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Lesson 1d: Basic Chording Techniques

Edited by Paul Race for Creek Don't Rise?

Editor's Note: Between 1999 and 2004, Mitchel "Mickey" Cochran posted an extensive collection of free musical instrument lessons on his web page. Sadly, we lost Mickey in 2011. After e-mailing surviving family members for permission to repost some of Mickey's most popular materials, we have begun restoring them to host on these pages. (Please see the Introduction page for more information on that effort.)

This page is Mickey's explanation of hot to get started learning chords on the 5-string banjo tuned in "Open G Tuning," the Bluegrass favorite. - Paul Race

Lesson 1d: Basic Chording Techniques

By Mickey Cochran

Chords are the building blocks of songs...and, lay down the harmonic structure of a song with harmony notes that support the melody. Chord playing also is required when playing back-up to vocalists or other instrumentalists.

Chords are built from musical intervals...that in turn, create a harmonic structure which denotes the key of the song.

For instance, a major chord is built on 3 tones called a major triad. In the key of C this consists of the scale intervals of 1 3 and 5. Or C, E and G. With these three notes you'll have a C chord...with this type of knowledge, you can build your own chords. For the G major chord, you would have G, B and D...again the 1, 3 and 5 of the G major scale. This is only the surface of how chords are built. I highly recommend that you purchase a music theory book and do your own research...having music theory knowledge will greatly enhance your learning process.

In our discussion of building chords, we'll also want to consider what are key structures...this way, we'll be better able to determine which chord is played within a song's context. Once you know the key of a song, you can better find the chords yourself. For instance, in the key of C, there are three common major chords: C, F and G...and, 90% of the time, these chords will be all that comes into play. In genres such as rock, country and bluegrass you usually only find that the 3 common chords, to an individual key, would be all that you need to know. In jazz or classical, there are many more passing chords. This type of music theory will give you far more flexibility when you find yourself in a jam session...where songs are called up out of the air of which you may have never played before...with this music theory within your reach, you'll find yourself easily adapting to most any musical setting.

Note from Paul: There is more information about how chords are made and how chords go together in songs in the following two pages:

Some of the information in those two resources "jumps" ahead of what Mickey is presenting in this lesson, but please consider bookmarking them as a reference as you proceed through this training.

In learning to play chords, you'll want to follow a few points of reference:

1. Take your time, and learn one chord at a time...

2. Memorize the pattern of where the chord falls into place on your fingerboard. You'll want to be able to quickly put down the fingers all at do not want to place one finger at a time.

3. Be careful to use the very tips of your fingers...the fingers should come down straight on the fingerboard so that you're not touching adjacent strings. If you're touching adjacent strings, you'll have some dead notes when strumming or picking the chord.

4. Play each chordal note directly behind the fret with the tip of your finger. Do not play in between the frets...move your fingers all the way up behind the fret being played. This ensures a clear note with good pitch.

5. Do not add too much pressure when playing the note. If playing directly behind the fret, you'll find it doesn't take too much added pressure to create a clear note (if it does, your action may be too high).

Note from Paul: Our article Beginning Five-String Folk Banjo - Part One - Introduction to Banjo Chords explains some of this content as well, with a few more illustrations and a video you may find helpful.

Here are some major keys and the chords required to learn within that key:

    Key of C: C - F - G Relative minor chord: Am

    Key of G: G - C - D Relative minor chord: Em

    Key of D: D - G - A Relative minor chord: Bm

    Key of A: A - D - E Relative minor chord: F#m

The above chord positions will be taught in future lessons...this is only to give you an overview of the many chordal positions ahead of you. By memorizing one key structure at a time, you'll find it becomes easier and easier as your progressively advance in your lessons. Notice above, that once your memorize the key of C chords, that you've already learned one chord for the key of G...and once you've learned both the keys of C and G, you'll have two of the chords already memorized for the key of D. Hence, do not become discouraged with what's ahead of're going to find that the learning process is cumulative and becomes easier as you advance.


Some further Questions and Answers:

Date: Sat, 20 Mar 2004 09:49:54 -0800 (PST)
Subject: banjo chords

My name is Norm Bird, and I live in Indiana. I recently purchased a five string banjo and am like a beginner again, as I had one 15 years ago but gave up on it. Now, older and some wiser, am hoping to be able to play it this time. I am having a terrible time with chords. D7 especially as I keep getting dead sounds and have read about hitting the strings with fingertips only and not touching the others but still do it. Any easy fix?

Greetings Norm,

Chording can be quite difficult without personal instruction...there are many things to consider in right hand placement before attempting to play a chord on the banjo:

1. Make sure your thumb is placed behind the neck...not riding on the top...

2. Use only the very tip of your fingers when fretting...this will help you avoid touching adjacent strings which gives a string a dead thud...

