Video Lesson: How to Visualize and Play Chords Up the Neck

In this guitar lesson we will focus on how to play chords “up the neck” in order to learn to play a chord-melody.

How do you learn to play chords “up the neck” in order to learn to play a chord-melody? In this guitar lesson we will visualize all of the notes in a C major triad on the fretboard, explore the chord on various string groups, and then apply these concepts to a chord-melody arrangement of the jazz standard “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise.”

Map It Out

The guitar’s range of three and a half octaves provides great possibilities, but navigating the length of the neck can often be confusing. A simple way to approach playing up the neck is to find the notes of a C major triad (C E G) all over the fretboard. Once you have a map of the fretboard from the open strings to the 15th fret, as shown in Example 1, you will be free to travel wherever you like.  

How to Visualize and Play Chords Up the Neck guitar neck diagram

Connect the Dots

Now try stringing together three-note groupings of the notes C, E, and G at various locations on the fretboard. It’s fun to discover some unique voicings by using this technique. Example 2 has a few often overlooked rhythm guitar voicings that I enjoy. For some other possibilities, see Example 3, which takes the C triad ascending on the G, B, and high E strings, and Example 4, the same idea on the D, G, and B strings.


Place Things In Context

“The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise” was written by Ernest Seitz and Gene Lockhart in the midst of the 1918 flu. Made very popular through Les Paul and Mary Ford’s 1951 hit version, the song has been recorded across a range of genres by Django Reinhardt, Doc Watson, and Chet Atkins, among other legendary guitarists. I started thinking about “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise” early in the coronavirus pandemic, as its title expresses a longing that so many are feeling. 

How to Visualize and Play Chords Up the Neck guitar lesson music notation

As shown in Example 5, the arrangement opens with a G7#5, followed by an open C chord. Keep the C shape held in the second full measure, where you’ll add the third-fret G with your fourth finger. In order to make a smooth transition to the G9#5 in the following bar, move your fourth finger up to the fifth fret while maintaining contact with the first string. Once your fourth finger arrives at its destination, organize your fingers to form the G9#5 as indicated in the chord diagram. In this situation, I like to think of the fourth finger as the “lead dancer”: It’s leading the hand to the next location on the fretboard, and once it arrives, the “follow” fingers can organize around its location. Look for the lead dancer, or finger, in every chord change. 

In measures 5 and 6, the C triads from Exs. 4 and 5 are used to harmonize the melody notes E, G, A, C. Changing the chord voicing for each of these notes creates nice harmonic movement while supporting the melody—the essence of the chord-melody approach. While the note A is not a note of the C chord, you can simply add it to the triad. Measures 7 and 8 use two of the inversions of an E7 (see my lesson in the January/February 2021 issue to review inversions). 


Note for plectrum players: When the melody falls on the B string, strum the voicing and let the pick land (rest) on the high E string. This will help emphasize the note that matters most—the melody note. For measures 9 and 10, bar your first finger across the fifth fret in order to be able to hold the F chord down while the melody moves between the notes C and A.  

Measures 11 and 12 have the most interesting harmonic movement, as the C, Gm, and A7 chords all share the eighth-fret B on string 2. After you have formed the Gm, hold your third finger in place as your first and second fingers descend one fret to form the first A7. Then, lift all your fingers to reorganize to make the second A7 (with the E melody note.) Think of this A7 as an open D shape, moved from strings 1–3 to 2–4.

Hold down the D9 in measure 13 for three beats and then release the entire chord to play the third-fret D with your first finger on beat four. When you return to D9 in measure 14, place the chord to cover the E string but to do not play the note on the E string. Instead, strum the D9 and use a rest stroke on the high E string. Then, when beat three arrives, without lifting the picking hand, let the pick fall through the high E string to hit the melody note A. This is a useful technique when the two notes of the melody are contained in the same chord voicing.

The F minor chord of measure 17 looks like the preceding A7 chord—just upside down. Always look for shape similarities, especially when you have to move all your fingers, as you do with this chord. Then you flip the shape back again to make the G7 before ending on an open C chord. 

Take your time learning this arrangement. Any time you run across two chords that are difficult, practice them back and forth, thinking about which finger is leading and which is following. This should provide the insight and the repetition to make the task easier. Have fun with it, and hopefully the sunrise the world is waiting for will arrive soon.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

acoustic guitar fingerstyle lessons
Greg Ruby
Greg Ruby

Greg Ruby is the director of Guitar Week for the Swannanoa Gathering and has taught extensively. He is the author of the Oscar Alemán Play-Along Songbook.

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