Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Guide to Guitar Chords

This a guide explaining how chords work and why knowing this can help you, not only when playing chords, but when sweeping and tapping too. Most beginners learn and memorize chords as finger shapes. That’s OK, to begin with, but will eventually become a major limitation. So a little musical theory will take you a long way. Don’t worry, It’s not hard, and will only take half an hour to pick up. Where possible, I’ll try to use simple terminology like “1 fret”, “2 frets” instead of “Semitone”, “Tone” (or “half step”, “full step” for the American forumites), so as not to confuse you. So no nitpicking from the more experienced forumites please. I’m also going to use a lot of easy to visualize diagrams (hopefully).

Source : Ouija @ The Guitar Matrix -

O.k. I meant to post this a couple of month back when someone was asking questions about Major/Minor/Seventh/Add9 chords and stuff, but just never got round to it. Since the forums been down for a couple of days, I’ve had a bit of time to actually, you know, play my guitars.Lol. Also had time to noodle around with my diagram editor. And since everybody seems to be doing guides on one subject or another, lately, I thought I’d throw something else in the pot.

So...lets get started.

How many chords?

The easiest way to tell how long someones been playing guitar is to simply ask how many chord shapes they think there are. New players will always say something like “hundreds”, because they’ve seen chord books filled with impossibly named chords with names like “Esus4” or “D7thDom something or other” and so forth. Pages and pages of them. More experienced players will typically say something like “five” or “only three really”. They are typically referring to the CAGED system. Let me explain……

The C.A.G.E.D system

The CAGED system goes something like this. There are only five chord shapes on the guitar. These five chords shapes, when played open, at the beginning of the neck, are the popular shapes that give you the C, A, G, E and D chords. As seen in the below animation.


Every chord you ever play on a guitar will be one of these five shapes. The reason you may not realize this, is because three things can happen to these five shapes that may disguise this simple truth from you. These are (in the order most people discover them):

1) Barre chords
2) Abbreviation
3) Alteration

Lets go through them one at a time.

1. Barre Chords

The first thing most players learn, after getting bored of playing the five shapes at the beginning of the neck. It consists of simply playing the chord shapes with the last three fingers of your hand and using the first finger to lay across all of the strings (barring), simulating the function of the guitars nut. In the diagram below, for example, we’ve simply taken the “E” shape, played it with our last three fingers and slid it up to the fourth fret, with the first finger lying all the way across the third fret. This changes the chord from a E major chord, to a G major chord (but is the same E shape).

Now it might seem silly to point this out to people. But there are guitarists out there who don’t make the connection between the barred shapes they’ve memorised from chord books and the open chords they’ve also memorised. Because it’s in a different position, using different fingers they mentally label it as a completely different thing, and fail to see the connection. Needless to say, the other four shapes can be barred and played further up the neck. Though doing so can be quite finger breakingly hard on some of the shapes.

2. Abbreviation

The second reason for not seeing all your chords as just the five CAGED chord shapes is because people tend to abbreviate them. A complaint common amongst electric guitarists to make playing barre, and open chords simpler. Take this simple three finger powerchord for example (a G5 chord because it has no 3rd in it, which well discuss later).


Very popular with rock guitarists. Some people even detune the top string by two frets (drop D) so that they can make this simple chord using only one finger laying across the three top strings (some people are just lazy). In reality, this chord is only the top three notes of the same E shaped barre chord shown earlier. The rest of the notes are shown in grey, like so….


Of course, the other shapes can be abbreviated in much the same manner. Like so..

Abbreviated Barred A shape


Abbreviated Barred D shape


Abbreviated Barred C shape


Hopefully, you get the idea that your just strumming two or three notes out of a larger pattern which, in itself, is just the same five chord shapes being moved up and down the neck.

However. This guide is not intended to teach you about barre chords and how to abbreviate them, which is why I’ve just lightly touched on the subject. The focus of this guide is the next way a chord can be altered in such a way that you don’t realise your using those same five chord shapes in every chord you use. And that is…….

3. Alterations.

As well as barring those five chord shapes and moving them around the neck, either as full barre chords or abbreviated versions of those barre chords, you can also change the shape of those five patterns according to some rules. It’s the purpose of this guide to teach you those rules.

“At last. So get on with it then”

Actually. Before we continue on this lesson in chord theory, it’s actually necessary to understand one last thing about those five chord shapes (barred, abbreviated or otherwise). And that in reality, there are only THREE chord shapes.

“Looks like five to me.”

Nope. You see, the E,A and D shapes are in fact the same shape!

