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Chords…how to learn ‘em. What to do with ‘em… T. M. I. Dude!

I am often asked, “What is the best way to learn chords?”    This should get you started.

You can get started by getting a good chord book or search “guitar chords” on the internet.  Sites like http://www.chordie.com/chords.php are a good resource.  There are many others as well.  This will help you when learning songs.  When you come across a chord that you don’t know in a song that you are learning you can simply look it up on your chord chart, book or web page. However, simply memorizing chords from a chart isn’t going to do you much good.  You need to learn, understand, and practice the application of chords.  The more songs you learn the better your chord playing will get. This is a sort of “quick start” approach. There is a lot more to understanding and playing chords than simply learning songs or using a chord charts.   If you would like to delve into chords a little further read on!

To be able to really make the most of chords you will need an understanding of harmony.  In short harmony is the combining or “stacking” of notes from a scale. For instance, in the key or scale of “C” the notes are C D E F G A B C.  However, more important than the actual notes is their harmonic distance between each other in the sequence.  A major scale is a combination of a sequence of 7 notes arranged in the intervals of whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step.  This is sometimes referred to as the Major Scale Formula.  On the guitar a whole step is when you skip a fret, and a half step is when you play the adjacent fret.  It may help your understanding to see the C major scale laid out on one string. Start with the first fret on the second string and follow the formula.  You will complete the C major scale at the thirteenth fret.

The most common, practically universal, way to create chords is to “stack thirds”.  “Thirds” are created by playing every other note (skip the note in between) in the scale. For example in our C scale we could start with C and E.  These notes played together create a very basic and very familiar harmony.  Adding the next note in the sequence, in this case “G”, creates a “Major” chord.  C E G played together creates the C Major chord.

There a four basic types of chords Major, Minor, Augmented and Diminish.  The two most common are the Major and the Minor. The difference between the two has to do with how the “thirds” are arranged.  In the example of the C Major chord the harmonic distance between the C and the E is called a major third.  That is because the distance is that of two whole steps. C to D is a whole step and D to E is a whole step.  Therefore the distance between C and E is two whole steps or a Major Third. The next note in the C Major chord is the G.  The distance between the E and the G is a step and a half. That is because E to F is a half step and F to G is a whole step. The combination of a whole step with a half step is called a Minor Third.  Therefore the C Major chord is created by combining a Major Third and then a Minor Third. The formula for all major chords is Major Third + Minor Third = Major Chord.

The minor chord is created by reversing the order of the major third and the minor third.  Let’s return to our C scale C D E F G A B C.  This time we will stack thirds starting on the second note of the scale.  The notes will be D F A.  The harmonic distance between D and F is a whole step and half step. As stated above, this combination is called a minor third.  The next notes in our chord are F and A.  The harmonic distance between these two notes is a whole step and a whole step.  Remember two whole steps always equal a major third.  When we put these two thirds together we have a combination that looks like this: Minor Third + Major third.  This equals a Minor chord.  In this case the D minor chord.

In every scale or key there are three major chords, three minor chords, and one diminish that occur “naturally”…that is to say these chords use only the notes in the scale.  The word for this is “Diatonic”…

The two less common types of chords are the Diminish and Augmented.  The formula for a Diminish chord is Minor Third plus Minor Third.  The only time that this combination occurs naturally in a major scale is when we stack thirds starting on the seventh note of the scale. For instance in the key of C, the seventh note is B. B diminish would be B D F.  You may see this referred to as a “Minor Minor” chord. Diminish chords are almost always played with extra notes by adding the next third in the scale.  But by the strictest definition Minor third plus Minor third is the Diminish sound/chord.

Augmented chords are created by combining a Major third with another Major Third.  This combination does not occur naturally in any major key.  You will have to raise the last note of the chord one half step to create this combination. For example C Aug. would be C E G#.

By having an understanding of how chords are put together you can create many options for yourself when playing a song.  You aren’t restricted by chord shapes that you find on a chart or in a book.  This is especially handy when playing in groups. It can be difficult to be heard or to “cut through the mix” when playing the traditional full chord voicings.  The best way around this is to use small voicings that you create yourself using your knowledge of how chords are put together.

While this may seem like a lot of information, but  this is actually only the very rudiments of chords.  I will discuss chords in greater detail in future posts.

Happy Jamming!

Lou Lombardi



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