Chord Building 101

An easy to understand lesson on building advanced chords with an easy to use chord chart. For beginners through advanced.

Ultimate Guitar
Alot of guitarists hear the word "theory" and they turn and run as fast as they can... But theory is not as scary as it seems. Let me put it into perspective for you... There are 12 notes... That's all... Now, let me clarify, each of those 12 notes can be played at different "octaves", but all in all there are still only 12 named notes. OK guys, let's roll up our sleeves and get started The 12 notes chromatically C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B (then you start over at the next octave) or C Db D Eb E F Gb G Ab A Bb B For those who might not know..C# means C"sharp" and Db means D"flat" Now the C# and the Db are the same note, it just depends on what key you are playing in as to which it is called... That's another lesson. On a fretboard that looks like this
The "distance" or interval between each note is a half step or 1 fret Pretty easy so far right? Now from those 12 notes, we are only going to use 7 of them to get the major scale... You Have To Learn This!... I'll show you the key of C since there are no sharps or flats and it's easy to remember.
C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B C

C    D    E F    G    A    B C
You learn to build the major scale by learning the intervals between each note..example..between the C and D there are 2 half steps, or 1 whole step, 1 whole step between the D and the E, 1 half step between the E and the F, and so on...
1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8(1)
C   D   E   F   G   A   B   C
  w   w   h   w   w   w   h
It does not matter which note you start on to build the scale as long as the intervals stay the same... Say you want to play an E major scale... Then make the E the first note, and just keep the intervals between the notes the same.
1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8(1)
E   F#  G#  A   B   C#  D#  E
  w   w   h   w   w   w   h
Now that we've learned how to build a major do we build chords? Chords are built by playing a combination of notes in relation to the major scale... this is why you have to know the major scale! For example... major chords are built by using the first, third, and fifth notes of the major scale... Cmaj = C, E, G...Emaj = E G# B the numeric formula for a major chord is 1 3 5 Make sense? Each note within the chord plays a role..the 1 obviously names the is the root, the 3 defines whether the chord is major or minor. If we want to play a minor chord, we simply shift the third down a half step, or we "flat" the third, or in technical terms, we play a minor third... the formula looks like this 1 b3 5
Cm = C Eb G        Em = E G B
To play some more advanced "jazzy" chords simply add other notes, the most common chord "embellishment" is to add the 7th scale note to the chord formula... Now understand there are 2 different names for the 7... There is the major 7.. Which is the true 7th tone of the major scale, and the dominant 7... Which is a b7 In a chord chart you will see them written like this
major 7            maj7       formula = 1 3 5 7   
dominant 7          7         formula = 1 3 5 b7
You may see some chords with higher numbers such as 9, 11, 13 for those you only have to know that once you reach number 8, the notes of the scale start over, only an octave higher... 9=2 11=4 13=6
                     1  2  3   4   5   6
1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13
C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C  D  E   F   G   A
One more quick thing, then we'll get to some reference charts. If you have ever seen a chord like D/F# or A/C# and scratched your head..your worries are over, I'm going to explain those..the first letter is the chord name, the second letter is the bass rather than playing the root note as the bass note, you play another chord tone as the bass note... example...D/F# or D/A
e--2--  F#  3rd             --2--  3rd
b--3--  D   Root            --3--  Root
g--2--  A   5th             --2--  5th
d--0--  D   Root            --0--  Root
a--0--  A   5th             --0--  5th
E--2--  F#  3rd             -----

now for some formula charts

chords with a major third...

name                        formula

major                       1  3  5
6                           1  3  5  6
6/9                         1  3  5  6  9
maj7                        1  3  5  7
maj7(b5)                    1  3 b5  7
add9                        1  3  5  9
maj9                        1  3  5  7  9
maj11                       1  3  5  7  9  11
maj13                       1  3  5  7  9  11  13
maj7(#11)                   1  3  5  7 #11
maj(b5)                     1  3 b5
aug                         1  3 #5

chords with a minor third

name                        formula

min                         1 b3  5
m6                          1 b3  5  6
m7                          1 b3  5 b7
m(add9)                     1 b3  5  9
m6/9                        1 b3  5  6  9
m9                          1 b3  5 b7  9
m11                         1 b3  5 b7  9  11
m13                         1 b3  5 b7  9  11  13
m/Maj7                      1 b3  5  7
m/Maj9                      1 b3  5  7  9
m/Maj11                     1 b3  5  7  9  11
m/Maj13                     1 b3  5  7  9  11  13
m7(b5)                      1 b3 b5 b7

