Basic Chord Theory

In this lesson we will try to understand how chords work: basic chords, barre chords, triads, melodization of triads etc.

Ultimate Guitar
Hey, someone thought I should write something on basic chord theory, in response to "Beyond Power Chords". So here it is, hope you get something out of this. Feel free to send comments or corrections, or anything really, I'd like to know if I'm wrong about something.
Open position chords:
    C        D         E               F       G      A   etc...

 Dmin    Emin       Amin    Fmin
I'm sure most of you know these, but bear with me. This is in no way all the open chords, but I don't know them all, and there are books (novels) out there which are like chord dictionaries. I'm just trying to explain HOW they work, not give you all the chords known to man. God, what a thought. How these are constructed is easy. The basic major chord is based on scale degrees. I III V. So, if you want to build a Cmaj chord, you just use C, E, G. These are usually non-moveable... I know some will argue, but in this case they aren't moveable Now, there's Barre chords. These are moveable, I will put a * by the root note. The root note is what decides what the chord is called. Yes, this is also arguable, but not right now. By moving the chord up or down on the fretboard, you change the name of the chord. So if you take Gmajor and move it to the 5th fret, it becomes A major, or down to the first fret makes it Fmajor. Because you're using the bottom note to define the chord.
  G major      G minor      C major      C minor
Now, a minor chord is based the same way as a major with one exception
major I  III   V
minor I  bIII  V

Major scale = I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII
Minor scale = I, II, bIII, IV, V, bVI, bVII
Ok, so to explain this a little better, if you take a C maj chord
C, E, G     and make it a C minor all you have to do is flat the third.
C, Eb, G  and there's your minor chord, it's really easy once you get the
hang of major - minor relationships.
Ok, now onto triads. A triad is just three notes I, III, and V major triad. tri-three, three notes. For now, I'm only going to get into major and minor because I don't want to confuse the issue.
   Dmaj     D#maj   Gmaj      Dmin      F#min      Bmin
For the first chord, Dmaj, when using it in open position, you would play the open D for the 'root' note. Well, with these triads, the root note isn't on top. You don't play the open note (you can, lots of people use lots of people do that, but personally I think that has been overdone it sounds cliche anymore, but that's only my opinion). The nice thing about triads, is you can change the actual chord by adding a different note for a 'root' note. I'll get to that later.
Remember this chord? The C major? In this chord, you're playing the C (root) note twice, sometimes, especially with two guitarists, or a keyboard player, it sound muddy, if you take off the bottom root note:
You have this, less bass doesn't sound as muddy and you can play around more with it. And it's still a Cmaj chord.
The Key of Cmajor

