How to Start Playing Guitar
Up the Neck

Are you comfortable playing in the first position but looking to expand your range on the guitar up the neck? Then get ready—this lesson is for you.

Just this past week, I had a new student over for a lesson. He has been playing guitar for a few years, has some really nice guitars in his collection and even studied with some pretty heavy-duty teachers here in Nashville. But he mentioned that he wasn’t too comfortable playing up the neck.

Maybe you’re there—things feel very homey down by the first few frets, but once you head out into the open ocean of the higher parts of the neck, it’s easy to feel lost.

Let’s figure out how to begin exploring the upper part of the guitar fretboard without being traumatized by the experience.

Since we need some sort of musical context to enable our explorations, let’s work with a standard chord progression in the key of G:

G   C   G   D

We don’t need anything too crazy, so that’ll do.

Normally, you’d play the standard versions of these chords in first position (first position refers to the first four frets of the guitar nearest to the head. The numerical reference comes from which fret your index finger is positioned at.). However, wouldn’t it be fantastic to be able to play different variations on the standard chords? Even better if our chord variants lead us up the neck! That’s what we’re going to create in this lesson.

Now, there’s an important distinction that I want you to understand before we start climbing the neck, and that is the difference between closed and open chords.

Open chords are chords that utilize any of the open strings. Many of your most familiar first position chords are open chords—chords like A minor (which uses the open 5th and 1st strings), C major (open 3rd and 1st strings), G major (open 2nd, 3rd and 4th strings). All of these chords are open chords.

Closed chords are chords that use no open strings. In order to play them, your fingers have to press down on the appropriate frets of all the strings used in the chord.

Closed chords are very useful for playing up the neck because you don’t have to change anything about them other than the frets at which you’re playing in order to move them around. Where the usual first position C major you already are familiar with necessitates complete refingering in order to use it up the neck, closed chords stay using the exact same fingers and fingerings. All you have to do is shift them to different frets.

Check out this video to see what we’re going to do, then keep reading and working as we get you moving up the neck on your guitar!

The first closed position chord we will utilize for our chord position is the four-string F major chord that you probably already know and love.

Now, if we apply a little music theory knowledge to the F major chord, we can figure out how to use that closed position F major shape to make a G major chord.

How many frets do we need to move up to go from F to G? If you said two, you’re right!

First we slide up one fret, which takes us from an F major to an F# major. And then, we shift up another fret to go from F# major to G major.

So now, in our above chord progression, substitute this four-string F major chord shape with the index finger making the partial bar at the third fret and the other two involved fingers on the fourth and fifth frets respectively, and use it when the progression calls for the second G chord.

Listen to the difference—notice how the contrast between the first standard G and the second up-the-neck (a bit) G creates extra interest and variety in what would otherwise be a simple repetition of the same old major chord.

Check out this next video to see what we’re going to do to move the C and D chords up the neck a bit:

Can we find some up-the-neck alternatives for that C and D? You bet we can.

Do you happen to know B major? Like F, this is usually one of the first bar chords learned by new guitarists. It takes the A major shape in first position and then puts a bar behind it close the chord while keeping the shape of the chord by either making a partial (and difficult) bar with the ring finger two frets out from the bar or using the middle, ring and pinky fingers to fret one note each on the 2nd, 3rd and 4th strings.

Watch the video if you’re confused.

So once we have B major with a 5-string index finger bar at the second fret, it’s a simple matter of shifting that chord up the neck one fret to get C. (Do you get this? In Western music, the notes go A, A#, B, C, etc. so if a bar on the second fret creates a B chord, then shifting it up one fret shifts the note from B to C.)

Now, this chord may be a little trickier for you to shift to at speed within our chord progression than the substitute G major we just used, and that’s okay. Just work patiently and it will become easier in time.

If we take that same C major that we just barred at the third fret and shift it up two more frets, that gives us our up-the-neck D major chord.