Dominant chords

name                        formula

7                           1  3  5 b7
9                           1  3  5 b7  9
11                          1  3  5 b7  9  11
13                          1  3  5 b7  9  11  13
7(#5)                       1  3 #5 b7
7(b5)                       1  3 b5 b7
7(#9)                       1  3  5 b7 #9
7(b9)                       1  3  5 b7 b9
9(#5)                       1  3 #5 b7  9
9(b5)                       1  3 b5 b7  9
7(#5#9)                     1  3 #5 b7 #9
7(#5b9)                     1  3 #5 b7 b9
7(b5#9)                     1  3 b5 b7 #9
7(b5b9)                     1  3 b5 b7 b9
7#11                        1  3  5 b7 #11

diminished chords

name                        formula

dim                         1 b3 b5
dim7                        1 b3 b3 bb7
on the double flat drop it back 2 half steps and play the 6th note of the scale. a couple other common chords that don't really fall into any of these catagories..
sus2                        1  2  5
sus4                        1  4  5
5(power chord)              1  5
here is a chart of some moveable chords shapes... Play these shapes anywhere up the neck and the note on the 6th string is the root. In all examples the root is on the 3rd fret 6th string or the G note.
string          654321                        654321
Gmaj7           3x443x          Gmaj6/9       322233
G7              3x343x          Gm11          3x331x
Gm7             3x333x          Gm13          3x3355
Gm7(b5)         3x332x          G6/9(maj7)    322232
Gdim7           3x232x          G13           3x3455
G7(b5)          3x342x          G7(#9)        32333x
G7(#5)          3x344x          Gm6/9         3x2335
Gmaj7(#11)      3x442x          Gm(b6)        3x1333
Gm/Maj7         3x433x          G7(#5#9)      3x3446
G6              3x243x          G13(b9)       3x3454
Gm6             3x233x          G9(b5)        3x322x
Gmaj9           3x423x          Gmaj7(#5)     3x444x
G9              32323x          G7(#5b9)      3x3444
Gm9             3x3335          G13(#9)       323355
Gsus4           355533          G11           3x321x
Gsus2           357433          

5th string root chords

Cmaj7           x35453          C13           x32335
C7              x35353          C7(b9)        x3232x
Cm7             x35343          C7(#9)        x3234x
Cm7(b5)         x3434x          Csus4         x3556x
Cdim7           x3424x          Csus2         x3553x
C7(b5)          x3435x          C6/9          x32233
C7(#5)          x3635x          Cm6/9         x3123x
Cmaj7(#11)      x3445x          Cmaj7(#5)     x3645x
Cm/Maj7         x3544x          C7(#5#9)      x32344
C6              x3211x          Cm(b6)        x3x143
Cm6             x3x243          Cm13          x3x345
Cmaj9           x3243x          Cmaj6/9(#11)  x32232
C9              x3233x          Cm/Maj9       x3143x
Cm9             x3133x          Caug          x3211x
C11             x33333          C9(b5)        x32332
Cm11            x33343          Cadd9         x32030

4th string root chords

Fmaj7           xx3555          F9           xx3243
F7              xx3545          F7(#9)       xx3244
Fm7             xx3544          F7(b5)       xx3445
Fm7(b5)         xx3444          Fmaj7(#11)   xx3455
Fdim7           xx3434          F6           xx3535
Fsus4           xx3566          Fmaj9        xx3253
F7(#5)          xx3645          Fm9          xx3143
Fm/Maj7         xx3554          F7(b9)       xx3242
Fm6             xx3534
In case you are having problems understanding how I wrote the chord chart... Let's look at the Fmaj7...xx3555 The first x represents what you play on the 6th string or low E(x means don't play)... 2nd x is the 5th string, the 3 means you play the 3rd fret on the 4th string... And so on... This is by no means all of the chords shapes that are possible, but it will get you started with some advanced voicings, and you should be able to start building your own voicings of the chords as you see fit... Experiment with some of the chords here...take a simple chord progression that you already know and if you play a major chord, try substituting it with one of the chords from the list of major 3rd chords... If it's minor, play with some chords from the minor 3rd list, and if it is a dominant 7 chord... Grab a chord out of the dominant list... You'll get some really interesting sounds... I apologize for not listing open position cowboy chords or major, minor barre chords, but i figure most of you already know that, and I had alot to cover. As always, feel free to ask questions or post comments Hope this is helpful Have fun with your newfound knowledge.

