How to Play 7th Chords

author: robertamullally date: 09/20/2013 category: guitar chords
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How to Play 7th Chords
Hi, my name is Robert Mullally and welcome to my first lesson for Ultimate Guitar. I've been asked to talk about 7th chords because this is a popular topic amongst UG readers and an important one. I hope that this lesson serves as a good introduction to 7th chords for those readers who are new to the subject. I'll be covering such things as: what they are, where they come from, how you can play them and where you can hear them. I'll also give the more intermediate/advanced readers some food for thought. If you're a teacher, perhaps you'll even pick up some new ideas for your students along the way.

Prior Knowledge

This lesson assumes that you already have a good understanding of the construction of the Major scale and the triads that exist within it. You also need to be able to play these triads/chords using some of the most basic/common shapes. An understanding of the CAGED system would be an advantage. That being said, I'll remind you of some basic concepts to try and get as many of you involved as I can.

Figure 1 - C Major Scale (Ionian Mode)

Figure 1 shows the C Major scale (sometimes referred to as the Ionian mode) in standard notation across one octave. I've chosen to work with this scale for simplicity; there are no sharps or flats (which could otherwise complicate things). The notes are: C (Root), D (Major 2nd), E (Major 3rd), F (Perfect 4th), G (Perfect 5th), A (Major 6th) and B (Major 7th). The formula for any Major scale (where a tone is 2 frets and a semitone is 1 fret) is: T, T, S, T, T, T and S (which brings us back to the start).

Figure 2 - C Major Triad

In figure 2 I've highlighted (in green) the notes of the C Major scale that, when played together, form a C Major triad. The notes are: C (Root), E (Major 3rd) and G (Perfect 5th). Play one, skip one, play one, skip one and play one.

Figure 3 – C Major 7

Figure 3 is like a continuation of figure 2. I've highlighted the notes that form a C Major 7 chord. Can you see that we've taken the "play one, skip one" idea one step further in order to gain an extra note (B-Major 7th)? We're stacking notes in intervals of Major 3rds and Minor 3rds just like we do with triads. The "stack" just becomes a bit taller in the case of a 7th chord.

Another way to quickly find the 7th is to think of it as the scale degree before the root (i.e. go back one). You might be tempted to always go back 1 fret/semitone, but you need to think about the key of C Major. If the note you've landed on isn't in the key then it can't be right.

Have a go at this short test to see if you're getting the idea. Remember, you're still in the key of C Major.

Short Test 1

1) What is the 7th of E?
2) What is the 7th of B?
3) What is the 7th of F?
4) What is the 7th of C?
5) What is the 7th of G?
6) What is the 7th of A?
7) What is the 7th of D?

Figure 4 – C Major 7 Shape

In figure 4 I've shown how you can turn a familiar C Major shape, such as position 4 (A shape from the CAGED system), into a C Major 7 chord. Starting with C Major, from low to high you have: C (Root), G (Perfect 5th), C again and E (Major 3rd).

As you can see, there are two C (Root) notes in this shape. Let's take the higher of the two (5th fret G string) and lower it by 1 fret/semitone. This will give us B (Major 7th) and transform the chord into C Major 7. The fingering is shown in brackets.

Many of the 7th chord shapes that you'll come across are based on the basic/common shapes that you probably learnt early on. They've just been modified so as to include a new note. In this case, it's a Major 7th. The new shape often requires you to adjust your fingering and leave out any unreachable or unnecessary notes. All of this can distort the appearance of the new shape and make it look a million miles away from where you started, but don't worry! You'll start to see the "ghost" of the original shape before long.

You might be thinking "Couldn't I have swapped the low C for B?" Well, there are a few considerations. Firstly, if you swap your low C for B you will certainly have the notes of C Major 7 in theory. However, just because it works in theory doesn't mean it will sound good. This particular alternative sounds just OK to my ears. Like most people, I prefer the first shape. Secondly, you no longer have C in the bass to keep things grounded in C Major land, so to speak. It also depends on context and personal taste.

