Joe Satriani’s Magic Chord Sheet

Back when you were teaching dozens of students a week, what was the first thing you’d show them to help them start making actual music on the guitar?I’d show them the first 16 or so open-position chords [Ex. 1]. With chords like these, we can do the simplest Metallica song, we can do Creedence Clearwater, the Beatles, and the Stones, and get something going fast. For me, this goes back to when I first started to play guitar. In my sister Marian’s guitar case was a thing called “The Magic Chord Sheet,” and it was a piece of paper torn from the back of a book or something. I guess that was her chord bible for years of being a folk guitarist, so I thought, “Okay, that’s how she learned it. I’m going to start there too.”
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The next thing to learn would be sixth-string-root barre chords in major, minor, dominant 7, sus4, and minor 7 forms [Ex. 2, top row], skipping the rest. Next, we’d do the fifth-string-root version of all of those same chord qualities [Ex. 2, bottom row]. For the first few weeks, that—coupled with the chromatic exercises we talked about last month—would be all we’d focus on. I’d also do the “find the note everywhere” exercise. For instance, I’d have them find and play E just about everywhere it appears on the fretboard [Ex. 3]. This would usually take forever [laughs].

Would you have them find each E by ear, or by spelling their way to it using the chromatic scale?
I’d do whatever worked for the student, with the eventual goal being an ability to look at the guitar and see that note everywhere it resides. I mean, some players are really gifted physically and not so much with their ear, while others are so gifted with their ear, and not as much with their fingers, so I tried not to discriminate.

Did your students ever find all those calisthenics and note-naming exercises at all uninspiring?
Well, whether I was teaching a lawyer, a race car driver, or a seven-year-old kid, my deal was, “You get this down, and then we’ll do that song you want to learn.” The problem for teachers is matching up what needs to be built in terms of technique with the desire of the kid who wants to play—or the adult who needs stress relief from the modern world. You have to assess that really quickly. Sometimes I’d be like, “Who cares about the sus4 fifth-string-root barre chords today if I can get the student to learn a song he’ll play every day for three weeks straight?” So there’s a bit of a bargain in there. But I would insist they learn chords because you can’t get anything done as a teacher unless the student knows chords.

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