Fretless 6-String Guitar Technique – Tim Donahue

VII. Chords

Certain chords playable on fretted guitar can be played on the fretless without any special fingerings or alterations. Others require awkward fingerings (which take some getting used to) or are not possible at all. We will concern ourselves with the first type which require no special techniques.

In general, smaller voicings of 3 to 4 notes are the most useful on fretless guitar and a good knowledge of chord construction helps make smaller voicings go a long way outside of their obvious uses. A basic example is how an A triad can be played over a D bass note and create a Dmajor9. It can be played over an Eb bass note in the key of Ab and create an Eb alt chord. So, outside of its most obvious use, that is, being a I chord, it can go a long way. Its small structure of 3 notes makes it useful on the fretless.

A few guidelines to follow when fingering chords:

1. Avoid common “barre” chords where the 1st finger holds down all six strings. Sustain and intonation are difficult with this kind of chord.

2. Notes that lie on the same fret but on adjacent strings should be done with one finger barred across the two strings (see Intervals, Note after para 6)

3. “Working” the notes out with vibrato is necessary. Never let the chord “just sit there” under your fingers. Give it some life!

4. A certain order of depression of chord tones is recommended instead of putting the chord down all at once. More on this later.

Chords common to Fretted and Fretless Guitar

These chords require no special fingerings. The only consideration is their intonation, of course, which must be dealt with in terms of the intervals within the chord (see Intervals paras 1,2,3). Here, the intervals that should be made “in tune” first are bracketed ( [ ). Once in tune, fill in the remaining chord tone(s).

Three note voicings:



Four note voicings:


Fingerings and order of finger placement

The actual fingering at times may not be as important as the order in which the fingers depress the notes of the chord. Rather than fingering the entire chord all at once, intervals which are most difficult to get in tune should be played first and the rest of the chord filled in afterwards. With practice, this process becomes instinctive. Sometimes, all intervals in a chord may be hard to finger or get in tune. Still, by separating the fingering process, one’s ear can handle a succession of notes rather than an all-at-once barrage of notes.

An Eb9 can be built as in 1., 2., 3., and from here the 1st finger can stretch to the Gb to give us an ep-q as in 4.:


An Eb7#9 can be fingered as in 1., 2., 3., and an Eb-7 (with doubled 3rd) can be fingered as in 4.:


Other examples:


By fingering Dmaj7#11 with #11 in the lead, Dmaj7 with the 5th in the lead can be easily played in tune with sustain.

Compare resulting fingering to given fingering:




Odd fingerings are necessary for chords containing perfect 4ths on adjacent strings (other than the 2nd and 3rd).

An E triad should be fingered:


The 3rd finger will extend above the 5th string, so this can yield an F# :


The low B can be left out and the resulting chord can be transposed up the neck by the 1st finger taking the place of the open 2nd string:


Stretching the 1st finger in G7sus4 yields a G9:


Other necessary fingerings for major 7 and sus 4 chords:


Some chords are not possible if the adjacent fourth interval is inside the chord with bass and melody also adjacent to the fourth. But note how the same basic shaped chord can be fingered if the bass note is played on the 6th string. This now leaves enough room inside the chord to barre the 3rd finger and extend over the 5th string to mute it:


F7 in the preceeding example is possible to play if the natural 13 is lowered to either a Ab13 or 5th:


Harmonized scales can be fingered with the same basic shape moving up the fingerboard:


Other chordal possibilities with constant structures:


In a modal setting (see “Eclipse” example):


…section ends

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