    C     Dmin or          Emin        Fmaj    Gmaj     Amin
Ok, you get the picture. I encourage you to come up with your own chord voicings. You not only learn how it's done, but you can turn them into your own songs, I do that all the time. Something else you can do is invert the chords. I. e. using a different bass note, playing a chord that way, makes it more interesting. And it doesn't really sound like a generic chord anymore. I've used this in another lesson but here it is again. An A major chord with a C# in the bass. A, C#, E is an A major Triad but by putting a C# instead of the open A gives it a different flavor. Especially when the bassist is playing A under the chord, it sounds cool.
     A/C#             D/E      etc...
Melodization of triads is accomplished by replacing the top note of a triad (the root, 3rd or 5th depending on the inversion) with a higher degree of the scale from which the chord is formed. These notes (other than 1, 3 or 5) are referred to as tension notes, tensions or high degrees. General Rule: A melodic tension replaces the 1st triadic tone directly below it in pitch. (usually found on the same string). Ok in plain english
Ok, now this is a Cmajor triad, but replacing the open G with an A. this is replacing the 1st triadic tone (G) with (A) C, E, G is now C, E A. Kinda cool huh? None of this is law, this sorta stuff has to sound good to you. Some of this might sound bad to you, but, I might like it, it's personal preference. Now for some more.
Sus chords: (suspended) Which is I, IV, V. John Petrucci, from Dream Theater, uses these chords often. They sound good and when you can't figure out major or minor chord to use a sus chord works great usually.
  Asus     F#sus         Fsus       Csus
Something else I just thought of. One of my teachers, (I used to call him Adolf, because he was such a tyrrant), told me to buy a drum book. Like a book with rhythm patterns in it, to use for ideas for different strumming. Where to put the accent it doesn't necessarily have to be on the beat. Someone who does this well (scoff if you like) is Melissa Etheridge. She writes some really interesting rhythms, not great progressions (they're all in Emin) but she has a great sense of timing and rhythm. Anyway, I'm off the beaten path, so back to chords. I'm sure you all know about power chords I. e. root & fifth
You can play around with those as well. Something that George Lynch used to do a lot with Dokken was either lower the root, or the fifth.
He doesn't do that much anymore. I wonder why? Don't use that too much, it's been over used, it's good for just a passing thing, but basing a whole song on it, would be? I don't know, never tried it. Here's something cool, that uses that, (ok, I'm guilty of being boring and cliche myself sometimes).
Something like that, I use it in one of my songs, someone dubbed it "The Riff that Wouldn't Die" because it sounds so happy, and no one in any of my bands wanted to use it, I kept bringing it up when we were writing, and everytime I did, everyone would roll their eyes, and groan. It just repeats a few times, then goes to Dmaj and repeats, it's like a chorus or something. Ok, so this is close to the end for me, I'm going to give you some basic theory on chords, you can figure out the rest. Feel free to ask questions, or correct my screw ups.
Major   =  I  III   V
C      C   E   G
G      G   B   D 
D      D   F#  A
A      A   C#  E
E      E   G#  B
B      B   D#  F#
F#     F#  A#  C#
F      F   A   C
Bb     Bb  D   F
Eb     Eb  G   Bb
Ab     Ab  C   Eb
Db     Db  F   Ab
Gb     Gb  Bb  Db

Minor   =   I  IIIb  V
Cm     C   Eb  G
Gm     G   Bb  D
Dm     D   F   A
Am     A   C   E
Em     E   G   B
Bm     B   D   F#
F#m    F#  A   C#
Fm     F   Ab  C
Bbm    Bb  Db  F
Ebm    Eb  Gb  Bb
Abm    Ab  Cb  Eb
Dbm    Db  Fb  Ab
Gbm    Gb  Bbb Db  (Bbb is the same as A)
flat twice would bring it down a whole step

Dominant   =  I  III  V  VIIb
C7     C   E   G   Bb
G7     G   B   D   F
D7     D   F#  A   C
A7     A   C#  E   G
E7     E   G#  B   D
B7     B   D#  F#  A
F#7    F#  A#  C#  E
F7     F   A   C   Eb
Bb7    Bb  D   F   Ab
Eb7    Eb  G   Bb  Db
Ab7    Ab  C   Eb  Gb
Db7    Db  F   Ab  Cb (B)
Gb7    Gb  Bb  Db  Fb

Chord Name       *    Formula        *    Example                      *
MAJOR                 1 3 5               C E G
SUSPENDED             1 4 5               C F G
MAJOR ADD NINE        1 3 5 9             C E G D
MINOR                 1 b3 5              C Eb G
AUGMENTED             1 3 #5              C E G#
MAJOR SIX             1 3 5 6             C E G A
MAJOR SIX ADD NINE    1 3 5 6 9           C E G A D
MINOR SIX             1 b3 5 6            C Eb G A
MINOR SIX ADD NINE    1 b3 5 6 9          C Eb G A D
DOMINANT SEVEN        1 3 5 b7            C E G Bb
SEVEN SUSPENDED       1 4 5 b7            C F G Bb
MINOR SEVEN           1 b3 5 b7           C Eb G Bb
DIMINISHED SEVEN      1 b3 b5 bb7         C Eb Gb Bbb (A)
MAJOR SEVEN           1 3 5 7             C E G B
MINOR MAJOR SEVEN     1 b3 5 7            C Eb G B
NINTH                 1 3 5 b7 9          C E G Bb D
MINOR NINE            1 b3 5 b7 9         C Eb G Bb D
MAJOR NINE            1 3 5 7 9           C E G B D
ELEVENTH              1 (3) 5 b7 9 11     C (E) G Bb D F ()=OPTIONAL
MINOR ELEVENTH        1 b3 5 b7 9 11      C Eb G Bb D F
THIRTEENTH            1 3 5 b7 9(11) 13   C E G Bb D(F) A ()=OPTIONAL
MINOR THIRTEEN        1 b3 5 b7 9(11) 13  C Eb G Bb D(F) A ()=OPTIONAL


