After the obligatory phase of plucking single notes, chords are the next thing most beginners start experimenting with and trying to play. Normally, they either copy what they see someone else doing or a benevolent friend shows them a few basic chords. Single finger chords like Em7 and two finger chords like Am7 and Em are mixed with 3rds, 5ths and well worn majors like C, D and G.
Once armed with the basics, off they go into the wonderful, and oftentimes wacky, world of music! Mostly oblivious as to the “hows” and “whys” of the sounds they’re producing. It’s only when they get bored playing the same thing over-and-over that they stretch beyond the “show me” stage to the “why does this sound like this” stage.
WHAT ARE CHORDS?
Chords can be thought of as the harmonic component underpinning scale and mode melodies. Whereas most melodies are linear in nature and created from single notes spread over time, chords are groups of scale notes played simultaneously.
Technically, a chord is 3 or more notes, but 2 note chords (DYADS) are also pretty common in the guitar realm. See the section on DYADS for some examples of how these chord types are played and sound.
But for all intents and purposes, if it’s not a single note, it’s a chord.
Chords have QUALITIES.
Some chords are MAJOR, some are minor, some are augmented, some are diminished, some are sharp and some are flat. These qualities are largely determined by the key and scale used to create the chord. The chord qualities for the C MAJOR scale shown below are circled in red.
This would equate to the following chords for a C MAJOR scale.
See the section on Scale Anatomy 101 for more information on scale degrees and their affect on chord choices.
IMPORTANT: For the graphics on this website, the CHORD QUALITY will be located on the SCALE DEGREE line. Lower case Roman numerals (i, ii, iii, iv, v, vi, vii) denote minor or diminished chord qualities while UPPERCASE numbers (I, II, III, IV, V, VI, V) denote MAJOR chord quality.
One of the things people learning to play guitar seem to have a hard time wrapping their heads around is that chords are often made from scale notes that span more than one octave. And unlike piano, where it’s pretty common to play a chord contained in a single octave with your left hand while playing the melody with your right, it’s often not so easy with a guitar!
The following graphic shows a C MAJOR 9th spanning into the 2nd octave.
Think about that for a second.
Unlike scales that can be played vertically up the neck and horizontally across the neck, guitar chords can only be played horizontally because of the physical limitations of the human hand. This means that the vast majority of chords will contain notes from 2 scale octaves normally spanning 4 or 5 frets along with open strings. Once you get that ingrained in your grey matter, all the flats, sharps and crazy number schemes associated with a lot of chords start to make a lot more sense.
The chords you should learn inside out..
- Major 3rds (M3)
- Perfect 4ths (P4)
- Perfect 5ths (P5)
- Major and minor triads
- Sus 2, Sus 4 and Augmented triads
- Major 6ths
- Major 7ths
- minor 7ths
- Dominant 7ths
In open and barre chord form where applicable for all of the above.
If you can get a grip on that much, the heavens of contemporary music will crack open and the angels will sing your praises. Well, maybe not, but you will be able to deal with most of the songs written in the last 50 years. So unless you’re wanting to join a chamber orchestra, this will be an excellent start.