3. Only push down the string, with the tip of your fingers, directly behind the fret...this ensures a clearer tone...

4. Practice playing one string at a time while chording to assist you in isolating problems...each string should ring loud and clear...if a string sounds dead, or is not ringing clear, focus on why...if you're fretting the string, you may not be pressing hard enough and you may not be playing close enough behind the fret...if it's an open string, one of your fretting fingers may be touching the string which stops it from emitting a clear tone...


From: "Notley, Mark E." <>
Subject: Subject: banjo chords
Date: Wed, 9 Jun 2004 11:35:48 -0500

Hi, My name is mark. I live in Oklahoma & recently purchased a 5 string Banjo. I am having trouble getting my fingers to hit the fret board at the same time when making a cord change. I visualize where my fingers need to go before I ever start to make the change, but still I place a finger on the lowest string first & kind of roll my hand until the others are in place. No matter how much I concentrate on trying to place them all at the same time, it just doesn't happen. Do you have any suggestions on how I can teach myself to do it the correct way?



Greetings Mark,

Yes, this can be a challenge when first starting out...there are a few methods and exercises that may assist you in being better able to grab a chord without losing meter...if you're attempting to teach yourself, this can be an even further challenge to pursue...with a personal instructor, this hurdle is easier to jump:

1. Visualize the chord in your mind...imagine yourself playing the chord with all fingers in correct placement. This is part of developing your mind to hand coordination. And, the best thing about this exercise is that you can practice this anywhere at anytime. My suggestion would be to consider a chord progression such as G to C to D...with four beats each and then a shift to the new chord. With correct visualization, you will be reinforcing your ability to play it physically later. This exercise can be become a part of your future practice for other progressions as you advance on your banjo.

2. This exercise would involve dissecting the chord without playing other words, you'll want to try playing the chord partially building up to using all fingers at once. For instance, take the C chord and play the E note only by placing the third finger on the 2nd fret of the high D string. Now, repeat this over and over without placing any other fingers. Once you're comfortable with this process, then start with the first finger on the 1st fret of the B string and place it at the same time as the third finger on the 2nd. Now, we're performing this exercise without picking any now have a partial C chord...and if you're performing this exercise correctly, you should be placing the two fingers simultaneously repeatedly...over and over until you do not even have to think about the process. Remember, in the effort of performing this exercise, you'll also want to pay close attention to the position of these fingers...of which should be as close to the fret above them as possible. This will ensure a nice clear tone when picking the chord. To finalize this exercise, we want to add the second finger on the 2nd fret of the D string. Now, we have the entire chord involved...and, we'll again want to repeat the exercise over and over until it becomes will be focusing on placing on the fingers in their respective positions simultaneously. Be careful to use the tips of your fingers and to place the fingers directly over the fingerboard as you perform this exercise. When placing these fingers, you will not be rolling your will be essentially hammering down directly above the frets...all fingers should hit their positions at relatively the same time. Now repeat this exercise with other chords within the progression you're working on...

3. After completing the above two exercises, you'll now want to apply the right hand strumming pattern. Now, keep in mind, we're not picking any notes individually yet...we only want to strum four downstrokes on each chord. This is part of establishing meter and ensures that you're not hesitating between chordal changes. Let's take the G chord progression and strum four downstrokes with each chord...moving on to the next chord after four downward strums...from G to C to D. The focus here is to achieve this exercise without any will be keeping an even tempo counting to four on each chord evenly and slowly. The idea would be to start as slow as would be necessary to ensure that your chords are changing without any pauses. Once you feel comfortable, you can speed up the tempo accordingly to your facilitation with the chordal changes.

4. Now, the trickiest exercise of all: You now want to look away from your banjo while practicing exercise 3 above. The goal here is to become so comfortable with your chording hand that you do not even have to look at the fingerboard while making changes. Once you can accomplish this, you will be ready to apply banjo rolls to the chord progression.

Be sure to check out our Roll exercises, with the G chord progression, on the following page:

Keep on Pickin', Mickey

Copyright ?1999-2004 Mickey Cochran


Mickey's instructions are as valid today as when he wrote and recorded them years ago. Here's hoping that you find them just as helpful as his original followers did back when he was interacting on a daily basis with his them.

Please contact us if you're hitting any brick walls and we'll try to help you get therough them.

Best of luck, all, enjoy your music, and support the arts.

Paul Race

And when you're ready to move on, click here to go to the next part of this online lesson.

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All text and any illustrations and/or videos within the white box above are copyright 1999-2004 by Mitchell Cochran. All other materials, illustrations, and content on this web page, including the text reformatting and illustration restoration within the white box are copyrighted ? 2016 by Paul D. Race. All rights reserved.
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