What’s the best way to study chords and how they work? Write ’em down!
Instead of laboring over exhaustive chord manuals and dictionaries that list every known chord in the universe and tend to overwhelm the reader, committing pencil to paper significantly reinforces your understanding and retention, and, by doing so, you’ll get a much better grasp on how chords are formed and how they relate to each other.
Here then is a special holiday treat. The following info and examples provide all the necessary tools to construct your very own self-penned chord book. Do the work and reap the rewards.
STUDY YOUR BLUEPRINTS
Chords come in three basic flavors: Major, Minor, and Dominant. Every chord falls into one of these categories, so step one is to familiarize yourself with the following formulas, which list each chord’s name, written symbol, and construction in scale steps.
Major Chord Types
Major Triad (C) = Root, 3, 5
Major Six (C6) = Root, 3, 5, 6
Major Seven (Cmaj7) = Root, 3, 5, 7
Major Nine (Cmaj9) = Root, 3, 5, 7, 9(2)
Major Six/Nine (C6/9) = Root, 3, 5, 6, 9(2)
Major Thirteen (Cmaj13) = Root, 3, 5, 7, 9(2), 13(6)
Major Add Four (Cadd4) = Root, 3, 4
Major Add Nine (Cadd9) = Root, 3, 5, 9(2)
Suspended Second (Csus2) = Root, 2, 5
Suspended Fourth (Csus4) = Root, 4, 5
Minor Chord Types
Minor Triad (Cm) = Root, b3, 5
Minor Six (Cm6) = Root, b3, 5, 6
Minor Seven (Cm7) = Root, b3, 5, b7
Minor Nine (Cm9) = Root, b3, 5, b7, 9(2)
Minor Eleven (Cm7) = Root, b3, 5, b7, 9(2), 11(4)
Minor Seven Flat-Five (Cm7b5) = Root, b3, b5, b7
Minor Six/Nine (Cm6/9) = Root, b3, 6, 9(2)
Minor/Major Seven (Cm/maj7) = Root, b3, 5, 7
Dominant Chord Types
Dominant Seven (C7) = Root, 3, 5, b7
Dominant Nine (C9) = Root, 3, 5, b7, 9(2)
Dominant Eleven (C11) = Root, 3, 5, b7, 9(2), 11(4)
Dominant Thirteen (C13) = Root, 3, 5, b7, 9(2), 13(6)
Dominant Seven Suspended Fourth (C7sus4) = Root, 4, 5, b7
Dominant Nine Suspended Fourth (C9sus4) = Root, 4, 5, b7, 9(2)
Dominant Thirteen Suspended Fourth (C13sus4) = Root, 4, 5, b7, 9(2), 13(6)
Tips: Major sixth chords can function as both major and dominant types. Sus2 and Sus4 chords can function as major, minor, or dominant. When building extensions beyond seventh chords, 9 = 2, 11 = 4, and 13 = 6. There are four possible alterations to any chord: b5, #5, b9(b2), and #9(#2 or b3). Notes of lesser importance—often the 5 or the root—can be omitted from any chord voicing.
GATHER BUILDING MATERIALS
Chord voicings, which are spelled from low to high, are not always constructed in strict numerical order. Music theory teaches us that three-note close-voiced chords have three spellings (root position, first inversion, and second inversion) and four-note chords have four spellings (root position, first inversion, second inversion, and third inversion), but the guitar’s two-octave-plus range within any five-fret span affords many more options for voicings.
Most guitarists began building their chord vocabulary by memorizing the five basic open-position major triads—C, A, G, E, and D—but many don’t realize that each of these shapes contains multiple close voicings. For instance, Fig. 1 illustrates how an open C chord actually houses the root position, first inversion, and second inversion on adjacent three-string groupings. Additionally, various three- and fournote voicings, some played on non-adjacent strings, are also available within this single shape. The same goes for the remaining four shapes shown in Fig. 2, but notice that their low-to-high spellings do not offer the same instant access to all three inversions.
CHOOSE YOUR SITE
Each of the five open major triad shapes is derived from a corresponding major scale pattern that spans four or five frets. This gives us five “zones” (which overlap and connect to form the moveable C-A-G-E-D template) where chord shapes unique to each pattern can be constructed. The grids in Fig. 3 diagram the five discrete major scale patterns using scale step numbers instead of dots. Get to know them, but for now, let’s zero in on Pattern #2 with its “A” shape and roots on the fifth and third strings.
