Guitarists often learn chords by using chord charts, (which is fine for knowing where to put your fingers), but it is more beneficial to understand what's happening "behind the scenes", with the theory of why chords sound the way they do...
Would you like to be able to get exactly the sound you want from your music? Of course you would. We all want that. And, in order to do it, you'll need to understand chord theory for the most common chords used in music over the last 100 years. These are the "major," "Minor" and the "Suspended" chord types.
The most practical benefit of learning basic chord theory is that you'll understand a clearer connection between scales and chords, (as they're both made from the same building blocks - intervals). Once you understand chord theory, you'll be able to hear a chord and get your ear to learn exactly which notes should be made to target in a melodic phrase.
When guitarists ask, "how do I apply scales over chords?", what they really need to do is to, "learn chord theory."
A chord is a created through stacked scale tone structure, built from 3 or more notes of the key signature. For example, C major contains the notes C, E and G.
C, E and G are the "Chord Tones" of the C major chord.
When learning chord construction, think of these building blocks as intervals rather than notes. It means you only have to learn each chord once and simply move the formation of notes to a new fret to play a higher or lower sounding version of that same chord. This is why chord shapes are taught as "Patterns." Once a shape is established it can be moved anywhere on the neck.
Just like scales, chords are built from a series of intervals. As mentioned earlier, you ideally need a basic understanding of intervals before you can build chords. There are 12 intervals in total that make up what is known as the chromatic scale.
1 - b2 - 2 - b3 - 3 - 4 - #4 - b5 - 5 - #5 - b6 - 6 - b7 - 7
A chord can be built by selecting one (1) note, called the root note (as it is the 1st note in the interval). You could see this as the foundation of a chord's structure.
After the root note, we can select two or more additional intervals from the key (e.g. the 3 and 5) and build them on the root note to create a chord
(so a typical "triad" chord will contain the: 1 - 3 - 5 intervals).
In the audio clip above, you can hear the 1 3 5 intervals played as a chord - listen closely, the example uses three separate root notes -
ex. #1). G - B - D
ex. #2). E - G# - B
ex. #3). Db - F - A
Notice how each chord has exactly the same quality, we're just playing the 3 and 5 in relation to different root notes.
The root (sometimes abbreviated in music theory books as "R") is always the reference or "naming note" when writing a chord, so when you see G maj, Gm or G7, you'll know the root note is G. Different combinations of intervals stacked above the root note give us the different chord types.
A major triad consists of a major 3rd (3) and perfect 5th (5) above the root (1). These intervals make up a major chord in its simplest form.
Major Chord = 1 - 3 - 5
The root (1) is always the note by which the chord is referenced (letters A through to G).
For example, G major is named as such because its root note lies on "G" and it contains a "major 3rd" (B), above the "G" root. We can abbreviate this chord as "G." The chord of "E major" would be abbreviated as, "E."
Here's how a major chord (this one shown below is called a "barre-chord"), would typically be mapped out on the fret-board from the 6th string root...
As you can see from the diagram above, all the notes of the major triad are included in the chord form. As long as our chord pattern includes the 1 3 5 triad structure, (notes will often repeat), we will have a major chord.
We have learned that the major triad was made up of the root, major 3rd and 5th.
The minor triad is made up of the root, minor 3rd (lowered 3rd) and 5th. The word "minor" in the context of a "minor chord" refers to the presence of the minor /flatted 3rd. 1 ♭3 5
Technically it's the minor 3rd interval above the root which gives minor chords their sound. The 5th is neutral, which is why it's used in both major and minor chords. Think of it as changing the color of the chord when the third is dropped by a 1/2 step (minor 3rd).
All that we change from major triads to create minor is the flattening of the 3rd a half step. In other words, move the 3rd chord tone down one fret. This gives us what is abbreviated as a ♭3 (a minor 3rd interval).
If we use the same chord form as before, but with a minor 3rd, we get this...
Minor barre chord form with triad tones (1 ♭3 5)
- Notice how that 3rd has been flattened /moved down 1 fret from its major 3rd interval.
Remember, the letter name used when writing chords is determined by the root note, so if the root was positioned on the note B, the chord would be B minor (Bm for short).
SUSPENDED CHORDS - sus4 and sus2 chords
Suspended (abbreviated as "sus") chords refer to any chord that does not contain a major or minor 3rd. This means suspended chords are neither major nor minor, as the 3rd is responsible for making a chord major or minor.
THE SUS "4" CHORD:
When the 3rd is replaced by the perfect 4th interval, (the 4th sits one half step /semitone higher than the major 3rd) we achieve a suspended 4th chord and it would be written as "sus4."
When playing these chords, try and internalize their sound. What mood do they convey?Try playing the chords below...
THE "SUS 2" CHORD:
You can also have a suspended 2nd (e.g. Bsus2. Csus2) chord where the 3rd is omitted and a major 2nd interval is used instead. The chord formula is: 1 - 2 - 5
Just think of "suspended" or "sus" as meaning "no 3rd". This means suspended chords are neither major nor minor.Try playing the "sus 2" chords below...
In guitar chord theory, whenever the 3rd is not part of the chord, you effectively have a major/minor neutral effect. Incidentally, that means both major and minor scales will work over them. My video on "sus-chords" explores a few ways that you can better understand suspended chords in your playing...
We've covered how the basic major, minor and suspended chords are constructed. You may not realize it, but countless hit songs exclusively use the three chord types we've studied on this page.
Remember, learning guitar chord theory is so much easier once you know the fret-board. My "Intermediate Guitar Program" thoroughly covers learning the neck. If you join the "Members Area" at Creative Guitar Studio, you can take the entire course online. Watch the video below and get started by opening a FREE account. Join the hundreds of guitar players who have benefited from the courses offered at Creative Guitar!
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