“They don’t look like the same finger shapes when I play them”.

That’s because the of the odd way that the guitar is tuned alters the shape of those chords (and every sweep and tapping pattern you’ll ever use), and will affect just about everything you ever do on the guitar. Let me introduce you to the …..

Flat Zone

Some of you may of noticed that every string on your guitar is tuned to the note you get five frets up on the string immediately above it. All except the second string (the B string in standard tuning), which is tuned to the note you get four frets up on the string immediately above it. In other words, it’s one note flat (one fret). If all the strings on the guitar were tuned to the fifth fret of the string above, the tuning would be EADGCF, instead of EADGBE . In which case your E,A and D chord shapes would look like this…..


In other words, the SAME chord shape. As well as moving the chord up and down the neck as a barre chord, you’d also be able to move the chord ACROSS the neck without changing the shape. Even if you had a 8,12 or a 24 string guitar.

The same holds true for sweep and tapping patterns (the patterns you played on the top four strings would also work on the bottom four strings, which isn’t currently the case).

Because the B string is tuned one note (1 fret) flat, every time a chord shape, tapping pattern or sweeping pattern crosses that string, you have to physically move the notes on that string up one fret in order for it to sound right. Here’s an animation of the E chord moving across the neck to make the A and D chords when the second string is tuned flat (standard). Notice that every time a note crosses over into the FLAT ZONE (B string), the note has to be moved up 1 fret to stop it from sounding flat


And thus, our E,A and D chord shapes get mangled/warped into the three different finger patterns we’ve all come to know.

It’s important to know this before we continue with chord theory and how to alter the five chord shapes to get any chord we want because, once you realise that the E,A and D shapes are the same chord shape, mangled by that flat B string, then any alteration you make to one of those chord shapes can also be made to the other two, since the order of the notes is identical in all three. I’ll be using the E,A and D shapes almost exclusively in this guide. Partly because they are the three most popular shapes. And partly to save me having to do diagrams for all five shapes (the order of notes in the C and G shapes is different).

So at last, we come to it.

Notes, numbers or shapes?

How do you remember your chords?. By the notes that are in them, the numbers of the notes relative to the root note of the respective scale or has finger shapes? Let me hazard a guess that most beginners will probably memorise their chords as finger shapes. There is nothing wrong with this (we all did it), but it will definitely cause problems as you progress as a player if you don’t learn to think of your five chord shapes in some other way.

“So I have to remember what notes are in each chord? That sounds difficult.”

Actually no. Most guitarists (except the exceptionally clever ones) couldn’t tell you what notes are in the chord they just played without having to stop and figure it out. Instead most players remember their chords by numbers.


Let me explain. You see, every one of those five chord shapes we’ve talked about above is what is known as a “Triad”.

You may be strumming three, four , five or six strings, but all your hearing are three notes (some of them more than once). And those three notes are the same three relative notes in each of the five chord shapes.

The notes your hearing are the 1st (root), 3rd and 5th note of their respective scale. You typically hear the root note twice.
So the A Major chord is made up of the 1st (root), 3rd and 5th note of the A Major scale. And the D Major chord is made up of the 1st (root), 3rd and 5th note of the D Major scale, and so on…..

“Oh C.r.a.p! ….. I have to learn a load of scales now. That’s it, I’m outta here.”

Wait just a second. You don’t need to learn a bucketload of scales. Bear with me.

Here are the E, A and D shapes with the appropriate numbers (Root = 1). Memorise them.

[image] [image] [image]

It shouldn’t be hard. Because the E,A and D shapes are essentially the same chord shape that’s been mangled by that flat B string, the order of the three notes is always the same for these three chords (it’s different in the C and G shapes).

The order is…

Root / 5th / Root / 3rd.

In the G and C shapes the numbers are…


The order for those two is Root / 3rd / 5th / Root (plus an optional extra Root or 3rd if you decide to strum more than the basic top four notes).

Again. Memorize. There are only five chords and two/three different number patterns to learn. It only takes a couple of minutes and then you’ll never need a chord book again.

So lets start altering those five shapes

Major to Minor
“Fiddling with thirds”

The five shapes we’ve looked at, that make up the five shapes of the CAGED system, are all MAJOR chords (happy). In order to turn them into MINOR chords (sad) we need to alter the location of one of the notes in each of the five shapes.

“Which note”.

Ahhhh! To understand that, you need to know two finger patterns. These are the finger patterns that guitarists use to play the MAJOR scale (Ionian pattern) and the MINOR scale (Aeolian pattern). It’s not important to know where to play the patterns, or even what notes are in them. It’s only important to look and see the differences between the two patterns.

