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4 Mandolin Chord Forms You Need to Know

Mike Marshall Holding a Mandolin and Playing Mandolin Chords

When it comes to essential mandolin chords, there are basically four types that you need to know: major and minor chords in both open and barre chord form.

Knowing these forms will allow you to play any song in any key and enable you to compose your own music in a more intelligent way. There’s nothing wrong with playing by ear, but knowing some basic movable chord forms will save you countless hours of building chords note by note, leaving you more time for writing music, learning songs and jamming with friends.

1. Open Major Chord Form

An open chord simply means a chord that includes open strings. In mandolin tab, you’ll recognize these chords by the zeroes stacked atop one another, indicating open strings. These chords are also referred to as two-finger mandolin chords, as they often require only two fingers to fret the appropriate notes.


For example, G Major is 2nd string, 2nd fret and 1st string, 3rd fret. The remaining two strings are open. Another example is D major, which is 4th string, 2nd fret and E string, 2nd fret. Strings 2 and 3 are open.


2. Open Minor Chord Form


Let’s take a look at a few open minor chords. G Minor is exactly the same as G Major, only the 2nd string note slides back to the 1st fret. Spelled out, that’s 2nd string, 1st fret, and 1st string, 3rd fret. We can alter the D Major chord in the same fashion to produce D minor; slide the 1st string, 2nd fret note back one fret and sound the chord again. It’s that simple.


While open chord forms are technically not movable, that’s where the barre comes in. It makes them movable! Let’s check it out below.


3. Major Barre Chord Form


Here’s where things get fun. Remember that G Major chord we played? It’s typically played with 1st finger on the 2nd string, 2nd fret, and 2nd finger on the 1st string, 3rd fret. Play that same chord shape again, only this time with your 3rd finger on the 2nd string and your 4th finger on the 1st string. Why did we do this? To make it movable to any key. Here’s how:


Slide this new fingering up two frets so that your 3rd and 4th fingers are now on the 2nd string, 4th fret and 1st string, 5th fret, respectively. Now lay your 1st finger across the 3rd and 4th strings at the 2nd fret. That’s called a “barre,” which is just a finger that covers two or more strings on any given fret. This new chord is A Major, one whole step (2 frets) higher than G Major. Move it up two more frets (with the barre), and you’ve got B Major, and so on.


Notice how the notes fretted by the barre correspond to the open notes of the original open chord form. That’s what makes this form movable. Now you know how to play a major barre chord in any key simply by counting in half or whole steps up the neck.


4. Minor Barre Chord Form


Minor barre chords are exactly the same as major, only the 3rd finger note is one fret lower. For example, play G Minor in open position, then slide it up two frets and apply the barre, producing A Minor. In this case, your 2nd finger will be on the 2nd string, 3rd fret and your 4th finger on 1st string, 5th fret. Now you can slide this movable form up and down as necessary.


Pro tip: Make sure to pick one string at a time when you’re first learning barre chords, as there is a tendency to mute one or more of the strings due to inadequate pressure. You don’t have to strain, but just make sure that you’re actually producing a clear tone on each string before you start strumming away.


When you’re ready to move on, check out this fun lesson on mandolin strumming patterns with expert mandolinist Mike Marshall. Happy picking!


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