51 comments sorted by best / new / date

    When I have more time and strenght I will defently read this thru.
    One.... suspended chords can also take a 2 5. I'm sure you knew that, judging by your extensive knowledge of chords made evident here. Perhaps you just forgot to insert that...? Otherwise... great article my friend.
    haha niice man after i tought myself the top i stopped over welming lol but very very nice
    I do not feel this progresses well... I was confused the moment I started reading. Even though I am new at guitar, this said BASIC chord theory and it does not explain things well... Just my opinion really, but I will keep trying to understand it.
    WOW!!! Amazing. I already knew most of the beginning but the last part about how to get thirteenth chords etc... really helped. Thanks!!
    I like your chart at the end. I'm definatly going to take that around with me. Thanks man. Great article.
    could someone explain to me the harmonic scale and why the chord progressions work the way they do. Will this teach me why some minor chords work well with some major chords and such?
    I know this one guy who doesn't even care about chords but I love to play them all the time! Great lesson for beginner guitarists!
    I'm going to be honest: Before I found this lesson, I just couldn't grasp chord theory, but now I feel like an expert on the subject.
    Thank you so much, seriously. I've been trying to understand chort theory for so long, and it just made me feel like a musical retard. You've helped me from special to slow lol
    Pretty much as soon as you got into triads you just lost me. I'm so confused
    This: x 1 0 0 0 x x is not a C chord, a C major has no D in it, it should be called C5add2, since there is no 3rd and there is a D. I saw a lot of mistake in this, even though I'm don't really know that much music theory. But good effort anyways.
    Where you begin talking about triads, you defined F#min as: |-5- |-7- |-8- |- -- |--- |--- Typo? If I'm not mistaken you meant to define F#min as: |-5- |-7- |-6- |- -- |--- |--- Hopeful ly I'm not overlooking something with that assertion.
    man im printing this buisness out this LOOKS like it will DEFINATLY help me out thank you sir u r a theoretical god! more articles! write more articles or maybe pm me an refer me to a website on musical theory?i've fallen in love with it odly enough
    oh ye n also can u do an article on songs that are easy to learn 4 beginners like ma self.
    i think u did a pretty good job, just a correction: Fsus is 1 1 3 3 3 1 and not 1 1 3 1 3 1 like u said, because u are using a Eb on the 4th string, which is not on the I/IV/V pattern of the sus chords. If i'm wrong, please tell me.
    great article, helps understand all the connections between chords instead of learning them all individually
    this is a great article especially for those of you who have a hard time writing songs and getting down progressions. those same methods can help come up with some really cool sounding picking parts if you apply them correctly.vbery nice article
    Thanks so much, this is really helpful especially for musicians like myself who already know some chord theory, but are now applying it to the guitar.
    good...i use to get told off for adding the D on the 2 string when playing an open g ..good lesson cheers
    I still don't get how to play chords, I try what I think is right and they sound like s#+t. Is there any one out there that can explain it?
    laynesfriend wrote: I still don't get how to play chords, I try what I think is right and they sound like s#+t. Is there any one out there that can explain it?
    tuning issues?
    Knowing a bit about this thing we call "muzik", I skipped most of this and went to your tables. Thanks a lot for laying that out, printed the "Chord Names * Formula * Example" one.
    Although I would appreciate it if you wouldn't say Bbb and things like that, it's really annoying... Just call it A, that's what it is... and Cb is B and Fb is E. Things like that just bug me... I notice you did explain that Bbb is A, but really, why not just say A?