The MAJOR pattern looks like this…..


The MINOR pattern looks like this…..


I’ve numbered the first nine for you. There are only SEVEN notes in a Major/Minor scale, so notes “8” and “9” are just notes “1” and “2” again, one octave higher. However. When using scales to figure out chords, it’s useful to keep counting past seven, as I’ve done.

The above examples are A Major and A Minor, since the 1st (root) note starts on A. But that’s not really important to know. The same patterns can be used for any Major/Minor scale by simply moving the 1st note to the appropriate note on the E string (maybe another guide on starter scales is needed, lol).

Has mentioned. It’s only important to look at the differences between the two patterns. Since our chords are all made from the 1st (root), 3rd and 5th notes of these two scales, It’s only important to look at these three notes in each pattern and see if there is any difference. Maybe this will help…..


The root notes are all marked in light green, and the 3rd and 5th are squared to help focus your attention on the three notes we are only interested in. Notice that in both the Major scale AND the minor scale, the 1st (root) and 5th never move. The only one of the three notes we are interested in that appears to be moving is the 3rd. Hard to see, because it jumps to a different string, but the 3rd in the minor scale is only 1 fret lower in pitch than in the Major scale.

“All very clever, but what does that mean?”

It means that in order to turn any Major chord, such as our five CAGED finger shapes, into a Minor chord, all we have to do is move the 3rd one fret backwards like so……

[image] [image] [image]

Miraculously turning our E, A and D major chords into E, A and D Minor chords. The same holds true for any barre chords you make from those three shapes.

This what people mean when you hear them talking about “major 3rd’s” and “minor 3rd’s”.

You don’t need to understand all the theory mentioned above, as long as the remember the rule…..

MAJOR TO MINOR = move 3rd one fret back.

And next rule coming up……

The Magnificent Seven
“Anybody seen the 8th”

O.K. How to turn our five CAGED Major shapes into Seventh chords. Before we start, you need to know that there are THREE kinds of seventh chords. These are:

Major 7th
Dominant 7th (usually just called 7th)
Minor 7th

To start with, we need to locate the 8th note in the five chord shapes. Up until now, we’ve been thinking of our five shapes as three notes, the Root, the 3rd and the 5th. If we’ve mentally assigned any number to the Root note, it’s probably just “1st”. That’s for both root notes in the chord. However. A better way of thinking of the two root notes, is to think of the lowest pitched Root note as “1st Note” and the higher pitched Root note as the “8th Note”. As mentioned earlier, there are only seven notes in the scale, so the second Root note could be considered to be the 8th note (or 1st note of the next octave of the scale). Look at the Major/Minor scale patterns again and you’ll see that the second root note (light green) is numbered as “8”.

So our E, A and D chords could also be numbered like this…..

[image] [image] [image]

So now we know where the 8th note is, we can substitute it with the 7th note of the scale. To do this look at the Major scale pattern again…..


Notice the location of the 7th note in relation to the 8th note. One fret back.

So to turn our five CAGED shapes into Major 7th chords, we simply slide the 8th note in our chords back one fret. Like So……

[image] [image] [image]

Minor 7th

To create a Minor 7th chord we’ll need to slide that 3rd back one fret first (which acts as a toggle, turning a Major chord into a Minor chord, remember), then we’ll need to move the 8th back.

“But by how much. One fret like in the Major 7th.”

No. Look at the Minor scale pattern (Aeolian pattern) again.


In the Minor scale, the 7th note is TWO frets behind the 8th note (if you memorise no other scale patterns, memorise these two). So after we’ve switched the chord from Major to Minor by moving the 3rd back one fret, you need to move the 8th note back TWO frets. Like so…..

[image] [image] [image]

Dominant 7th

“What would happen if I move the 8th note back two frets but forgot to turn it into a minor chord by flattening the 3rd”.

Then you’d end up with the last type of seventh chord. The Dominant 7th (or just plain 7th as it’s known). Like So…..

[image] [image] [image]

At this point, our chords are no longer “triads” as there are now four different notes in them.

Again. It’s not important to totally understand the theory, as long as you remember the rules:

MAJOR TO MAJOR 7TH = 8th note moved one fret back.
MAJOR TO DOMINANT 7TH = 8th note moved two frets back.
MAJOR TO MINOR 7TH = 8th note move two frets back AND 3rd moved one fret back.

Aaaaaand…. Onto the next…….

