So your typical guitar has six strings on it and, after learning your open chord shapes, you’ll realise that chords are usually played on all six, five, or just four strings. But do you really need all those strings? Not really.

And I’m not talking about power chords. Nor am I talking about being minimalistic with your playing.

I’m talking about being creative with what you play and how you play it. Make choices in how you play a chord and what position you play it in. This may mean playing a barre chord or part of a bar chord, making things a little more interesting or even a little easier to play.

Then go further. Don’t play the whole chord. Really think about the notes and do something different. Let’s talk about how.

If you haven’t yet, get your head around slash chords before reading this article, this will also help in the way you think about chords. I also suggest you read my article on using slash chords to transition between guitar chords for more understanding.

Why And When To Play Only Part Of A Guitar Chord?

There are many reasons to only play a fragment of a chord on guitar, and I’ll cover my favourite times. But sometimes you don’t need a reason, sometimes it just suits what you’re playing and you like it.

But let’s quickly explore the main reasons I may play only part of a chord before I go into it further with examples:

Ease of playing: let’s face it, no matter how much you practice, you’ll still find certain things challenging to play, even if others play it with ease. That’s just how things work. Finding an alternative voicing where you only play part of the chord can still work well.

Specific chord voicings: the different chord shapes sound different. They just do. An E shape chord is a big full sound because it uses all six strings, but it has a 5th in the bass. Another six string chord shape, the G shape, has a 3rd in the base. There’s a different quality there. Then of course there are “smaller” chord shapes that use fewer strings…

Because it suits the song: this is different from ease and voicing, and perhaps I’m not giving it the right name, but it may suit to move up and down the neck with a particular shape, or you’re trying to get a certain type of chord in there. I’ll give some examples.

Making Guitar Playing Easier By Only Playing Part Of A Chord

Ordinarily I’d say that you should practice until you nail it, but maybe there’s something that’s a struggle or you simply don’t have time. This tip shouldn’t be an excuse to be lazy, but having a few tips and tricks in your arsenal can be handy.

These examples are a little less musically sound and a little more obvious, but here are some chord shapes you can abbreviate.

Abbreviated A Barre Shape

The A barre shape chord can be difficult to play, even for more experienced players. If you’re expected to play it quickly, in a passing chord for example, it can be impossible. So, just play the middle three strings. This creates a slash chord (in A that would be an A/E, where the E is the 5th of the scale), but it’s fine for a quick pluck.

And this is totally fine. As mentioned, this is great for a quick transition or if you want to walk up/down the neck with this shape, keeping your other fingers a little more nimble for other things.

Abbreviated G and C Barre Shapes (They’re Really Just Slash Chords)

None of these tips, so far, are particularly amazing, but hopefully they’re helping some of you. There’s more complex tips coming up though! But if you’re interested, you can easily turn the G and C shape chords into a slash chord to make their barre versions a little more playable.

Consider that a C shape chord played on the top four strings is the same as an Am shape. It’s pretty easy! Musically, in C, this would be a C/E (where the E is the 3rd degree of the scale).

Similarly, you can play a G shape barre on the highest four strings, you’re getting a G/D (where the D is the 5th degree of the scale).

These shapes can also be convenient for upping your slash chord game, whether you just like the sound of these inversions, you’re looking for an interesting bass line, or you’re just looking for something a little bit easier.

Playing Partial Chords For A Specific Chord Voicing

As mentioned, each chord shape sounds different. A nice big E shape chord sounds so different from a little D shape chord. The example I have here comes from a little Robert Johnson inspired Blues lick that uses a partial D7 shape. It’s only part of the chord because it’s a little bit easier, and it also just suits to play it without the bass.

This one is best shown in tablature. 

Go ahead, try playing these four bars fretty the whole D7 barre chord shape. The bass just doesn’t work. Without the bass is sounds Bluesy as hell. And it also wouldn’t sound as good playing a chord voicing that has more notes in it. Sometimes less is more.

Playing A Partial Chord Because It Suits The Song

Finally, sometimes playing a chord a certain way just suits the song. Once again, Robert Johnson (and a lot of older Delta Blues players) did this very well. The example is typical to a lot of Robert Johnson songs, and a voicing I like to play for Kind Hearted Woman Blues.

Despite what it looks like, this is actually and A7 chord derived from an E7 shape chord. The main body of the chord is only three strings, but playing it in fifth position allows the open A string to be plucked to add bass (sparingly).

Get a nice little vamp going here alternating between playing the chord with the bass, playing without the bass, and playing just the bass.

Then for bonus points figure out how it’s an E shape chord.

Find Your Own

That’s just an introduction to playing partial chord shapes. And now it’s time to find your own. It’s all about being creative and getting out of the comfort zone of playing full chords. Because sometimes they’re simply not needed!

The final little tid-bit I’ll give you is that minimising a chord can also be very useful if you’re playing with another guitarists. If they’re playing a full chord and you don’t want to just play the same thing, just play part of the chord, particularly in the treble. Find something different that adds a bit of a layer to the song. It’s a lot of fun.

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