by Evan Cowan
Make sure you are familiar with reading music, intervals, and the major scale and keys before continuing with this lesson.
Finally, we are now ready to start looking at some chords. I'm sure most of you know this by now, but a chord is any group of 2 or more notes played at the same time. There are many, many types of chords and the guitar has numerous fingerings for each one. However, the point here is not to memorize a bunch of chord diagrams like some of you may have tried already. Once you've made it through this guide, you no longer will need to memorize hundreds of chord diagrams - with the knowledge you've gained you will be able to create your own fingerings and figure out your own ways to play a given chord. Ok, so you will have to remember the chord if you want to be able to play it in the future, but I think chords are much easier to remember if you understand how they work and how they are formed, instead of memorizing a bunch of shapes on the guitar neck. In this first lesson we will start off slow and focus on the most basic types of chords. The next two lessons then introduce some more complicated chords.
First I'll talk a little about chords in general. Then we'll get into major chords and how they are built. After that will be minor chords, and then a final quick note about power chords. At the end of this lesson is a little "self-test" area where I give you chord diagrams and you can try to figure out what chords they are. Before getting started with this lesson, you might want to have available the chart of intervals that I introduced in the last lesson. Click here to see study it again.
As I said in the intro, a chord is any group of two or more notes played at the same time. The first part of a chord name comes from a note called the root of the chord (for instance, in a C minor chord, the root is the note C). The root is usually the lowest note in the chord, but not always, and is used as the starting point upon which the rest of the chord is built. In theory, the root can be any note in the chord - which is why the same group of notes can be referred to with many different chord names. We'll get more into this idea in the advanced chords section. For now, all the chords I'll talk about in this section will have the root note as the lowest note in the chord.
Once we have a root note, we stack other note(s) on top of the root to create a chord. The first type of chord we'll talk about is the major chord.
Most of you are already probably familiar with major chords. If you started out like I did on guitar, the first chords you learned were A, B, C, D, E, F, and G, all in the open position. Those are all major chords - it's just a lot easier to say a "C" chord instead of a "C major" chord every time.
Anyways, let's talk about the structure of the major chord. At this point it's handy to keep in your mind all the information you learned about intervals and the major scale. First, we start with a root note, which can be any of the 12 notes. Then we add the note that is a major 3rd above our root note. This is the same note as the (major) 3rd in the key that shares its name with our root. So, for instance, if our root note is C, then the note that is a major 3rd above C is an E. If we look at our chart of intervals, we take a look at the key of C (because our root note is C), and we see that the 3rd in the key of C is the note E. After we have our root and 3rd, we then add the 5th, which is the note that is a perfect 5th above the root, aka the 5th in our reference key. Again, looking at the key of C in our chart, we see that the 5th is a G - the note G is a perfect 5th above our root note, C. (Side note - it is common to abbreviate "major 3rd" into just "3rd."
Whenever I say 3rd, I'm referring to a major 3rd.)
And that's all there is to a major chord. Root, 3rd, and 5th - just three notes. The chord is called a major chord because of the presence of the major 3rd in the chord. It is possible to have a major chord that consists of just the root and the 3rd, but this is the very minimum - the 5th is usually present in a major chord.
So let's take a look at a C major chord:
This chord is a C major triad, because it has exactly 3 notes in the chord. From bottom to top the chord contains the notes C (root), E (3rd), and G (5th). But as you all know, the most common C chord uses 5 strings, not just 3. Let's take a look at that now:
This chord is also a C major (but not a triad). From low to high the notes in the chord are C (root), E (3rd), G (5th), C (root), and E (3rd). As you can see, the chord only has 3 distinct notes in it - C, E, and G. But the note C appears in the chord twice, as does the note E. Both notes are doubled an octave higher, which means that the two C notes in the chord are an octave apart, as are the E notes. The purpose of doubling the notes is to give the chord a fuller sound. You can hear this for yourself if you first play the C major triad above, and then the full C major chord we just talked about. The latter chord definitely sounds fuller.
Let's take a look at some more examples before we move on:
Here are two versions of an E major chord. The first is an E major triad - from low to high the notes are E (root), G# (3rd), and B (5th). The second chord is the E chord that we're all familiar with - from low to high it's E (root), B (5th), E (root), G# (3rd), B (5th), and E (root). Notice again that certain notes of the chord have been doubled, but the actual notes in the chord are still only E, G#, and B. Also, notice that the chord doesn't go in the order of root, 3rd, 5th, root, 3rd, like the C chord we just saw - the order instead is root, 5th, root, 3rd, 5th, root. You'll find that the order in which the notes of a chord are played doesn't really matter, which is the main reason why chords can be so confusing - particularly when the root isn't played as the lowest note of the chord. Imagine if we played the notes B, E, G# as a chord - we can use the B as the root note and try to figure out the chord based on that, or we can interpret the E as the root note and the chord becomes a simple E major chord,
only with a B as the lowest note instead of an E.
And finally, let's try to figure out how to play a chord that some of you may not have memorized, Eb major. Looking at our chart of intervals we see that with Eb as our root note, the 3rd is a G and the 5th is a Bb. So let's make an Eb major triad:
The above triad has the notes Eb, G, and Bb, making it an Eb major triad. From here, we can double notes to make the chord sound fuller. We can also rearrange the order of notes (while keeping Eb as the lowest note), and create several different ways of playing the Eb major chord. Here are a few examples:
Above are four different ways of playing an Eb major chord. The first chord is built off the Eb triad we made just above. From low to high it's Eb (root), G (3rd), Bb (5th), Eb (root), and G (3rd). The second chord, from low to high, is Eb (root), Bb (5th), Eb (root), G (3rd), and Bb (5th). The third chord is Eb (root), Bb (5th), Eb (root), and G (3rd). The last chord is Eb (root), Bb (5th), Eb (root), G (3rd), Bb (5th), and Eb (root). Whew, that's a lot of flats!