Just ADD “9”

Like the name suggests, with ADD9 chords, you simply ADD the 9th note of the scale to the chord. This is quite simple as the 9th note in both the Major and Minor scale is identical. Precisely TWO frets up from the 8th.

As a visual aid to all that we’ve talked about so far (major/minor 3rds, sevenths, ADD9) these diagrams of the E,A,D shapes and the positions of the 7th, 8th and 9th’s should help you visualize it more clearly.

First. The Major shapes……




Next. The Minor shapes (which are just the Major shapes with a flattend 3rd, remember)




So. Hopefully you see that while the 7th note is in different positions in a Major or Minor chord, the 9th is in the same position in either (which makes it easier to remember).

You will also find chords that ADD something other than the 9th note of the scale, such as ADD2 or ADD4, but the same rules apply.

So the simple rule for ADD9 chords is:

MAJOR/MINOR TO ADD9 = Move 8th two frets up.

And next…..


Before we move onto chord theory and tapping and sweeping, lets just cover briefly three other names you’ll hear bandied about. These are Augmented, Diminished and SUS chords. They really aren’t that difficult to understand.


These two pieces of jargon are a fancy way of saying “sharp” and “flat”. If you were to play the 5th note 1 fret sharper than it normally would be, it could be described as being “Augmented”. If you played it one note flatter than where it’s supposed to be in the scale, it would be considered to be “Diminished”. A typical Dim chord would have a flattened 3rd, 5th and 7th note (not unlike a Minor 7th chord, but with the 5th and 7th moved back one more fret). Your typical Augmented chord would have the usual Root, 3rd but a sharpened 5th.


In all the chord alterations we’ve done so far, there as always been a 3rd note. No matter if it was the Major 3rd, or the Minor 3rd (1 fret back from the major). So all these variations on the initial five chord shapes we started out with are either Major or Minor chords. In a SUS chord, we eliminate the 3rd alltogether, so it’s no longer a Major or Minor chord. We substitute the 3rd with the note written directly after the word “SUS”. So a SUS2 chord would get rid of the 3rd note and play the second note of the scale instead. A SUS4 chord no longer has the 3rd note of the scale, but the 4th note of the scale. Simple. I’ll let you figure out how many frets ahead or behind the 3rd note the 4th and 2nd are (do you want me to diagram everything).

It’s also worth mentioning that you never hear the SUS note more than once in a chord, unlike the 3rd it replaced, which can be heard multiple times in some chords/sweep/tapping patterns.

Aaaaaaaaand next……..

Chord theory and Tapping

Ok. We’ve gone through five different ways of altering those five CAGED chord shapes. Here’s a recap:

MAJOR TO MINOR = move 3rd one fret back.
MAJOR TO MAJOR 7TH = 8th note moved one fret back.
MAJOR TO DOMINANT 7TH = 8th note moved two frets back.
MAJOR TO MINOR 7TH = 8th note move two frets back AND 3rd moved one fret back.
MAJOR/MINOR TO ADD9 = Move 8th two frets up.

So lets see if we can’t apply some of them to some tapping exercises.

Once again, we have to visualize the Major and Minor scales on the guitar neck. But this time, instead of going across the neck, we’ll lay them along the length of one string. Here’s the Major scale laid along the A string (so the notes are the notes of the A Major scale). You can move this pattern across on to the D, G, B or E string to give you the notes of the D, G, B, or E Major scales, or even slide it down the neck to give you the Major scale of any other note (just look what note the 1st and 8th are resting on).


The four notes that typically make up our five “triad” CAGED chord shapes are highlighted in green, the rest in Grey.

And the Minor pattern goes something like this….


So has not to have to keep coming back and looking at these two diagrams, I will put the Major and Minor patterns in all of the examples from now on for quick visual reference. The Major pattern on the D string in shades of blue, the minor pattern on the A string in shades of green.

So lets recap the rules and apply them to a simple tapping exercise.

Major to Minor

As with the five chords shapes we started out with, we can build up a simple tap by using one or both roots (1st and 8th), a 3rd and a 5th. Also, as with the chords in the earlier examples, we can switch between Major and Minor by simply moving the 3rd in the Major scale back 1 fret like so….


Since we are tapping out the pattern on the B string, it’s a B Major to B Minor tap. Slide it all up one fret to tap out a CMajor and CMinor.

There is no need to go into details of why this is so, as all that was covered in the earlier chord section. So onto the next one.

