Chord encyclopedias used to be a common tool to look up and memorize different chords. It can be a nice finger-yoga exercise, but it’s an arduous and inefficient way to learn. There is much more value in an understanding of our chords vs. memorization of anything. So how do we gain that understanding?
LEARN THE CHORD TONES
Too often chords are memorized fistfuls of notes that we learn as one giant shape. FIGURE 1 shows an open-position A major chord that beginners learn without ever knowing why it’s called an A chord.
Learning the function of each note within a chord is valuable for several reasons. What kind of chord is this? What needs to be changed in order to morph this chord into another one? Do you really need to jump elsewhere on the neck to play the chord you want, or does it already exist beneath your fingers?
Let’s use a simple A major chord in Fig. 1 as our starting point. Notice what chord tone appears on each string. From bottom to top we have: Root, 5th, Root, and 3rd.
Let’s turn this triad into the major 7th chord in FIGURE 2 by lowering the note on the G string by a half-step, changing the root (A) to the major seventh (G#). Our voicing is now: Root, 5th, 7th, 3rd, low to high.
Finally, let’s move the entire chord up a minor third to the Cmaj7 in FIGURE 3. Now we have a major 7 barre chord that can be moved to any key.
So far, this is still a fairly garden-variety chord voicing. Let’s set about increasing our chord vocabulary using this common chord as a starting point via inversions.
WHAT’S AN INVERSION?
When the lowest note of a chord is the root (the note after which the chord is named), it is said to be in “root position.” If the lowest note is moved up an octave, the bottom note will be a different chord tone: If the 3 of the chord is the lowest note, we’re in “first inversion,” if the 5 of the chord is the lowest note, we’re in “second inversion,” and if the 7 is the lowest note, we’re in “third inversion” (See EXAMPLE 1).
GET TO IT
We will keep our inversions on the middle four strings. The Cmaj7 from Fig. 3 will serve as our starting point. The voicing is Root, 5th, 7th, 3rd (low to high). We will move up the neck and the chord tone located on each string shall move to the next higher tone, as in Root to 3rd, 3rd to 5th, 5th to 7th, or 7th to Root. The result is the beautiful voicing in FIGURE 4A. This delicious voicing alone is worth the price of admission. It features a stacked pair of fifths (C-G atop E-B) with a great half-step rub in the middle. This chord sounds good, so let’s explore other chord types using the same voicing. By lowering the 7th to Bb we arrive at the C7 chord in FIGURE 4B. In addition to the 7th, let’s flat the 3rd for FIGURE 4C’s min7, then flat the 5th for the min7b5 in FIGURE 4D and finally flat the 7th again for the dim7 in FIGURE 4E. This already represents the basics of every main chord type.
Let’s make some music with this otherwise abstract business. In EXAMPLE 2 with just this one voicing moving through chord changes, a new character is uncovered that plain old barre chords just don’t possess.
Let’s invert our Fig. 4a chord again to arrive at our second inversion Cmaj7/G in FIGURE 5A. As before, we’ll explore our chord types by flatting the 7th for FIGURE 5B’s C7/G, flatting 3rd to get FIGURE 5C’s Cm7/G, flat the 5th to get the Cm7b5/Gb in FIGURE 5D and flat the 7th a second time to get the Cdim7/Gb in FIGURE 5E.
Finally we’ll invert our chords one last time for FIGURES 6A through 6E .
EXAMPLE 3 recaps all the chords we’ve covered thus far and drapes them nicely on a simple diatonic chord sequence. This is a good way to get these chords under your fingers so you can play them in time and with confidence. Play slowly. Play cleanly.
We’ve limited ourselves to the middle four strings but this concept should be applied to the lower four and upper four strings sets as well. All of these chords have resulted from exploring and manipulating a familiar old A major chord. Try similar inversion explorations using other chord voicings as a starting point. By making it your business to understand how notes move within chords you’re spared the futile mission of memorizing a bunch of grips. What a bargain!