People have already done a lot of the hard work by experimenting with the basic/common chord shapes by shifting and omitting notes. The shapes that are now considered "standard" are so for good reason(s): they sound good, have the important notes and are physically playable.

Major 7 References

I think it's important to have some "real world" references to accompany anything theoretical. Without references, theory can just be letters, numbers and formulae on a page. References will show you what other musicians have chosen to do with the same theory (whether knowingly or not) and can help it all to sink in.

This chord sounds happy like a Major triad. The presence of the Major 7th gives it a nostalgic quality. It spices up the triad in a similar way to how a Minor 7th spices up the Minor triad (I'll get to that). Some examples that spring to mind are:

Figure 5 – A Different Perspective

Figure 5 demonstrates an alternative way of viewing C Major 7. Let's imagine for a moment that C (Root) doesn't exist. You're left with: E (Major 3rd), G (Perfect 5th) and B (Major 7th). These "leftovers" form an E Minor triad if you view the first note in the row (E) as your new root: E (Root), G (Minor 3rd) and B (Perfect 5th). Therefore, a C Major 7 chord could be referred to as E Minor/C (the forward slash meaning "played over this bass note").

It is almost always condensed and referred to as C Major 7 for simplicity, however being able to visualise the chord in this way is still useful. I mentioned earlier that many of the 7th chord shapes that you will come across are based on basic/common shapes. The C Major 7 shape in figure 4 is no exception. It can be viewed as an E Minor triad with a C in the bass. Not so bad, is it?

Understanding the logic behind the above example(s) could be useful for learning a host of other chords and shapes/positions (especially from the CAGED system). As for the other Major 7 chord in C Major (which is F Major 7), all of the above can be applied. Just start from F (8th fret A string) and away you go.

Intermediate/Advanced Readers

Granted, when you're dealing with a 7th chord, you might be impartial as to whether you'd rather visualise it as a full-on 7th chord or as a triad over a bass note. The latter could be making a meal out of it and that's fair enough. However, the benefits of the latter should become more apparent when you're working with more complex chords such as 9ths, 11ths and 13ths.

(Intermediate/Advanced Readers) Figure 6 – D Minor 9

In figure 6 you have D Minor 9: D (Root), F (Minor 3rd), A (Perfect 5th), C (Minor 7th) and E (Major 9th). In the heat of the moment it can be a challenge to highlight a 5 note chord with the corresponding 5 note arpeggio. You can break it down into something more manageable if you imagine D (Root) has been erased.

(Intermediate/Advanced Readers) Figure 7 – D Minor 9 Cont.

You are left with: F (Minor 3rd), A (Perfect 5th), C (Minor 7th) and E (Major 9th). Already you've reduced the amount of information you have to work with by one note. Can you see that the remaining notes form F Major 7? If you want, you can leave it at that and play F Major 7 ideas over D Minor 9. However, if C Major 7 could be viewed as E Minor/C then it follows that F Major 7 can be viewed as A Minor/F.

(Intermediate/Advanced Readers) Figure 8 – D Minor 9 Cont.

In summary, you can play the full-on D Minor 9, the smaller F Major 7 or the even smaller A Minor. It all stems from the alternative way of viewing a Major 7th chord that I suggested earlier. It can help you to get more mileage out of the basic/common chord shapes/positions and arpeggios that you already know. A lot of Jazz and Fusion players think like this.

If you feel like you've exhausted a lot of the options for playing 7th chords (or chords in general) you might want to explore the drop 2 and drop 3 systems. I'd also recommend anything by Ted Greene or Allan Holdsworth. They'll keep you busy for years.

Figure 9 – D Minor 7

OK, let's take a few steps back for the newcomers to 7th chords. Figure 9 shows how you can turn a familiar D Minor shape into D Minor 7. The same thinking used for turning C Major into C Major 7 can be applied, so let's see if we can work through it a bit quicker.