One final note - when writing the name of a major chord, usually you never write out the word "major." For example, a C major chord is written as just a C.
That's it for major chords! For more practice, try analyzing every major chord fingering that you know (or make up some new ones!) - figure out what notes are in the chord and the order in which they are played. Now, onto minor chords, then.
Minor chords are very similar to major chords, with only one difference. Instead of having the major 3rd in the chord, we have instead the minor 3rd. So the structure of a minor chord is then root, minor 3rd, 5th. Again, sometimes you may see a minor chord without the 5th present, but usually this is not the case.
Let's try building a C minor triad. First, we know the root note is a C. Looking at our chart of intervals we see that the minor 3rd in the key of C is an Eb. The 5th is a G, just as in the C major chord. Here's what the Cm triad looks like:
From low to high, the notes in the chord are C (root), Eb (minor 3rd), and G (5th). Just as with major chords, we can rearrange the order of the notes and also double notes in a higher octave to create different fingerings of a given chord. Here are several ways of playing a Cm chord:
The first chord is generally the most common way of playing Cm. From low to high it consists of the notes C (root), G (5th), C (root), Eb (minor 3rd), and G (5th). The second chord is essentially the same chord played on the lower strings - it is C (root), G (5th), C (root), Eb (minor 3rd), G (5th), and C (root). The third chord is C (root), Eb (minor 3rd), G (5th), and C (root). The last, slightly weird chord is the Cm triad we started with earlier, but with the minor 3rd doubled an octave higher - from low to high it's C (root), Eb (minor 3rd), G (5th), and Eb (minor 3rd). Notice that every chord has the root (C) as the lowest note, and at least one minor 3rd (Eb) and 5th (G) somewhere in the chord.
Let's look at one more example before moving on:
Here's an Em chord. From low to high it's E (root), B (5th), E (root), G (minor 3rd), B (5th), E (root). Again, the order of the notes doesn't matter, as long as the root is on the bottom, and the minor 3rd, and 5th, are in there somewhere.
Finally, a note about writing minor chord names - the word "minor" is abbreviated to just "m," so a C minor chord is written as Cm. Occasionally, although I have rarely experienced this, it may be written as C- (the root of the chord followed by a minus sign).
Ahh power chords...the rock guitarist's best friend. Nothing quite matches the sheer @#^$&%* power of one of these chords at full volume and distortion (maybe that's why they're called power chords, eh?). Many of you are probably familiar with these already, but let's take a quick look at them before we move on to the next lesson.
Power chords are very simple - they are simply the root, and the 5th. Nothing fancy - just meat and potatoes. They're easy to play and sound great - and as with the previously mentioned chords, and all chords for that matter, we can double the notes of the chord to achieve a fuller sound. Let's look at some final examples:
Here are three variations on a G power chord. The first chord is just G (root), and D (5th). The second chord doubles the root an octave higher: G (root), D (5th), G (root). The third chord doubles both the root and 5th - from low to high it's G (root), D (5th), G (root), D (5th), G (root).
To write the name of a power chord, we use the number 5. Thus, a G power chord is written as G5. This lets you know that the chord is just the root and the 5th.
Test Your Skills
See if you can identify the following chords - I recommend using the chart of intervals to help you out. Place your mouse over the chord/tab diagrams to get the answer. If you're feeling confident, cover up the tablature and try to identify the chord using only the notes.
From low to high the chord contains the notes D, A, D, F#. With D as the root, the A is the 5th, and the F# is the major 3rd, so this is a D major chord. The structure of the chord is root (D), 5th (A), root (D), 3rd (F#). Chord: D
Don't forget to look at the key signature, which is full of sharps. From low to high the notes are B, F#, B, D, F#. With B as the root, the F# is the 5th and the D is a minor 3rd, so the chord is a B minor. The structure of the chord is root (B), 5th (F#), root (B), minor 3rd (D), 5th (F#). Chord: Bm
From low to high the notes are G, B, D, G, B. G is the root note, the B is the major 3rd, and D is the 5th, so it is a G major chord. The structure of the chord is root (G), 3rd (B), 5th (D), root (G), 3rd (B). Chord: G.
Pay attention to the key signature. From low to high the notes are Ab, C, Eb, Ab, C. Ab is the root, C is the major 3rd, and Eb is the 5th, so this is an Ab major chord. The structure of the chord is root (Ab), 3rd (C), 5th (Eb), root (Ab), 3rd (C). Chord: Ab (or G#)
From low to high the notes are A, E, A, E. A is the root, and E is the 5th, so this is an A5, aka an A power chord. The structure is root (A), 5th (E), root (A), 5th (E). Chord: A5
From low to high the notes are C#, G#, C#, E. C# is the root, G# is the 5th, and E is the minor 3rd, so this is a C#m chord. The structure is root (C#), 5th (G#), root (C#), minor 3rd (E). Chord: C#m
In this lesson I talked a little about chords in general, and then discussed the structures of major, minor, and power chords. Here's a quick list of the chords we've learned so far:
Major - root, 3rd, 5th
Minor - root, minor 3rd, 5th
Power Chord - root, 5th
We're finished with part 4, only two more to go! If you're ready to move on, click here to go to the next lesson, Intermediate Chords. Click here to return to the top of the page.