Posted by: worshipguitarguy | April 1, 2008

Worship Guitar Chords Exposed! Introduction

“Worship guitarists only play in the keys of G and E, for everything else, they capo.” 

Worship guitarists are a very secretive bunch.  If you listen to a recording, you may hear these really cool chord voicings, which may lead you to question: “How’d they do that?”  It’s as if there is this really cool, obscure way of playing chords that makes a worship guitarist sound like they’re the second coming of Eric Clapton. 

Well, I’m about to expose a huge secret, those cool sounding chords are not as difficult as you may think.  The reality is that many worship rhythm guitarists are pretty simple…  if you throw around terms like an inverted triad with a flatted seventh, many of us will look at you with a blank stare.  In fact, among my worship leading friends, we have an inside joke that one of the biggest worship leaders of our time has only one song, with about two dozen different lyrics.

So what is this secret to understanding these simple guitar chords?  Well I’m going to reveal it in the next few weeks as we take a practical look at keys and chord voicings.  To start though, you may want to review the lessons on the Nashville Number System and the CAGED chords, because it will really help you understand all of this.

CAGED Chords:
Ok, to do a quick CAGED recap, when a guitar is in standard tuning, (E-A-D-G-B-E), there are five common “open chord” positions that guitarists typically use, they are of course the keys of C, A, G, E, D (or CAGED.)  If a guitar player wants to play in some other key like C#, they can either play a barre chord, (with a variation of one of these five positions,) or capo and use one of these positions. The awesome thing about these chords, is they each have a unique “voicing” or sound in relation to the other positions in standard tuning.  And those different voicings can be really useful, to dictate the overall feel and flow of a song.  There are times you may want to use one chord “voicing” over another.  (For instance if your playing in the key of A, when you might want to put a capo on the second fret and play G position chords instead of open A chords.)  So starting next week, we’re going to look at the key of G, and the unique characteristics that many worship leaders find in it.

———————–

Nashville Number System Review
Before we jump into the keys, let’s look back at the Nashville Number System for a minute.  If you remember from the lesson, there are seven notes in the Western concert major scale.  For instance, in the key of C, those notes are C, D, E, F, G, A, and B.  For each note, we can assign a number thus, 1=C, 2=D, 3=E, 4=F, 5=G, 6=A, and 7=B.

So why is this discussion important to choosing different chord voicings?  Well the reason it’s great to know is each of these seven notes are commonly used in chord structures by many worship music writers.  To illustrate, here’s a list of chords/inversions in the key of C that are really popular among worship writers:

1
2
3
4
5
6
7
C
D
  or Dm
C/E
F
G
Am
G/B

 So, taking this and applying it to each of the CAGED chords, our chart would look like:

1
2
3
4
5
6
7
C
D
or Dm
C/E
F
G
Am
G/B
A
B
or Bm
A/C#
D
E
F#m
E/G#
G
A
or Am
G/B
C
D
Em
D/F#
E
F#
or F#m
E/G#
A
B
C#m
B/D#
D
E
or Em
D/F#
G
A
Bm
A/C#

In our look at each of these keys, we’ll look at ways to fret each of these chords, often in ways that are simple, yet unique for that key’s voicing.

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Responses

  1. I’m confused by these charts… why is the 2 chord major OR minor? It will always be minor if you’re staying in the key. DM is D-F#-A but if you’re in C, F# isn’t in the key and would sound terrible so it would be lowered to F making the chord Dm.

    I’m also not sure why the 3 and 7 are listed as inversions… again in C, the 3 would just be an Em, not C/E since that would just be a C chord (1) with an E bass note which isn’t the same as E minor. I don’t mean to sound like a theory snob, I’m just trying to follow along.

  2. Hey Mike, no worries, you’re not coming across that way at all. 😉 FYI, I changed the way I worded things a bit in the article to hopefully clear things up.

    My goal with this article wasn’t to provide a scholarly theory lesson of chord interrelationships as much as it was to demonstrate prominent chord choice techniques most worship music writers use today. Anyone who’s played worship songs for a while knows they’re primarily based on the 1, 4, 5 and 6m chords, while sometimes adding a 2m. In composition though, many writers also use the 1st over 3rd, or the 5th over 7th to create a sense of flow with moving bass notes along the scale. (i.e. the verses of Amazing Love by Billy Foote for the 1/3 > 4 > 5, or numerous songs by the David Crowder Band for the 1 > 5/7 > 6m > 4)

    Interestly enough, I’ve been running across several examples lately where worship writers are also incorporating a 2 Major into songs. (like Robbie Seay’s Shine Your Light on Us.) Or another unique chord being used quite a bit is a flatted seventh. (F Major in the key of G…) The reason for example I didn’t list the true third chord, (the Em) or the seventh is because you don’t find them alot in songwriting for worship.

  3. Thank You, Thank You, Thank You! I am looking forward to this. I have developed a bad habit of capoing up and playing in G and I want to get out of it. I look forward to your coming lessons.

