Hard Chords Made Easy

Learn to play these "unplayable" chords, not succumb to them!

What do you do when you come across a Bb or an Eb chord in a songbook? Struggle with a barre fingering? Slap on a capo? Turn the page and go on to the next song? Take up the harmonica? All of these are possibilities, of course, but the idea is to play these chords, not succumb to them. You want to be able to make not-so-common chords sound good without hurting yourself in the process.

In this chapter we will dispense with barre chords, which are a handful for many guitarists. We’ll learn some basic major and minor fingerings that will give you any major or minor chord you need, when moved up or down the neck, without pain and suffering! Accomplished guitarists know that there are at least two possible fingerings for most chords. And almost every chord can be fretted in more than one position on the neck. The guitar is great in that way. What we are looking for are some of those alternative fingerings that will rid us of the “unplayable” chords. They do exist, and they are surprisingly easy to use.

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Major-Chord Fingerings 

Amazingly, a C-chord fingering is nearly all you are going to need to play any major chord. Try adding your fourth finger on the third fret of the first string of an open C chord, as shown in Example 1. I call this voicing of a C chord “Freight Train C,” because almost
everyone’s version of that classic tune starts with this chord. It’s a great voicing for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s easy to play. Second, it has the root note in the bass—on the fifth string. Third, the four fretted strings provide all the notes of a major chord, and the fingering leaves a minimum of open strings to contend with. This is important as you start sliding fingerings up the neck (Example 2). 

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I use this fingering regularly (with my first finger on the fourth fret) to play an Eb chord. The only things to watch out for in “Freight Train C” are the two open strings:
the third and the sixth. Generally, you can avoid picking the sixth string, unless your ring finger reaches out to fret it during an alternating-bass pattern (the tune “Tentacle Tango” on page 60 requires you to do this). You can pick the third string if it happens to belong to the chord, or you can avoid it by picking around it or muting it with the second finger of your fretting hand. 

But with several of the chords, the open strings work beautifully as added color notes. And on some of these chords you can lift your fourth finger and include the open first string, as in Example 3. You might recognize the Dadd4 from Simon and Garfunkel’s “Kathy’s Song.”


This is an excerpt from Acoustic Guitar Solo Fingerstyle Basics. You’ll find the rest of this chapter, along with eight more complete lessons in the digital edition.

Book cover for 'Acoustic Guitar Solo Fingerstyle Basics'
Mark Hanson
Mark Hanson

Mark Hanson is a prominent fingerstyle guitarist, author, educator, and clinician who has penned dozens of instructional books.

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