Lesson: Expanding Your Harmonic Palette

Learn to use moveable chord shapes: a simple concept that can generate scores of chordal ideas while expanding your knowledge of the fretboard


You know the basic open chords but want to expand your harmonic vocabulary using the entire fretboard.


Learn a system for turning shapes you already know into a new way of seeing and hearing what you can play on the guitar.



Begin by conducting an experiment in sound with two constants and one variable. The constants will be the shape of the chord and the open string; the variable, where on the fretboard you play the shape. The first two bars of Example 1 show that by simply moving a basic D-chord shape up the fretboard two frets and maintaining the open D string, you have an entirely new chord sound. The fretted notes—B, E, and G#—form an E major triad. By keeping the D string open, you have a slash chord called E/D—in other words, an E chord with D in the bass.

Move the D-chord grip up another fret and you will arrive at an F major chord. Now something very interesting happens. By maintaining the open D string, you’re producing an F/D chord, which can also be seen as a Dm7 chord (D F A C). In bar 4, take your finger off the high E string, slightly changing the experiment’s constant, and you have a colorful Dm9 chord.

By simply moving your fretting hand to two new places and changing one note in the shape, you’ve learned three sophisticated chords! As you keep going up the neck you’ll come across an interesting new chord each time. The note on the second string will always be the root of that particular triad—for example, when you move the D shape to the seventh fret, you’re playing the notes D, G, and B, or a G chord with the fifth (D) in the bass.


At this point you should have a fairly good grasp on the concept of moveable chord forms. Examples 2 and 3 flesh things out with chord progressions using basic Asus2 and E grips, respectively. Try these shapes at every fret to produce 36 new chords. While learning and memorizing the names of the chords is important—especially if you want to share these with your other musicians—it’s equally if not more important that you take the time to learn to really hear these new sounds. When playing each chord, listen closely and identify how it makes you feel. This is a huge step toward not only expanding your knowledge of chords but creating your own style.



This concept of pitting movable chords against constant open strings is seen in everything from classical guitar literature—Isaac Albéniz’s “Asturias,” for example—to the work of today’s singer-songwriters, such as Ed Sheeran. Examples 4 and 5 demonstrate how iconic rock groups like the Beatles and the Doors used these concepts. When playing these types of chord progressions, pay close attention to the open strings you can use and the ones you must omit, as this is important in getting the correct sound. And when working on these chords, experiment with different picking-hand approaches. Strum, arpeggiate, and fingerpick each one, in a variety of different rhythmic patterns. 


As you start to add new chords to your repertoire, the amount of music at your fingertips will grow exponentially. Example 6 shows a progression that combines these movable shapes with Fmaj7 and B9sus4 chords. This progression features the contrast of open-string movable chords and closed voicings. Try playing these changes in a range of styles—folk, rock, bossa nova, or whatever tickles your fancy. This particular example can be a fun and challenging one to write or sing a melody over, or to improvise on.


Example 7 is the chord progression to a song of mine called “Early Summer Evening.” I varied a few of notes in the shapes from the movable Asus2 voicing to create this interesting eight-bar chord progression. Now try doing the same—moving chord shapes against ringing open strings to compose some of your own beautiful music.

Jim Josselyn is director of the School of Music and Drama, in Little Silver, New Jersey. He is a composer with numerous television and soundtrack credits. academyofmusicanddrama@gmail.com

Using Moveable Chord Shapes musical notation, examples 1 -  7

Jim Josselyn
Jim Josselyn

Jim Josselyn is director of the School of Music and Drama, in Little Silver, New Jersey. He is a composer with numerous television and soundtrack credits.

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