  4. well, I might be inclined to argue we shouldn’t practice sloppy theory just because worship song writers do… but I have to admit, these are basically the only chords I ever see in worship and you’re just trying to be helpful, not start a revolution 🙂

  5. +1 @ mike that we should try to understand and practice theory correctly.

    i really like the sound of a capo’ed acoustic guitar but like everything else, it should be used in moderation and in the context of the song. sometimes a barred chord would sound better than an open capo’ed chord or an open chord (no capo) would fit the bill than a regular chord shape.

    btw, you made me laugh with this line:

    “Worship guitarists only play in the keys of G and E, for everything else, they capo.”

  6. Let me preface the whole thing by stating I am NOT a theory geek, but I’ve struggled with some of these concepts.

    It seems that in the tables above, the bass notes are staying true to the scale (e.g. in C major scale: CDEFGAB). I THINK what you’re trying to show is that you can substitute C/E, for example, when writing a song for the true 3rd chord in that harmonized scale (Em). In reality, C/E is the first inversion of the C chord (which puts the 3rd as the bass note, spelling the chord 3-5-1 or E-G-C).
    Similarly, in the same scale, G/B is the first inversion of G.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that I understand what you’re saying but the way you’re saying it makes me think too hard about it.

    And let me restate, like the guys above me, I’m not trying to be a theory snob ’cause I don’t know enough to back it up. I’m just wondering if I’m picking up what you’re putting down. If there’s more to the story, maybe in the upcoming parts, I’m definitely looking forward to getting a better understanding. Either way, I value your insight and love the blog.

  7. For those who are interested I have a screencast that provides a visual explaination of moveable chord forms in the CAGED sequence at http://www.guitarjourney.com/blog/?p=22
    Subsequent screencasts address the subject of major and minor triads and their inversions, but no flatted sevenths yet! Those will be covered under the topic of extended chords in future screencasts.

    I recommend starting by memorizing the root note patterns around which the CAGED forms are built. You can then begin to add intervals to the root patterns to develop a good chord vocabulary.

    Thanks for the post WGG! The CAGED sequence is something all guitrists should know and make use of. Why be stuck using only the first few frets of your instrument (or be dependent on a capo?

  8. Thanks for the resource link Ken.

  9. […] clear from being a competitor of youtube by limiting the videos to 90 secs.WorshipGuitarGuy is starting a great series on chord voicings and begins with the Nashville number System.Zach Neilsen has a great quote from Rich Mullins about […]

  10. It is also true that people with great talent make the difficult sound easy.

    Thanks for the information.

  11. I tend to agree with Alex about how a 3 would be Em theoretically. What could be explained is the “function” of the chords. Having a G/B in the key of C makes it a 5 chord but the B functions as a leading tone in the bass.
    I study with a guy who’s been using Nashville shorthand in the recording studio and at churches for 40 years now and from what I get from him, a 5 chord in the key of C is any inversion of G-B-D-F(dominant 7ths are just too common to ignore)
    I’d like to see where you’re going with this. Also I use the CAGED system alot for practicing scales and figuring out lead lines and such.
    Keep up the good work.

  12. Alright man, I’m ready for the update to this. I have been sitting on the edge of my seat and checking this site daily and yet still nothing.

  13. me too! c’mon post something man 🙂

  14. From my limited experience playing in churches, it seems that popular voicings involve a droning fifth played either over or under the chord changes (more often over).

    For instance, in the key of G, a lot of people hold down the third fret of the B and E strings with their ring and pinky fingers respectively, while changing chords with their index and middle fingers (and sometimes thumb). So what ends up happening is that you have a G and D (which make a perfect fifth interval) ringing while you’re changing chords. The resulting chords include G, Cadd9, Dsus4, and Em7.

    Likewise, in the key of E, people often move the E major and minor shape up and down the neck, leaving the low E, B, and high E strings open while playing. Again, the E an B form a perfect fifth interval, which is played against the changing chords.

    This method of playing is popular because it makes playing easier (no barre chords in E and less finger movement in G) and the chords have 9’s and 11’s thrown in, which results in a sound that a lot of people in worship music like.

    This sort of method can be applied to all guitar friendly keys, i.e. CAGED.

    Another useful trick for lead playing involved the same sort of idea of using droning fifths. This can be applied to all keys except C. The idea is play your licks on a single string and to hit the two strings below (or in the case of E, above) while you’re playing.

    For example, if you’re playing in the key of G, you can play a lick on the B string. The two strings below will be G and D, which form a fifth. These two open strings together will sound right against any melody in the G major scale. The result is a sort of dulcimer-like effect, where it sounds like someone is accompanying you while you’re playing lead. This is particularly useful when you don’t have a band to back you up.

    In the key of D, you’d play your on the G string while ringing the D and A strings. In the key of A, you’d play the D string while ringing the A and E strings. For the key of E, you can play octaves on the A and G string while ringing out the B and E strings.

  15. Thanks! I really like what I am learning here. I’ve heard about the CAGED system before. The problem I have with it is that I am not sure how to fret some of the voicings because it is simply to hard to fret. You said that the CAGED system can be applied to licks and scales. Can you clarify on this?

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