56 comments sorted by best / new / date

    I like this lesson, but i've been trying to figure out how to build chords for about 3 months now. and it doesn't help much when everything is spelled out right there. good lesson for some, just doesnt help me much. sorry. 5/10
    Dude that was a really good lesson. A lot of lessons out there cover a lot too quickly, or they go so slowly that they barely cover anything. You got the balance just right so that I understand what you are talking about but you still cover a bunch of info. Great lesson dude!
    praveen, first, understand that a C/B chord is just an inversion of a are a couple of ways to play the chord... x2x010 x2555x
    Hey hounddogmusic12, great cover but still I have this one little question if you dont mind. I'm not sure if I missed something, but for example Cmaj chord is 1st, 3rd and 5th notes from C major scale. So the notes would be C, E and G. So basicly all I have to do to play Cmaj chord correctly is play like this x320xx? But why i'm playing Cmaj like this x32010? Because now there are 2 extra notes, C (octave higher) and E (octave higher). So why it's not called something like Cmaj8 or something ? Or is it so that we dont just care if there are some same notes? I hope you understand what i'm looking for =D Thank you
    ultimabigdaddy, adding the extra octaves just adds depth to the sound of the gives it a fuller sound. You are right about only having to play x320xx to play a Cmaj chord, that is a "triad" shape. Check out my lessons on triads for other voicings of triad chords.
    Great article. Thanks. Is there any difference between D and D/F# or between D and D/A? What does the term "bass note" mean?
    Great lesson, really top. I almost get it My problem is putting all this in to practice. Let's say I want to play Em so that is 1 3b 5/E G B now I get that. But when I play Em on guitar 022000 that's EBEGBE. So I don't really know where I've gone wrong here or what I've missed. Thanks
    Or to put it another way Emaj 135 is E G# B. No I play E as 022100 that's E B E G# B E So I can see E G# B but they are half way through the chord. So when I get 135 or what ever how do I know where it fits in the chord?
    its a very gud lesson.....helped me alot...thanks man...awesome... everything perfectly explained..
    poomahloo, it really does not matter which notes you play where in the chords, as long as you play the important notes in the chord. Check out some lessons on chord inversions (basically what are listed above as / D/F# or D/A)
    Jake Talent
    suppose i'm playing the chord C7. it's common knowledge that this chord is played like this: 654321 032310, right ? so here we have ECEBbCE. a normal 7th should contain all the same notes as the major(1 3 5 7 being a major 7th), correct? so where the crack does the 5th note (G) go? i've found this problem in other chords too, where am i failing?
    jake talent, first you need to understand the function of each note within the chord. The 5th note is actually the least important note in any chord, except a power chord. if you are playing a Cmaj13 chord, the formula for that is all 7 notes in the Cmaj scale, you can't strum 7 notes on a 6 string guiar, you just have to make sure that you play the "important" notes. Here's a fun trick, next time you are playing with a bass player, try dropping the root note from a chord, as long as the bass player is playing the root it will still sound good.
    Great tutorial, but one question: min 1 b3 5 m6 1 b3 5 6 m7 1 b3 5 b7 Why in the m7 is it b7 but in the m6 it's not b6?
    I you Only play those 3notes wich is 1st 3rd and 5th to get your major chord, you only get a triad and not the full chord, my question is how would you identify the missing notes?? And how would you write it dowm as a formula i mean like 1 3 5 x y z, just to make sure you understand what im asking lets take an exemple: Cmajor open (x32010) well 1,3,5=3,2,0 in this case but those two last note(1,0)=?????
    And awesome lesson between x) almost forgot to thanks you for this great lesson, its been helpful
    Sorry about the double post but is the Gmaj7 wrong in the movable chord shapes? Shouldn't the notes be G-B-D-F#?
    dma529, you are right about the notes in the Gmaj7 chord, but the shape is right... e--x-- b--3-- D g--4-- B d--4-- F# a--x-- E--3-- G
    Oh right, sorry it was like 3 in the morning I don't know what I was thinking..
    Good article, ive read a few about this before but havent really understood it untill now, thanks
    hey i have a question. and i hope it doesnt seem stupid, but for major chords like you were saying. its the 1st, 3rd and 5th. so for example Cmaj is C E G. I got that. but how do you know which string to start on and which ones to use?
    Very helpful, thanks. I liked the way you calmed everybody down in the beginning about how this lession being not difficult at al.
    ainokeabrah, there may be an easy answer to your question, but sadly, i do not have it...the best thing that i can tell you is to learn the open position "cowboy chords" along with the different barre chords...also check out my 2 lessons on triads, there is some really good info in them about chord can take the triad shapes and add other scale notes to them to make some of the more advanced chords....if you are playing single note arpeoggios, then it really does not matter which string you play which note can play all the notes on 1 string if you want to, whatever sounds good to you is right. i know in the lesson i said the 9, 11, and 13 are an octave higher than the root, but it really does not matter where you play them, they can be a lower tone than the root and it will still function the same way, but once again, let your ear guide you. hope this makes sense
    most of the time when you strum a chord, the lowest tone is the root, in the open position C major chord, the lowest tone is the C note on the 3rd fret 5th string...but that is not a concrete can play different "inversions" of the the above examples the inversions of D are D/F# and D/A...where you just play another chord tone as the bass the C major chord the G note is the 5th so you can play that as the bass note by adding the 3rd fret 6th string to the open chord and you have C/G 332010 have i confused you now?
    haha yea you did. Well i know the chords already i've memorized them before. i was just wondering how you know which strings its on. but i think i understand it a little like how you can use any string.Thanks man
    I never understood the scale chord theory until you explained in that one line. Lol. Make so much more sense now. Ty, I vote for more guides from you!
    interesting article. now i know why the fingers are placed excactly where they are, when i play a chord thanks hounddog!
    Gods Guitarist
    Wow. This really helped clear things up for me! Great Lesson! You should write a book or something! JK