Beginning Chord Theory For Guitarists

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.

Now, take a C major scale (C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C) and practice spelling the chords from each one of those notes.  (Try to figure it out on your own before looking at my answers.)  Check your work below: 30 Day Guitar Challenge

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:

A major

A minor

A diminished

A augmented

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.

30 Day Guitar ChallengeStep 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.

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Tired of learning just parts of songs? Click here for tips on how to learn a whole song on guitar.

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Beginning Chord Theory For Guitarists — 7 Comments

  1. I can say lots of good thing to you yet I don’t want to waste your time much, you are just great and this site is amazing.Thanks!
    My question: I play a chord on guitar and I can find which notes are in this chord but I can’t name the chord. How do we name chords?

  2. I play a chord an guitar and I can find it’s notes. But I can’t name the chord,I can’t say which is the name of chord. How do we name chords? Can we do it if we know the notes it include? How?


    • Hi Goktug… Sorry I’m just now getting back to your question. It’s a good one. Your first step is to find the root of the chord. If you’re playing a standard barre or open chord that will be the lowest note in the voicing. It will usually be on the 5th or 6th string.

      If you happen to be playing a chord that’s inverted (the notes are in a different order) then you want to stack them up until you have stacked 3rds (every other letter). So if you’re playing the notes C E A – There is a 4th between E and A. That tells you you’re in an inversion. If you take the A and put it on the bottom you’ll have all 3rds – A C E. That shows you that the root is A.

      As for the quality of the chord, your best bet it to listen and see what it sounds like. A major chord sounds happy. A minor chord sounds sad. Beyond that, every chord is made of up combinations of major and minor 3rds. If you need some help with intervals, check out The Epic Guide To Intervals For Beginning Guitar.

      Here’s a quick list of those formulas for some of the basic chords:
      Major – M3, m3
      Minor – m3, M3
      Diminished – m3, m3
      Augmented – M3, M3
      Dominant 7th – M3, m3, m3
      Major 7th – M3, m3, M3
      Minor 7th – m3, M3, m3

      I hope that helps. Please let me know if you have any other questions. Thanks for reading!

  3. Hi Phil,
    Hope you are doing great…!

    Firstly, I really thank & appreciate you from my bottom of heart for E-help/E-support.
    Secondly, I am striving to play chords but not able to play frequently with the beats(1st case) also facing less energy with the ring finger(2nd case) compare to other fingers while I try to play chords. So, please guide me how to improve these two cases.
    Would be highly obliged for the prompt suggestion/guiding.

    Thanks in anticipation

    • Hi Tarun… Let’s see if I can help you here. To help with playing with the beat better, there are a couple things you can do. First, make sure you’re using a metronome and use it a lot. With whatever you’re playing, keep that thing clicking away so your brain starts to get used to that clean even beat. Second, add some body movement when you’re playing. Tapping your foot or bobbing your head along with the beat can really do wonders. You become your own metronome of sorts.

      If you’re having trouble figuring out rhythms, check out this lesson:

      As to your second concern, about your ring finger, I think you’re talking about strength? There are finger exercise gadgets out there for guitar players that will help you strengthen up individual fingers. Of you can opt for a a foam squeezy thing easily found in the tennis section of most sporting good stores. Those are cheaper. Even just squeezing a rubber ball with the individual fingers can help build them up.

      Mostly, as you play more, the strength of your fingers will even out. Good luck!

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