How to play shell chords on guitar

Last updated on March 22nd, 2024


Shell chords are foundational chord shapes to know on guitar. Learning these chords will give you a better understanding of where the important notes are within a chord and can be used as building blocks to create other sounds and variations.

We’ll first cover some theory to understand these chords, learn the guitar shell chord shapes starting on different strings, and then go over musical examples with tabs and audio to apply them.

Grab your guitar and let’s get started!

What are guitar shell chords?

Shell chords are simplified three note chords that highlight the important notes in a chord. Shell chords, also known as shell voicings, include the root, 3rd, and 7th chord tones to outline a chord quality. The 5th chord tone is omitted from shell chords since they don’t define the chord quality as distinctly as the other chord tones.

Here are examples of different chord qualities and what chord tones you use to convert them to shell chords.

  • Major 7 chord – 1, 3, 7
  • Major 6 chord – 1, 3, 6
  • Dominant 7 chord – 1, 3, b7
  • Minor 7 chord – 1, b3, b7
  • Minor 6 chord – 1, b3, b6

Guitar shell chord shapes on the 6th string

We’ll start with shell chord shapes starting on the 6th string, and then cover the ones on the 5th string. Here is a quick overview of how to read the chord charts below.

How to read the guitar chord charts

For the following chord charts:

  • The lowest horizontal line represents the thickest string (Low E). The top horizontal line represents the thinnest string (high E). 
  • The numbers inside the circles represent the suggested fingering to use on your fretting hand.
  • The chord tones are written on the right of each string that is being played.

If needed, check out how to read guitar notation symbols.

Major 7 shell chords – 6th string

You will see two variations of shell chords for each chord quality. One way to order the chord tones is 1, 7, and 3 from the bottom to the top note. The second way is to play them 1, 3, and 7.

Major 7 shell chords on the 6th string

Major 6 shell chords – 6th string

Major 6 shell chords on 6th string

Dominant 7 shell chords – 6th string

Dominant 7 shell chords on the 6th string

Minor 7 shell chords – 6th string

Minor 7 shell chords on 6th string

Minor 6 shell chords – 6th string

These shapes are technically the same for fully diminished chords which have a double flatted 7th chord tone (same as a 6th interval).

Minor 6 shell chords on the 6th string

Guitar shell chords on the 5th string

Major 7 shell chords – 5th string

Major 7 shell chords on the 5th string

Major 6 shell chords – 5th string

Major 6 shell chords on the 5th string

Dominant 7 shell chords – 5th string

Dominant 7 shell chords on the 5th string

Minor 7 shell chords – 5th string

Minor 7 shell chords on the 5th string

Minor 6 shell chords – 5th string


Easily look up guitar chords with the Essential Guitar Chords Chart!

This chart covers how to play:

  • Major chords
  • Minor chords
  • Major 7 chords
  • Minor 7 chords
  • Dominant chords
  • Half diminished chords
  • Diminished chords
  • Chords starting on all (12) root notes
  • Over 80+ chords!

👉 Get it here!

Chord progression examples using shell chords

Here are some musical examples using shell chords which include tabs and audio that you can try out.

Shell chord progression example 1

The first chord progressions is in the key of C Major.


Shell chord progression example 2

Here is the same chord progression as the previous except we shift the chords to the key of G Major.


Shell chord progression example 3

This progression is also in the key of G Major with some borrowed chord in measures 2 and 3.


Shell chord progression example 4

This last chord progression is in the key of C# minor.


Wrapping up

Using shell chords help you to simplify chord shapes by highlighting important notes that make up a chord quality.

Shell chords are very practical since they only have three notes but still create a compact sound that can used for accompanying different instruments or vocals.

Once you learn these shell chords on guitar, you can use the shapes to build other chords such as 7th chords, and other chord extensions like the 9th, 11th, and 13th chord tones, which cover in this lesson on jazz chords.

For now, I recommened getting these shapes under your fingers and practice applying them in different key signatures. 

📘 Get the free guitar practice guide here!

All the best,
JG Music Lessons

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