Chord Construction Part I

By Andy Mclaughlan

A largely neglected part of guitar playing and music theory, is the ability for one to understand how chords are constructed.

As beginners we are all shown the open position shapes and barre chord shapes with the root on the 6th and 5th strings. Unfortunately for a lot of players, they never get by that stage as far as chords are concerned. And for some players this is OK. OK, but very limiting.

Once you understand how chords are constructed, you no longer think “OK, I play this shape on this fret and I have myself a 'X' chord” You actually understand what notes you are playing, and you can relate chords to different scales. This is also a fundamental aspect of theory for the improvising lead guitarist. Once you know what notes are in a chord, you can actively target these notes in your lead playing. Or, take the easy route and simply play an arpeggio of the chord. Either way you are going to sound much more professional than just thrashing out your favourite licks and hoping for the best. People will think you know what you are doing. And, of course, you will! More about this in a future lesson on improvisation.

Now....down to the very basics.

Some, or all of you may have heard of a power chord. A power chord is 2 notes played together. The root and the perfect fifth. This is not, in actual fact, a chord. 2 notes together is simply an interval. 3 or more notes are necessary to constitute a chord. Which is where we get onto our first, and simplest chord form. The triad.

A triad is formed using the 1st, 3rd and 5th degrees of a scale. To keep things simple, we will be using the C Major scale only in this lesson since the key of C Major has no accidentals (flats or sharps).

The most common triads form major and minor chords. All major and minor chords have an interval of a perfect fifth between the root and the fifth. If the interval between the root and the third is a major third, you have a major triad. If the interval between the root and the third is a minor third, you have a minor triad. The next type of triad is a diminished triad. This is the same as a minor triad, except the fifth gets flattened. The next type is an augmented triad, which is the same as a major triad with a raised fifth. We won't get into augmented triads here since they do not directly relate to the major scale.

Below is the formulas for each of the aforementioned triads:

Major - 1 3 5 ( Root, Major Third, Perfect Fifth)
Minor - 1 b3 5 ( Root, Minor Third, Perfect Fifth
Diminished - 1 b3 b5( Root, Minor Third, Diminished Fifth)

To make it easier for you to understand, below is an example of how this applies to the C major scale.

I ii iii IV V vi vii°

Below each scale degree you will see its relative chord symbol. Upper case roman numerals denote a major chord and lower case roman numerals denote a minor chord. Lower case roman numerals with a “°” denote a diminished chord.

This would mean the triads of a C major scale were as follows:

I - C major
ii – D minor
iii – E minor
IV – F major
V – G major
vi – A minor
vii° - B diminished

As you may have already devised, the simplicity of chord construction is essentially, start on any note of the scale and add every 2nd note.

So, C D E F G A B – The underlined notes form a C major triad which has the formula of root, major third and perfect fifth or 1, 3, 5.

C D E F G A B – The underlined notes form a D minor triad which has the formula of root, minor third and perfect fifth or 1, b3, 5.

C D E F G A B – The underlined notes form a B diminished triad, which has the formula of root, minor third and flat fifth or 1, b3, b5.

All the above information is applicable in any key, and to receive maximum benefit, you should spend some time working triads out in as many different keys as possible. Eventually, you should have all triads in all keys memorized. This is not really such a daunting task as it seems. If we just remember that, for instance, a C chord always has a C, E and a G, then we can work out say, a C diminished chord simply by flattening the E and the G to make it C, Eb and Gb.

This is where it becomes important to know when to use flats and sharps. In the example above I stated that a C chord was always made up of a C, E and a G, therefore, if we were using sharps, a C diminished triad would become C, D# and F#, which we don't want. As long as you remember that rule it is easy to work out any triad. Below I have listed the fundamental notes of each triad. So, take the information in this lesson and apply it to each chord so that you have a major, a minor and a diminished triad for each chord listed.

C – C E G (major)
D – D F A (minor)
E – E G B (minor)
F – F A C (major)
G– G B D (major)
A – A C E (minor)
B – B D F (dim.)

This same theory applies when working out the notes of a flat or sharp chord. Say you wanted to know the notes of a Gb major triad. Look at the chart above. You can see a G chord always has a G, a B and a D. So since G, B and D already form a G major chord....all we have to do is flatten each note. So, a Gb major triad would be Gb, Bb and Db.

In part 2 of this chord construction series we will be getting more in depth with chord spellings, and moving onto 7th chords. For the time being work on the information in this lesson and most importantly...have fun!See you next time.

Any questions, don't hesitate to drop me an email at andrew_mclaughlan@hotmail.com

©2008 Andy Mclaughlan
Last edited by Andy_Mclaughlan at Sep 11, 2008,