As with C Major going to C Major 7, I have chosen to use position 4 from the CAGED system (A shape) because we all know this. From low to high you have: D (Root), A (Perfect 5th), D again and F (Minor 3rd). Let's drop the high D (7th fret G string) down a tone/2 frets. This new note is C (Minor 7th) and transforms the chord into D Minor 7. The fingering is shown in brackets.

As for the other Minor 7 chords in C Major, which are E and A, all of the above can be applied starting from the 7th and 12th fret on the A string respectively.

If C Major 7 could be viewed as E Minor/C then it follows that D Minor 7 can be viewed as "something over something." So, erase the D (Root) in the bass and see if you can recognise the remaining three notes. Can you see that you have an F Major triad? D Minor 7 is the same as F Major/D. Bear this in mind when learning other D Minor 7 shapes/positions, particularly those from the CAGED system.

Minor 7 References

This chord sounds sad like a Minor triad. The presence of the Minor 7th adds a little more soul or colour. It's common in Jazz, Soul and R'n'B. Some examples that spring to mind are:

  • "Lost In Music" by Sister Sledge (the second chord)
  • "Mr. Magic" by Amy Winehouse (the first chord)
  • "A.D. 2000" by Erykah Badu (the first chord, which is moved up and down in semitones)

Figure 10 – G (Dominant 7)

Now that we've done a few examples together, see if you can work your way through figure 10 on your own.

(Dominant) 7 References

This chord is often heard immediately before the I chord, for example G (Dominant) 7 - C Major 7. The chord contains a b5th interval from B (Major 3rd) to F (Minor 7th) which makes it sound tense. It was once considered to be the "Devil's interval." Resolving back to the "home"/I chord is pretty satisfying.

In Blues/Rock 'n' Roll a Dominant 7 chord isn't just reserved for the V of the key. It can be the I, like in "Taxman" by The Beatles. Another example that springs to mind is "Me and Mr. Jones" by Amy Winehouse (the first two chords).

Figure 11 – B Minor 7 b5

Is it getting any easier? Have a go at working through figure 11 on your own.

Minor 7 b5 References

This chord has a dark and suspenseful quality. It is often immediately followed by chord V (as a Dominant 7) and I in a Minor key. It's a bit like suspense (Minor 7 b5) - tension (Dominant 7) - release (home). This is called a Minor II - V - I.

You can hear it in Jazz and minor blues progressions. "Still Got The Blues" by Gary Moore is an example of the latter. In fact, this song features all 4 of the main 7th chords that we are looking at. It's also good for your Rock/Blues repertoire, so check it out. Another example that springs to mind is "Blue Bossa" (the third chord).

Are you ready for another short test? Remember, you're still in the key of C Major.

Short Test 2

1) If the Major 7th is B what is the 7th chord?
2) If the Minor 7th is C what is the 7th chord?
3) If the Minor 7th is G what is the 7th chord?
4) If the Minor 7th is A what is the 7th chord?
5) If the Minor 7th is F what is the 7th chord?
6) If the Minor 7th is D what is the 7th chord?
7) If the Major 7th is E what is the 7th chord?

Short Test 3

Practice playing the 7th chords in a "play one, skip one" fashion:

C Major 7 - E Minor 7 - G (Dominant) 7 - B Minor 7 b5 - D Minor 7 - F Major 7

You could also try descending the same thing:

C Major 7 - A Minor 7 - F Major 7 - D Minor 7 - B Minor 7 b5 - G (Dominant) 7 - E Minor 7

Send Off

That brings us to the end of this lesson. The next step could be to learn some of the other common shapes/positions for the Major 7, Minor 7, Dominant 7 and Minor 7 b5 chords in the key of C Major. The CAGED system will help to keep everything organised.

Many of the skills you can learn from this lesson are transferrable and can be applied when working with other chord shapes/positions, keys and scales.

Thank you for reading; I've tried to be as helpful as I can and I hope you've enjoyed it.

Here's a link to the tab you can play along to in order to practice sweep picking. Good luck with your playing!

About the Author:
Robert Mullally,
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