Learn 7 Ways to Play A Major


Welcome to the latest installment of Chord by Chord, a series designed to build your understanding of harmony and the fretboard. At this point we’ve done 30 lessons, covering chords of all types. In this lesson we’ll restart that cycle, using an entirely different set of chords, beginning with A major.

The Work

If you remember, a major triad is made up of three notes, the root, the third, and the fifth. In an A major triad, those notes are A, C#, and E, as shown in Example 1. (Note that there are three sharps in the key of A major: F#, C#, and G#.)

Example 2a shows a basic open A chord. In Example 2b, you’ll find the same voicing, but with a first-finger barre. Depending on the shape of your guitar’s neck and your hand, you might be able to include the open high E string. Example 2c uses the same barre at the second fret, but adds the fourth finger to play the A on string 1, fret 5.  

Example 3a depicts an A barre chord played at fret 5. If it’s too uncomfortable to bar your first finger across all six strings, then try the common workaround in Example 3b—wrap your thumb around the neck to play the fifth-fret A on string 6, and then you just need to bar the top two strings with your first finger. In either barre shape, feel free to play just the top or bottom four strings.

Example 4 depicts a more compact voicing using just the top three strings, with the fifth (E) on the bottom. If you’re fingerpicking, you can add the open A string to get the root note in the bottom. Lastly, Example 5 shows an A voicing way up at the 12th fret. This shape can be difficult to play even on a 14-fret guitar, but it helps if you have a cutaway. Also note that this is essentially the same as Ex. 2a, but moved up 12 frets.

The Result

Now you should know a bunch of different A major chords at different spots on the fretboard. As always, practice these shapes until they are in your muscle memory. Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire” is a great example of a song that makes use of an A chord. It also happens to include an E major chord, the subject of your next lesson.

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