Many guitarists start with basic open chords and power chords, but there's a hidden gem in the world of harmony that is easy to play and incredibly useful – shell chords.

Made up of just three notes, and usually only played on three strings, shell chords are easy to fret but hold a world of harmonic information.

In this article, we’ll dive into why shell chords are so useful, how to practice them effectively, and the genres they are best suited for.

Shell chords are seventh chords

From neo soul and country to bedroom pop and beyond, seventh chords are an essential weapon in every great guitarist’s arsenal. Shell chords are essentially simplified seventh chords, which makes them very practical.

If you’re not familiar with what that means, below is a quick primer.

The music theory behind seventh chords

When we build chords from the notes of the major scale, we get four different formulas for seventh chords.

The numbers refer to the scale degrees (1, 3, 5, 7). They describe the relationship to the root note of the chord:

  • Major 7th = 1 3 5 7
  • Dominant 7th = 1 3 5 b7
  • Minor 7th = 1 b3 5 b7
  • Half Diminished = 1 b3 b5 b7

For example, a C Major 7th chord has these notes:

  • 1 = C
  • 3 = E
  • 5 = G
  • 7 = B

Some of the most commonly used naming conventions for seventh chords are as follows:

  • Major 7 – Δ, or maj7
  • Minor 7 – m7, or -7
  • Dominant 7 – Dom7, or simply ‘7’ (e.g. ‘C7’)
  • Half Diminished – ø, or m7b5

How to build shell chords

We don’t know if he coined the term or if someone else said it first, but guitarist Adam Levy likes to call shell chords the “power chords of jazz”.

  • Instead of four notes, like a typical seventh chord, each shell chord has three notes.
  • One is the root note, which gives the chord its name.
  • The other notes are the 3rd and 7th intervals – these define the quality of the chord.
  • The 3rd determines if the chord is major or minor.
  • The 7th determines whether the chord is a dominant 7 or a major 7.

You can create a strong harmonic foundation with shell chords while still leaving space for a melody or other instruments.

Shell chords are moveable. Since you only strum or pick the strings that you’re fretting, it means that you can move shell chords around the fretboard without barring.

We have chord diagrams below but if you have your guitar ready, why not play along with this lesson video on how to play shell chords with Molly Miller:

Simplify complicated guitar chord voicings

Here are two examples of how shell chords can make your life a whole lot easier.

The easiest way to play a minor seventh chord on guitar

If you’re an intermediate player, you probably know bar chords. They’re great, but not always the most comfortable shapes to hold down. Want to learn an easier way? We’ve got just the thing!

Below is your full minor seventh bar chord with its root on the 5th string:

  • It’s a lot of work for your hand to hold down the bar.
  • There’s a potential for string buzz since you’re fretting five strings at once.
  • The voicing includes the 5th twice, which isn’t really necessary.
  • The 5th holds very little information regarding the harmonic quality of this chord.

Let’s simplify!

If we keep the 5th string root note and pair this chord voicing down to the essentials, we get this neat shell chord:

  • The middle finger plays the root note.
  • Your index finger plays the flat 3rd.
  • Your ring finger plays the flat 7th.

Alternatively, you can also fret the chord like this:

  • Ringer finger – root
  • Index finger – flat 3rd
  • Pinky – flat 7th

The easiest way to play difficult jazz chords on guitar

Jazz chord voicings sound amazing and we love extensions. We get it though, when you see a chord with more characters than your email password, the temptation to throw in the towel is high.

Here’s an example – a C# dominant 7 chord with an added #9 and #11 😨

  • All four fingers are necessary to fret this chord and one needs to hold down a mini bar.
  • What if we told you – you don’t always need to play all those extensions?!
  • Sometimes it’s okay to ignore those little numbers with # and b tagged on to a chord.
  • As long as you play the essential elements of the chord, you’ll be okay.

The shell chord holds those essential elements:

This looks like a C7. Just move every note one fret up and you’ll get a C#7.

If you love jazz but don’t know where to start, take a look at our article “How to get started with jazz”. You’ll learn how to play the jazz standard Solar using only shell chords.

Learn six shell chord voicings and you can play most songs

Learn shell chords with three different chord qualities:

  • Major 7
  • Minor 7 / Half Diminished 7
  • Dominant 7

Note: One shape can work for both a Minor 7, and Half Diminished 7 chord as we omit the 5th.

We usually play shell chords with

  • The root note on the 6th string
  • The root note on the 5th string

Add those up and you have six chord shapes

6th string shell chord shapes

5th string shell chord shapes

How to Practice Shell Chords

In the beginning, focus on teaching your fingers how to find the chord shapes.

  • Figure out which fingerings are most comfortable for you.
  • Make sure you can pick the individual notes so they sound clean.

If you struggle with learning new chords, check out our article “How to get better at chord changing”.

Common progressions using shell chords

Once you memorize the shapes, start playing chord progressions.

There are two progressions that are short, sound great, and are the backbone of jazz and neo soul: the minor and major version of a II - V - I.

The best way to play these progressions is to mix and match the 5th and 6th string shell chords so you’re not sliding around the fretboard.

II - V - I in C major looks like: Dm7 - G7 - Cmaj7

Challenge: Can you figure out how to play this progression starting with the Dm7 shell chord on the 6th string?

II - V - I in A minor looks like: Bm7 - E7 - Am7

Once you feel comfortable with these two progressions, try incorporating them into a song you already know. Whenever there’s a seventh chord, play a shell chord.

Why you should learn shell chords

There are a lot of genres where shell chords can shine. Guitar players who play jazz, accompany singers or play solo guitar in a chord melody style can all benefit from using shell chords.

Here are a few perks of using these versatile shapes.

Find your role in an ensemble

When you play with a jazz or blues band or accompany a singer, compact chord shapes are often better suited than full bar chords. Being a great guitarist is about playing in service to the music – do what you can to complement the group.

  • When you play with a soloist, give them the space to sing or play a melody over your chords.
  • When you play with a bassist, you can even use shell chords without the root note.
  • If the lead sheet is full of complicated chord names, use shell chords to cover the harmonic foundation without being overwhelmed.

Best chord shapes for chord melody playing

Solo guitar players often play a melody alongside chords. This is way easier when you use shell chords as you have more fingers free to play a single note line.

  • Learn your scales on the top three strings, combine them with shell chords, and you’re off to the races!
  • Shell chords sound good in combination with a walking bass line – the minimal chord blends in with a bass, creating a more unified sound.

Use shell chords for singer-songwriter arrangements

Shell chords are versatile, which makes them the perfect tool for singer-songwriters.

  • If you’re the only instrumentalist, shell chords easily can cover a bass part (lowest note) and the harmony part (upper two notes).
  • You can keep the chords’ footprint small to make room for vocals.
  • When you want to change dynamics, extend your shell chords for a fuller sound.
  • You can also bring variety to the arrangement by strumming, plucking or arpeggiating the shell chords.

How to add extensions and make shell chords more colorful

Shell chords are so versatile because you can dress them up in many different ways.

Typically, here are the intervals guitar players commonly add:

  • b9, 9, #9
  • 11, #11
  • 13, b13

Below are some examples of extended shell chords:

What’s next?

Whether you’re interested in jazz, blues, or more lessons for intermediate guitar players, we’ve got the perfect Learning Pathway for you. Our guided online guitar courses feature guided practice exercises, interactive jams, personal video feedback from pro guitarists, and so much more.

Don’t take our work for it, though. Check out a 14-day free trial to see for yourself.

Author: Julia Mahncke