Getting Started with Shell Chord Voicings

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As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 20 – Summer 2022

As we continue to grow as musicians, our journey often leads us to more complex concepts and chords. For guitarists, it can feel intimidating to learn how to play more advanced chords, but just because a chord is more advanced does not mean that it has to be more difficult to play. Many jazz and pop players will often use simple 3-note voicings called shell chords. In this lesson, we will discuss shell chords and how they can be applied on the guitar. 

To get the most out of this lesson, I recommend first making sure you have a basic understanding of the major scale and how chords can be built from intervals of that scale. Let’s start by breaking down seventh chords: a seventh chord consists of the root, third, fifth, and seventh notes of the scale. We will be looking at three types of seventh chords: major seventh, dominant seventh, and minor seventh. A major seventh chord has a major third and a major seventh, and the result is shimmery and serene. In the key of C, the notes would be C-E-G-B together. A dominant seventh chord has a major third but a flat seventh, creating a happy, but slightly edgy and dissonant sound. A dominant seventh in the key of C would be C-E-G-Bb. Finally, a minor seventh has a flat third and a flat seventh note, which sounds sad but pretty. The notes C-Eb-G-Bb make up a minor seventh chord in the key of C. 

We can simplify seventh chords by turning them into shell chords. To do this, we will need to remove the fifth from the chord, leaving just the root, third, and seventh notes – these are the notes that give the chord the most character. Shell chords are often played with the root starting on the fifth (A) and sixth (low E) strings. Example 1 consists of shell chords starting on the fifth fret of the sixth string. Each dot indicates the chord interval being played, while the Xs above the diagram represents the string not being played. Notice how the root (labeled R) remains in place while the third and seventh notes only move one fret from one chord to the next.

In Example 2, we can see how the shell chords can be played starting on the fifth string. Notice how the third and seventh notes have flipped strings.  

Let’s put these two patterns together. Shell chords are often used in a ii-V-I progression, or a minor two chord to a five chord to a one chord. We will use this progression in the key of A in our practice exercise, Example 3 (heads up that dots now indicate fingerings instead of intervals). The first chord will be a B minor 7 (Bm7). Let’s place our first finger on the seventh fret of the low E string (the root note B), our second finger on the seventh fret of the D string (the flat seventh note A), and our third finger on the seventh fret on the G string (the flat third note D). Pluck or strum those three notes together, but be sure to avoid playing the A string – gently bar the first finger of the fretting hand across to mute the string if needed. 

The next chord will be an E dominant 7 (E7). We will put our second finger on the seventh fret of the A string (the root note E), our first finger on the sixth fret of the D string (the major third note G#), and keep our third finger on the seventh fret of the G string (the flat seventh note D).

Finally, we will end with an A major 7 (Amaj7). This should be played with the first finger on the fifth fret of the low E string (the root note A), the second finger on the sixth fret of the D string (the major seventh note G#), and the third finger on the sixth fret of the G string (the major third note C#).

Try slowly playing one bar of Bm7, one bar of E7, and two bars of Amaj7. 

Once you feel comfortable, try playing this progression in a new key, starting on another fret. Experiment with as many different positions as you can. 

For more information on shell chords, I highly recommend viewing Molly Miller’s shell chord lesson on the Pickup Music YouTube channel.