As a guitarist you’ll spend 85% of your time playing chords. And you probably have a few chords under your fingers already. G, C, D anyone?
What you and I will accomplish with this article is helping you understand 3 things about chords.
Step 1 will be learning how they’re constructed.
Step 2, how they’re placed on the fretboard.
Step 3, some basic chord relationships.
To follow this article on beginning chord theory for guitarists, you’ll need to know how to find notes on your guitar fretboard. If you haven’t yet, be sure to read these two articles first:
Guitar Notes For Beginners – This teaches you all the open position notes.
Easy Guitar Fretboard Reading Tricks – How to read all the rest of the notes on the fretboard.
And be sure to read all the way to the end for a cool bonus item…
And away we go….
Step 1 – Chord Construction.
A CHORD is three or more notes played at the same time. It can be a nice consonant, orderly sound or a giant clash of a zillion notes. It’s still a chord. We’re going to start with simple triad (3-note) chords.
To build a chord you simply choose a starting note (the root) and build every other note on top of it. For instance C – E – G. That interval of “every other note” is called a 3rd. That means it’s a distance of three notes. C to E is a 3rd (C-D-E). We’ll talk more about intervals at another time, but this will do for now.
C – E -G
D – F – A
E – G – B
F – A – C
G – B – D
A – C – E
B – D – F
Your next question is, “Can we build more than 3 notes?” Yes, you can. That’s getting into extended chords and I’ll have another article about those soon. If you’d like to experiment with them, please do. ALWAYS experiment. 🙂
The name of each chord has two parts. The first is the root letter name. The second is the “quality” of the chord. We have four qualities: major, minor, diminished, and augmented. The first two are the most common. The latter two, less so.
Think about them this way: Major sounds happy, minor sounds sad. If you already know a couple of these chord voicings, play them and listen to how they sound different. A diminished chord, sounds “extra minor”. It’s got a very tight, dissonant sound to it. Augmented sounds “extra major”.
Here are some quick examples of each:
Step 2 – Place chords on the fretboard.
Often as beginner guitarists, we just memorize chord fingerings and that’s a great way to start. It gets you playing quickly. But eventually you’ll want to find other voicings for those chords or you’ll run across a chord you don’t know yet. That’s where this skill will come in.
The plan is to put one note from the chord on each of the strings. We may not use all the strings for every chord. Some only use 4 or 5.
For right now, let’s also say that we’re going to keep the root of the chord as the lowest note in the voicing. And we’ll also be staying in the open position (first 3 frets of the neck).
As an example let’s use C major, a chord that most beginners are familiar with. The notes are C-E-G. Which of those three notes appears on the first within the first three frets. The open E, of course. How about the second string? C at the first fret. Third string? Open G. Fourth String? E at the second fret. Fifth string? C at the third fret.
And we’ll stop there. You could also put a G on the sixth string, third fret. But we mentioned that we want to keep the root as the lowest note right now.
If you have some major and minor chords you already know, finger them and name each note that you’re playing in that chord. If you don’t know any yet, try taking some of the other note combinations we came up with above and placing them on the strings.
If you run across having a choice of notes on a string, as in G major, where the second string can either be B or D, use either one. The chord will sound basically the same and function exactly the same musically.
This same plan can be used for finding chord voicings higher on the neck. Let’s take an A minor chord, but we’ll do it starting from the A at the fifth fret of the first string. (Try to figure it out on your own before looking at my answers.) Second string? E at the fifth fret. Third string? C at the fifth fret. Fourth string? A at the seventh fret. Fifth string? E at the seventh fret. Sixth string? A at the fifth fret.
If you know the notes on the fretboard, and you know what notes are in the chord, it’s simple to find a fingering for any chord you need.
Step 3 – Basic chord relationships – The Nashville or Roman Numeral System.
You may notice that the same combinations of chords pop up a lot in different songs. These are relationships that you can know about ahead of time which will make it easier for you to learn new songs.
Let’s take our C major scale again: C D E F G A B C
And we’re going to number them: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1
The corresponding chords can also be numbered 1-7. But we do it with Roman numerals when dealing with chords. We will also use upper case Roman numerals to denote major chords and lower case for minor.
If you’ve followed the last two steps, you’ve already played these chords and listened to their qualities. Here’s what we get: I ii iii IV V vi viidim – These are called “diatonic” chords. That just means that we’re not using any notes from outside the scale.
The I, IV, and V chords are major. ii, iii, and vi are minor. viidim is diminished. Our most important chords in any key are the I and V. The I chord is home base. What we call the “tonal center” of the piece. The V chord created “musical tension” or that feeling that your ear is waiting for the music to go somewhere else. Usually back to the I chord. Try strumming on your C major, then go to G major (or G7 to enhance the effect). If you stop there, your ear will be practically begging to go back to the I chord.
That tension-release idea is central to all western music. So those two chords will appear in just about every song you play. The next most common is the IV, and the others are scattered in between.
Why the numbering system? Because we have 12 different keys we can play in. The numbering system keeps the relationships constant and portable to any other key. If we’re in the key of A major your I chord is A and the V chord is E.
Next time you’re sitting down to learn the chords of a new song, make sure to investigate the relationships between those chords and see if they match up with other songs you’ve learned.
We’ve covered a ton of stuff in this lesson, so if you have questions, feel free to leave a comment below and I’ll answer them.
Bonus Item: Since you were diligent enough to read all the way to the bottom (you did read it all, right?) here’s a free pdf download of The 30 Chords Every Guitarist Must Know. Click the button below. It will post a short tweet with a link to this article on your Twitter account and then begin your download.30chordseveryguitaristmus ..
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