Major to Major 7th

As with the chords we altered earlier, the rule for switching to a Major 7th is to simply move the 8th note back 1 fret. In the following example we are switching to a Rootless Major 7th chord. In other words, we are tapping the three other notes in the chord except the root note itself. Buy hey! That’s what your rhythm guitarist and bassist are there to provide, lol.


Keep looking at the Major (blue) and Minor (green) scales I’ve put on the D & A strings to help you visualize what is going on.

And next…..

Major to Dominant 7th

As mentioned earlier, Dominant 7th’s are usually just called “7th’s”. That certainly what I call them, and how I’ve labeled them in these examples.

Have you forgotten the rule for Dominant 7th’s? It’s simply a case of moving the 8th note back 2 frets, which puts it in the same position as the 7th in the Minor scale (green). But since we HAVEN’T flattened the 3rd, this ISN’T a minor chord.



Major to Minor 7th

Ok. The rule to turn anything into a Minor is to switch from playing the Major 3rd to the Minor 3rd (1fret back). This turns the Major into a Minor. Turning it into a Minor seventh involves moving the 8th note 2 frets back (look at the location of the 7th on the minor scale layed out on the A string). I’ll do this as a two step animation therefore (Major to Minor, then Minor to Minor 7th).


Not too difficult to understand. In fact. I find laying the scales along the length of a string makes it easier to remember the intervals (gaps) in the scales than by using the Major (Ionian) and Minor (Aeolian) scale patterns that we were using in the chords section because it isn’t always as easy to figure out the space between two notes when one of them is on a different string.

That pretty much wraps up chord theory and tapping. Try some variations such as including the 9th note (which is really just the 2nd note of the scale 1 octave higher, remember) to make a ADD9 tap. Or try ditching the 3rd all together and replacing it with the 2nd or 4th note to get SUS2 and SUS4 chord taps.

Remember. Anything you can do with multi-string chords can also be done with mono-string tapping exercises. Experiment.

Moving on…….

Chord Theory and Sweeping

Ok. Lets take our five alterations/manipulations of a chord and apply them to some sweeping exercises. By now, you should know the rules, so I won’t keep repeating them.

We’ll use the following Major pattern as our starting pattern and then make alterations to it according to the rules described so far. The pattern simply takes us through the Root, 3rd and 5th of a chord twice (the second one 1 octave higher than the first).


Look carefully at this pattern and you’ll see that it’s really just the C chord shape moved up the neck until the root note rests on the E note (so all our variations will be E “something”). The other four chord shapes that we started out with at the beginning of this guide can also be used as the basis for a sweep. For instance, the notes in the sweep pattern above could also be played by putting your first finger on the red root note and playing the A chord shape going towards the pickups like so.


Or even this variation, played at the 12 fret, of the G chord shape (look at the shape of the first five notes and you’ll see that the three on top of each other would be the open strings in the G chord shape)…


Or even the E chord shape, played at the 12th fret, playing towards the pickups


It’s a good idea to practice all these sweep patterns. Any alterations you make to one, you should practice making to the others.

So lets apply our five alterations to the C shaped sweep pattern.

Major to Minor

Ok. You know how this goes. Just flatten the 3rd (switching from Major 3rd to Minor 3rd as it’s usually referred)…..


Don’t pluck that last 5th. Instead, after plucking the last 3rd on the E string with the downsweep of your pick, hammer on and then pull off that last 5th note quickly and then rake your pick back up the strings for the upsweep. It’s more economical, as you simply go down and then straight back up with the pick, never picking the same string twice.

Major to Major 7th


This is the one where you move 8th (second root note, remember) back 1 fret like so…..

Roll your finger over the three notes immediately on top of each other or it’ll end up sounding like your strumming a chord, instead of a sweep. Once again hammer on and pull off that last note. Don’t pluck it.

Major to Dominant 7th

This is the one where we move the second root note (8th) back TWO frets……


Can be a bit tricky that one.

Major to Minor 7th

Again. I’ll do this one in two stages. First Major to Minor, then Minor to Minor 7th.


“And so, the end is near”

And so, we come to the end of this little guide. If nothing else, I hope it impresses upon the newer players to stop remembering chords as simply shapes and a name. Learning the theory behind those chords you use will open up a whole new dimension to your playing and allow you to see an overall structure that you may not of been aware of before.

I’m no expert on theory, by the way. Just enough to get by. I’m sure some of the more experienced members can help out with any questions you’ve got. I’ll even diagram them if I have the time.

It’s four in the morning, I’m tired and a little drunk. So. See ya.

Source : Ouija @ The Guitar Matrix -

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