With all of our building permits in place, it’s time to break ground and categorically commence construction. The following examples of major, minor, and dominant sounds are presented with gradually increasing extensions, and while the chords in each group are functionally interchangeable, you should always consider the musical situation at hand before adding any embellishments. Fingerings have been left to your own design, but most should be fairly obvious.
Referencing Pattern #2, Fig. 4’s listing of major chord types begins with a foundation of A-shape major triads (transposed to C) in full and partial formations. C6 requires the addition of the 6 (A), often at the expense of the 5, while Cmaj7 adds the 7 (B) to the triad. Next, Cmaj9 brings the 2/9 (D) to the major seventh party. And check out how omitting its 3 (E) in Cmaj7(no3) produces a major triad a fifth above the root (G/C), a chord sound found in numerous Steely Dan and Todd Rundgren songs. The sweet sounding C6/9 replaces the 7 with a 6, and the stretchy, Andy Summers- approved Cadd9 is simply a C major triad with an added D. Suspended triads replace the 3 with either a 2 (Csus2) or a 4 (Csus4), while Cadd4 (the ultimate Todd chord) sticks the 4 (F) right next to the 3 for a deliciously melancholy dissonance.
Using the same major scale pattern to derive Fig. 5’s minor chord types requires lowering the 3 and 7 one half step to the b3 and b7 (Eb and Bb). The five Cm triads are produced simply by flatting the 3’s in our previous C major triads, and we do the same to form the following trio of Cm6 voicings. The b7 and 2/9 come into play when converting Cmaj7 and Cmaj9 to Cm7 and Cm9. (Note how shapes sometimes borrow notes from an adjoining scale pattern.) The exotic Cm6/9 (the Miles Davis “Nefertiti” chord) is C6/9 with a b3, while Cm(add9) flats the 3 in our previous Cadd9 voicing. Cm7b5 is a unique “half-diminished” structure containing the b3, b5 (Gb), and b7, and is the only altered chord to naturally occur in diatonic major scale harmony. Lastly, we have Cm/maj7, a minor triad with an added major 7, or a major seven chord with a b3, depending on your viewpoint.
Fig. 6’s dominant chord types begin with five C7 voicings. Half major and half minor (major triad + b7), these chords and their extensions are ideal for blues, jazz, and funk. A quartet of C7sus4 voicings created by raising C7’s 3 to its 4 follows (think Prince), before we bring the 2/9 into play for four must-know C9 voicings and a single C9sus4. The iconic C7#9 (the Hendrix chord) has both a 3 and b3 (a.k.a. #9) residing within the same voicing. C11 adds the 4/11 in two different octaves to C9, while C13 tacks on a high 6/13 (A). Finally, the pungent C13b9 illustrates one of many altered dominant chord possibilities. (Tip: Try preceding it with Gm9 and following it with Fmaj7.)
So what else can you do with all these chords? Dig this: Chords come from harmonized scales. Harmonizing a major scale in stacked thirds, using only notes from that scale, results in families of related triads, seventh chords, ninth chords, etc., and these diatonic “chord scales” can be generated from any major-type voicing by following four easy steps:
Step 1: Use Fig. 7’s full fingerboard grid, which connects all five major scale fingering patterns in the key of C, as a scalestep guide. (Tip: Transpose it to any key by changing the fret markers.)
Step 2: Choose any major chord type from Fig. 4 and use dots to draw it on a blank grid. (You’ll need to make your own.)
Step 3: Working your way up one string at a time, fill in one octave of ascending C major scale steps.
Step 4: Connect the appropriate number of dots (equal to the amount of notes in the voicing) across the fretboard, and then play each resultant shape in succession. Name ’em and claim ’em! (Tip: Arpeggiating each chord shape creates melodic sequences.)
To demonstrate the process, I’ve extrapolated diatonic chord scales from a root-position C triad (Fig 8a), a root-position Csus4 (Fig. 8b), a root-5-7-3-voiced Cmaj7 (Fig. 8c), and a root-3-7-9-voiced Cmaj9 (Fig. 8d).
The rest, my friends, is up to you. Gather a pile of blank chord and full-fingerboard grids and some good pencils and begin by recopying all of the previous examples. After that, use the chord formulas to map out as many major, minor, and dominant chord types residing in the remaining four major scale patterns as you can handle, and then build chord scales from each major type. Transpose all this data to all 12 keys, and you’ve got your own self-penned chord book. Happy Holi-daze!