Why Is an Open Em Chord Only 3 notes?

Written by Aaron Cloutier for Guitar on Demand

So over the years, I've received a lot of the same types of questions from my students.

One of my favorites being “Why is an open Em chord made of 3 notes, but played on 6 strings?”

I so feel the pain of every beginner starting out and trying to wrap their head around this one. I was definitely that guy. It just didn’t make any sense! I was so confused by this during my beginner years that I kind of left it alone while figuring out how to down pick a Metallica riff on my beat up old classical guitar. It didn’t seem to make much difference in my guitar playing at the time, so I put it aside.

What I later realized is that I had this “fear” of sorts due to a lack of practical knowledge on my instrument. This fear kept me locked up creatively in a sense that I was afraid to explore my fretboard and hit a “wrong” note. What’s funny is this dissipated immediately as soon as I began to understand how this music thing works and just how easy this system is to understand.

Even starting with something as simple as knowing the notes found in an Em chord will begin to demystify this whole “learning to play my guitar” thing and help you understand how everything in music is connected because we are slowly beginning to learn how to read the map.

Let’s get started.

In a nutshell, it is because the open position E minor chord is made up of three notes and these three notes repeat across all six strings to help thicken out the sound of the chord.

This rule also applies to the rest of your basic open chord shapes. Meaning your C, A, G, E, D as well as Am, Em and Dm open chord shapes - all are based on just 3 notes.

Granted, the number of strings you'll use for each different chord shape will vary but nonetheless, every chord shape shown here is made of only three notes.

Let me explain.

Here's an open position E minor chord.

As shown, the notes in an E minor chord are as follows

E - G - B

As shown, you can see that E is the root note (1), G is the minor third (or flat third) (b3) and B is the perfect fifth or (5).

When analyzing the fretboard, you’ll see these three notes repeat throughout the fretboard.

Low E string = Open ( E )

A String = 2nd fret ( B )

D String = 2nd fret ( E )

G String = Open ( G )

B String = Open ( B )

High E String = Open ( E )


I hope this all makes sense so far but to go deeper and hear this concept in action, feel free to check out the accompanying video.

If you found this to be helpful or have any questions, be sure to leave a comment and let me know.

While you're at it, let me know what you would like to see me talk about in the future pertaining to songwriting and music theory.

Thanks for reading.



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