Many of us picked up guitars in hopes of one day being able to shred them like Slash or Herman Li. However, before you can shred it, you start by learning chords, such as open or barre.
We know that we can play open chords well with acoustic guitars, and open chord strums are usually the cornerstone skill when playing them. But what about electric guitars? Can you play open chords with an electric guitar?
You can play open chords on an electric guitar. This is because open chords can take advantage of the unique sounds electric guitars can offer. Electric guitars tend to amplify better and have longer sustain than acoustic guitars. Professional musicians also do the same.
This article explores whether you can play open chords on an electric guitar. On top of that, we also answer some common questions about open chords on electric guitars. These include popular songs with open-chord electric guitar and tips.
What Is An Open Chord?
Open chords are simple chords played with strings based on the fretboard nut. It is not technically challenging as barre chords and sounds fuller than power chords. Open chords are the cornerstone of popular music today, providing accompaniment to solos and vocals.
Open chords are played by playing fingers on the guitar strings while basing the strings on the nut of the fretboard. This makes open chords different from barre chords, which may use the index finger to base the strings on a particular fret.
As a result, open chords are one of the easiest chords to play on a guitar. It is also very popular since it is versatile and works well on any guitar. It also sounds smooth and natural, unlike power chords with a more rock-like sound.
In fact, with the knowledge of several open chords, you may be able to play many popular songs today.
For example, the song Last Kiss by Pearl Jam requires you to master four open chords – G, Em, C, D. Master these, and you can strum your way through the song. Other popular open chords include A, Am, B, or E.
Open chords ring loud and sustain well, which makes many musicians play it as the background melody or accompaniment to solos or vocals. Some consider open chords the ‘wall of sound’ behind many popular songs today.
Can You Play Open Chords On An Electric Guitar?
You can and should play open chords on an electric guitar. Doing so allows you to take advantage of the qualities of electric guitars, such as sustain, amplification, and more. Professional musicians also do this, meaning you will not look out of place doing it yourself.
Many guitarists usually associate open-chord strumming or plucking with acoustic guitars. This is understood since most people associate electric guitars with professional soloists such as Chuck Berry, Carlos Santana, or Angus Young.
One of the characteristics electric guitars have is amplification. Electric guitars are usually played through an amplifier, meaning you have opportunities to amplify the sound from your guitar and fill the room.
This may be handy if you intend to play in a hall or a space for spectators. Your guitar sound will fill the room well without you having to strum your guitar too hard. Just crank up the amplifier.
Distortion And Overdrive
For example, you can add distortion or overdrive for a more raw, aggressive sound. You can also clean up the guitar sound to make them sound close to nylon, classical guitar.
These adjustment opportunities allow you to experiment with new sounds and allow you a greater range of creativity when playing. You can jam well with other musicians looking for certain sounds.
Aside from distortion and overdrive, another aspect of sound you can play with is sustain. Sustain is a sound quality where once you play a note or strum a chord, the sounds from the guitar decay slower.
This means the sound will ring and stay in the air for longer. A good acoustic guitar can achieve long sustain but is more expensive than an electric guitar.
Suppose you want to use a guitar and play open chords to generate a background melody. In this case, you should get better quality ‘wall of sound’ from an electric guitar with long sustain.
The long sustain ensures the chords ring steady and do not decay too fast as you strum them out.
Professionals Do This Too
Another reason you can play open chords on electric guitars because professionals do this too. In fact, it is very common to see electric guitars being used to play open chords, to generate background melodies to fill in gaps.
However, this may be something few notice, as when songs are being played live, the camera tends to focus on the vocalist or the lead guitarist.
The rhythm guitarist rarely gets camera time but quietly plays the open chords, providing the background sound for the vocalist and lead guitar. You may also hear the open chords, as they may be played as individual notes rather than chords.
Popular Songs With Open Chord Electric Guitar
Some popular songs with open-chord electric guitar include:
- ‘Alive’ by Pearl Jam
- ‘Learn To Fly by Foo Fighters
- ‘Highway To Hell by ACDC
Many examples of popular songs feature electric guitar being played with open chords. In fact, analyze most songs, and you may discover that playing style at some point.
The difference is that some may use it to play strumming patterns, while others play individual notes based on the chord. Here are some examples for you to look at:
‘Alive’ by Pearl Jam
Aside from the vocals in this song, you may hear the bass and the electric guitar playing single notes but in open chords. There are occasional strummings, but they are not prominent on the camera.
If you watch the video below, you may notice the electric guitarists playing on open strings, with the finger position indicating some chords. There is little to no use of barre chords, nor were they using capos.
‘Learn To Fly by Foo Fighters
In this Foo Fighters classic, you can also observe the use of open chords by the guitarists. One player focuses on strumming it to create a wall of background sound, while the other plays individual notes to add color.
Take time and observe that the guitarists generally use little to no barre chords. You can also see that during the verses, the guitarists play open chords in singular notes and allow them to ring – leveraging the qualities of electric guitars.
‘Highway To Hell by ACDC
You can also observe the use of open chords in this live performance by ACDC. Right at the beginning, you can see Angus Young playing open chords. However, instead of regular strumming, he chose to mute the strumming slightly to create the ‘rock’ effect.
Observe the rhythm guitarist throughout the video and how he plays many open chords. He creates that ‘wall of sound’ throughout the song to accompany the vocals and solos.
Tips When Playing Open Chords On An Electric Guitar
Here are some tips when playing open chords on an electric guitar:
- Keep strumming consistent
- Place fingers well on the fretboard
- Experiment with sound quality
- Consider strums or single notes
Keep Strumming Consistent
In most cases, you may play electric guitar on open chords to provide background sound. You would mostly be strumming the chords in these situations.
If you are performing this task, ensure you keep your strumming consistent. This means strumming consistently and keeping to the song’s beat. If you strum without consistent intensity, your strumming will sound loud for one second and too soft for the other.
Place Fingers Well On Fretboard
Open chords are easy, but it doesn’t mean you can play it poorly. One of the key foundations of playing guitar well is to place your fingers well on the fretboard.
This prevents you from strumming out odd-sounding chords. You would also play the right notes since your fingers press the right strings.
Experiment With Sound Quality
Compared to strumming with an acoustic guitar, you can experiment with sound quality if you play open chords with an electric guitar.
Consider the sound you want, and try to play around with the amplifier. Want it more raw and dirty? Crank up the overdrive of distortion. Want a cleaner, creamier sound? There are settings for those too.
Consider Strums Or Single Notes
Another thing to consider is your playing pattern. Would playing open chords in a strumming pattern work better, or if single notes make more sense?
Generally, strumming makes sense when more volume is needed, such as in the chorus. In verses, the habit is to lower the volume and play singular notes instead. However, feel free to try around and see what works.
Consider Pick or Fingerstyle
Another dimension of open chord playing is to think about your plucking. Will using a pick make sense, or fingerstyle would be better?
Using a pick allows better volume, although you may risk your guitar sounding slightly plasticky due to the pick’s surface. You also have one contact surface, which may restrict your playing.
Using fingers allows you to have four contact surfaces, which should help play complicated single notes. However, you may not generate volume as great as using picks, meaning you may need to crank up the amplifier to compensate.