Every chord type is defined by its characteristic combination of intervals. But there is no obligatory order of these intervals. A major chord for example consists of its root (1), major 3rd (3) and a perfect 5th (5). No matter if the sequence is 1 3 5 or for example 1 5 3 or 3 5 1, it is still the same major chord.

Every possible sequence of intervals of a chord
is a voicing of that chord

It's also very common that intervals appear more than once, like in the following voicings.

You may know the term inversion of a chord, but inversions do not cover all possible combinations of sequences. Especially when it comes to chords with more than just three different tones.

Let's start with basic major chords

Voicings 1 3 5 1 and 1 5 1 3

This may remind you of the "CAGED system" ...a kind of childish way to explain the following things in a way that makes people believe they can get around the theory ;-)

The theory is actually even easier (and much more useful), because with just a little understanding of intervals we can break down those 5 basic chords (C,A,G,E and D) to only two(!) categories of chord shapes:

Chords starting off with intervals 1 3 5 1:

Chords starting off with intervals 1 5 1 3:

See also lection on basic major chords

These shapes are also the basis for all the following voicings of 7th chords, where we just replace the second root by a 7th or skip one or another string. But before we tackle the 7th chords, I want to consolidate your understanding of pure major chord shapes.

  • I will move all chord shapes up a few frets. You can see that you can move each of those shapes freely along the fretboard to get other major chords.
  • I end up with just three different keys (A, D, G) in this example, but each chord shown in two different voicings now.

Voicing 1 3 5 1 (...)

Voicing 1 5 1 3 (...)

Skipping strings:
1 5 1 3... shapes as E,A and D before:

Not all these major voicings can be changed to minor shapes in practice. The fingering doesn't always work. See lection on minor chords.

Voicing with smaller intervals like 1 3 5 1 are considered as closed voicings
those with larger intervals (and therefore bigger distance between lowest and highest note) are called open voicings*

*) Not to be confused with open chords, which is a term for all guitar chord shapes using open strings.

Voicings for 7th chords

We can take the two categories of major chord voicings (1351... and 1513...) now and replace the second root (1) by a 7th.

  • 1 3 5 1     →   1 3 5 7
  • 1 5 1 3     →   1 5 7 3
  • 1 5 1 3 5  →   1 5 7 3 5  or  1 _ 7 3 5

Remember, we don't distinguish between maj7, 7 or dim7. To describe a voicing it's enough to universally write a "7".

The playability of different voicings may differ significantly. While easier to play on the piano, closed voicings of some chord types can be too hard to play on the guitar. So let's start with open voicings.

The Voicing 1 5 7 3

When playing different types of 7th chords (maj7, 7, m7, m7b5, dim7), some of them force you to strech your fingers above-average when using the basic voicing 1 3 5 7. On the guitar a more comfortable and very common voicing is the voicing 1 5 7 3.

As already mentioned: rather than specifying the exact quality of each interval (like e.g. 3/m3, 5/b5/#5 or maj7/7/dim7), the term voicing just relates to the intervals sequence and therefore we just say "voicing 1 5 7 3" here, no matter whether it's a maj7 chord, a dominant 7th chord, a minor 7th chord and so on. Take a look at the most important chord types, all of them displayed with the voicing 1 5 7 3 here:

The voicing 1 5 7 3 is a good choice, when the root is played on A or D string.
Take your guitar and play through all of them!

The Voicing 1 5 7 3 5

Appending a second 5th to Voicing 1 5 7 3 → 1 5 7 3 5

There's nothing wrong with having a tone/interval twice. When playing the root on A string, voicing 1 5 7 3 5 is even the most common choice.

The Voicing 1 7 3 5

...just skipping the first 5th of the previous voicing 1 5 7 3 5

Voicing 1 7 3 5 is very common for 7th chords when the root is played on low E string (variation 2), since skipping the A string results in a more differentiated sound and for some chord types is also easier to play.

For the root on A string voicing 1 5 7 3 5 is more common, but 1 7 3 5 can sometimes be great as well. Just try and find out which voicings feel good and sound best for certain chord types and your style of music.

Since you skip one string using voicing 1 7 3 5, you'll not use it when the root is on fret zero (E or A).

Voicing 1 3 5 7

As mentioned before some chords force you to strech your fingers above-average or are simply unplayable when using the voicing 1 3 5 7 ... Anyway, here are the basic 7th chords with the root on A string and in another key with the root on D string. It's still good to know all of the chord shapes, because you may just play parts of the shape one after another instead of the whole shape at once.

Other Voicings

The root doesn't always have to be the lowest note. Especially when playing in a band, where the bass notes are played by a bass player, you may want to use the following voicings for rhythmical accentuations or chord melodies:

  • 5 1 3 7
  • 3 7 1 5
  • 7 3 5 1

If seventh chords are notated as slash chords (e.g. C7/G, Cm7/Eb, etc.), you may prefer voicings with one string skipped (dampened) after the string that plays the root:

  • 3 1 5 7
  • 5 3 7 1
  • 7 5 1 3