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Chord Building Basics

Chords -- The Foundation of Western Music.  As we've seen, music is built on a grand total of 12 possible notes, repeated in octave sets of different pitch ranges, which explains how 12 notes on a piano become 88 note choices.  There are 88 different pitches, but still only 12 named notes.  The same is true with guitars, Most guitars offer from about 40 to 50 different pitches, three or four octaves' worth, but still only 12 notes.

Unless you're a really hot flatpicker or a lead guitar player, most of what you'll do on the guitar will NOT involve playing single notes in a row.  Instead, you'll play chords.

The most basic complete chords -- chords which complete a musical thought -- are built from three notes only, sometimes called "triads," and all are found be referring to the major scale.   There are only 4 basic triads, built using the scale degrees shown.

Chord Name Scale Notes Translation
major: 1 - 3 - 5 1st Note, plus 3rd Note, plus 5th Note
minor: 1 - b3 - 5 1st, plus flatted 3rd, plus 5th
augmented: 1 - 3 - #5 1st, plus 3rd, plus sharp 5th
diminished: 1 - b3 - b5 1st, plus flatted 3rd, plus flatted 5th
(often also includes a double-flatted 7th --
  then called a dim7 chord)
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The Major Chord -- The Most Basic Chord.  Most guitar players start out by learning a few major chords -- usually C, F, G, A and E.   But we have no idea how those chords came to be.

A major chord sounds relaxed, at rest and positive.   Play any major chord and you'll see what I mean.  But why is that true?

Using the formula for a major chord (1 - 3 - 5), applied to the C scale, here is how we find the triad:

Major Scale C D E F G A B
Scale Degree 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

So a major C chord is built on the C, E and G notes.  No more, no less.

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Wait a Minute, the Chords I Play Have More Than 3 Notes.  Not true.  It just looks that way. 

But let's look at a standard C Major chord diagram.

It shows the chord notes of C - E - G, but all six strings are played.  Look below the chart at the numbers, which refer to the scale degree.  Remember, C is the 1 note, E is the 3 note, and G is the 5 note.   So this version of a C Major chord has two 1 notes, one 5 note and three 3 notes.   While only 3 are needed, this gives us the characteristically rich sound of a "big" chord.

Look at the other major chord diagrams on the CAGED Chord Charts page to see how all of the major chords follow this scheme, without exception.

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The Minor Chord.  Most guitar players also begin with a few minor chords -- usually Am and Em.

A minor chord sounds negative, or angry, or dark.   Play one to contrast with major chords.

Using the formula for a minor chord (1 - b3 - 5), applied to the C scale, here is how we find the triad:

Major Scale C D Eb F G A B
Scale Degree 1 2 b3 4 5 6 7
So a minor C chord is built on the C, Eb and G notes, as shown in this diagram.  Note that this is a "barre" chord at the 3rd fret.  Nonetheless, the formula is shown below the chart.

You might also notice that the shape of this chord is the same as an A minor chord played in the open position.  The "barre," using the index finger to span all strings at the 3rd fret simply replaces the nut.

A simple way to remember how to make any minor is to simply flat the 3rd from a major triad.  So flatting the third note, E, instantly changes the chord to a minor.

See other minor chord diagrams on the CAGED Chord Charts page.

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Augmented and Diminished Chords.  Most guitar players ignore these forms for the most part, so we will too -- at least as they relate to the basics of chord building.  But you do have the formula above if you'd like to experiment.

A minor chord sounds negative, or angry, or dark.   Play one to contrast with major chords.

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Adding the Seventh -- The Last "Basic" Step in Building Chords.  There's one more chord you do need to understand to play most music.  Its technical name is the "dominant seventh," although its common name is simply "seventh chord."   Ignore the term "dominant" except to know that some folks may mention it occasionally.

Using the formula for a seventh chord (1 - 3 - 5 - b7), applied to the C scale, here is how we find it:

Major Scale C D E F G A Bb
Scale Degree 1 2 3 4 5 6 b7
So do you make a seventh chord?  Easy -- just take any major chord, identify the 7th note of the scale for that major chord, and add the flat of that 7th.  See the C7 chord at right.

A seventh chord is a major plus a flatted 7th note.  It's a 4 note chord, as opposed to the triads we've otherwise talked about.

A seventh chord sounds a bit off balance, making you want to go somewhere else -- ordinarily back to the root chord of the progression you're in.   Sometimes called a "leading" chord, since it leads you elsewhere.

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Simple, Right? There you have it -- chord basics in a nutshell.  These concepts are but the tip of the iceberg.  However, as with an iceberg, unless you run into the whole thing, the tip may be all you ever see.   This will take you a long way.

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