: being conscious of this melodic sense of how the base notes moves will blow the lid off a lot of interesting questions and possibilities about voicing forms.

So look at the examples above again, thinking specifically not just about how it sounds but about how, literally, the lowest note you're voicing as you chord these is moving around as a line of it's own.

- In the C-F example, you've got a c that moves down to an e and then steps up to an f—a nice little melodic turn.
- In the C-G example, you've got a c that moves to a g before the chord changes to G major—you're broadcasting a move, which adds a lot even if c to g to g is kind of dull as melodies go.
- In C-Dm, you've got the exact same melodic structure down below as in the C-F example, but the effect is different; for one thing, that inverted Dm itself doesn't sit as stably as the root-form F from the C-F example: you can kind of feel it wanting to keep moving to something else
- In C-Am, you've got a very strong move: c down to g up to a. It's not quite as strident as if you had actually played C major - G major - A minor instead of the inverted C, which is great: we've discovered a nice compromise between a flat C-root-to-Am-root move and super-heavy C-root-to-G-root-to-Am-root move.

The takeaway: you can apply this thinking not just to your choice of chords in isolation, but to every pair or group of adjacent chords you confront in a song. Pick any two, and then think about how you can voice the two chords, how you might change the voicing of one chords as the step before moving to the next and what sort of melodic result you'll get in the base as a result. Consider which of the two chords needs to be stronger and more stable for the song to feel right, and see if you can find a way to make the other chord in that pair use an inverted form while the strong one sounds a basic root form, and see how that changes things.

It's a great big wonderful can of worms.
posted by cortex at 7:26 AM on May 26, 2007 [35 favorites]

I came here thinking I would definitely have something to add, but it looks like cortex pretty well covered it...
posted by svenx at 8:48 AM on May 26, 2007

Best answer: All the above answers are good.

The short version: generally you want the root of the chord to be the bass note. It sets the foundation for the chord and helps its identity. If the lowest note is not the root, the chord can sound "muddy" and undefined (especially on the guitar), unless it is done for a specific purpose.

Inversions (chords with a note other than the root in the bass) are used mostly to accomodate a bassline which utilizes that note. For example, someone has already mentioned that a low E in this context has a strong tendency to "want" to move to F. Try playing this chord progression:


in other words:

C (open position, NO low E)
C (open position, WITH low E)
F (Barre form, with F on string 6 fret 1)

If you listen for the bassline, you will hear it go from C, down to E, then smoothly up to F. This is makes for more interesting bass motion than simply jumping from C to F. If you have a good ear you can use bass motion to make your guitar parts more interesting, but overuse can be muddy and vague unless you really know what you're doing.

If you are playing with a bassist or pianist, it's generally best to play the chords in root position (or better yet, in higher voicings) and let the other player take care of the bassline--things will get muddy if everyone is playing in the low register.

Anyway, you asked an intelligent and perceptive question for "noob" and probably got way more information than you needed. Print it up, put it aside, and look at it in a few months, and you'll probably be able to digest it better. For now, just pick up your guitar and have fun.
posted by Alabaster at 9:04 AM on May 26, 2007

Best answer: Additionally, notes too close together tend to sound muddy the lower you go. Generally, you'll want to omit the third of a chord in the bass and stick with just the root and fifth.

The E and A and D chord fingerings on a guitar are good this way. An E major chord looks like this:

E B E G# B E
1 5 1 3 5 1

G and C are less ideal since they have a low third. Strumming the low E string for a C major chord adds another third to the bass: bad idea unless you're doing it on purpose.

This is more noticeable on piano, where if you're pounding out a chord you'll play the root note of the chord in the bass, probably in octaves, and perhaps with the fifth of the chord as well. Adding in the third doesn't usually sound good, though it's fine if you're arpeggiating the chord rather than hitting all the notes at once.
posted by Khalad at 9:39 AM on May 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: wow, what an awesome bunch of answers. thanks to all of you. i didn't realize i was asking such a big question!

i'll be trying all these things just as soon as i can convince my fingers to reliably do what my brain commands, and if anyone has more to add, please do. thanks again!
posted by sergeant sandwich at 11:16 AM on May 26, 2007

For reference -- musictheory.net is a pretty good resource. There have been times where it has been more useful than a college-level theory textbook for my MUS 202 class.

Or you could just IM cortex, apparently.
posted by rossination at 11:59 AM on May 26, 2007 [2 favorites]

There are no 'small' musical questions. You should find yourself a qualified teacher.

The other important component of guitar playing at this stage (other than theory, which is well represented here today) is technique... something which is very hard to develop on your own. It could take you much longer to learn than is necessary. Get some lessons, and not from a DVD or a site.
posted by chuckdarwin at 12:20 PM on May 26, 2007

Cortex said, in reference to Dm/F:


I hope you're not suggesting that he use his thumb to fret that low F...
posted by chuckdarwin at 12:26 PM on May 26, 2007

Do not disparage the thumb's fretting powers.
posted by fleacircus at 12:41 PM on May 26, 2007

chuckdarwin, I guess he could use his tongue or an assistant, but, yeah, that's what I had in mind. Those what can't reach won't use that voicing, I suppose.
posted by cortex at 2:35 PM on May 26, 2007

I usually coach beginners to keep their thumb BEHIND the neck where it belongs...

The over-the-neck technique is advanced and shouldn't be tried by beginners because it will result in awful left-hand technique and make barre chords much more difficult (because they will have the dreaded lazy thumb problem)
posted by chuckdarwin at 3:52 AM on May 27, 2007

fleacircus - I am not disparaging anything, but this guy has only been playing for a few weeks; he's nowhere near ready to start using his thumb to fret notes.
posted by chuckdarwin at 3:54 AM on May 27, 2007

He's ready as soon as he can comfortably reach. I realize this may be an unsatisfiable clash between formal technique and informal self-instruction, but reaching a quick thumb around for the occasional D or Dm is not rocket science, nor should it cripple an otherwise capable student. It's just a thumb popping out for a rare chord now and then.
posted by cortex at 7:43 AM on May 27, 2007

Re 100231: You can totally grab both the high and low F with your pointer if you bend it right. Worst case scenario you get 1x0231, which is still pretty okay.
posted by danb at 8:40 AM on May 27, 2007

Response by poster: thanks for the tips, guys. i'm going to leave the thumb fretting alone for now, until i feel comfortable with the other 4 fingers.

so, i'm gonna piggyback another question here while i've got all of your attention .. the guitar and amp are your basic beginner's el cheapo set. i get a lot of noise - the pops and crackles etc i don't really mind, cause they sound kind of cool anyway.

but i'm picking up some radio station, which is really kind of annoying. i presume i should get some kind of shielded cable, but if that doesn't work, what else can i do? would a ferrite choke on the cable help?
posted by sergeant sandwich at 2:39 PM on May 27, 2007

Are you using single-coil pickup?
posted by chuckdarwin at 3:39 AM on May 28, 2007

Response by poster: there's two singles and a humbucker; the hb is (as advertised) less hummy, but i still get the radio station on all 3 pickups.
posted by sergeant sandwich at 10:13 AM on May 28, 2007

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