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We'll start with chords on this page. Click here if you'd like to jump ahead to scales and modes.
Understanding of chords is surrounded by more than its share of mystique and hype. There are many similar and conflicting terms used to describe different chords. I've used a simple method here that covers just about every chord you'll ever use.
This method makes it easy to work out which notes the songwriter intended. It is aimed at the guitarist, and includes chord examples. This method is my own invention, based on existing musical theory. It makes it easy to interpret written chords, and covers just about every chord in common use. In fact, there are only a couple of chords it does not cover, and these are shown on the chord variations page.
It is based on the dominant scale which is not strictly correct; it's just simpler and it works. If you want to understand the full theory and why the correct method causes so much confusion, see advanced information. If you want to keep a clear head, read on ...
Sidenote for those who have written: Yes, there is more than a passing similarity between this topic, which had been on the Web for nearly 3 years at the time an article on chords appeared in the January 1999 edition of 'Guitar One' magazine. Please contact me if you wish to use information from my site.
Chords are based on harmony, using every second note in a dominant scale, starting with the root note. The dominant (Mixolydian) scale is the same as the major (Ionian) scale, except the 7th note which is a semitone flatter. The table below shows the notes of the dominant scale, with examples in the key of C and A. Every second note in the scale is shown in red:
Notes in chords are referred to by their note number, so that a single scheme can be used, regardless of the chord's root note, or the key and scale you're using. In the above examples, the 5th note is G for a C chord, and E for an A chord.
We'll start with basic chords, and expand on them later. Just looking at the first 3 notes used for chords, we have the root note, 3rd and 5th. From the table above, a chord with a root note of C and unaltered notes has C, E and G. This is a C major chord. Likewise, an A chord has the notes A, C# and E which is an A major chord. Obviously, this is the same for whichever note you start from. If we start from a root note of F, the 3rd note in an F dominant scale is A and the 5th note is C. The notes F, A and C give us an F major chord.
What happens if we start altering some of the notes in a major chord? Remember from above that notes can be flattened a semitone, or raised a semitone. Generally, a flattened note is shown with either a '♭' symbol, or '-', and a raised note is shown with a # or '+'. So, a flattened 9th would be written ♭9, or -9, a raised 9th would be shown as #9 or +9. This article uses the more modern '-' and '+' symbols to minimise confusion between root notes (which may be flats or sharps), and their altered notes.
The first 3 notes in a chard are the root note, 3rd and 5th. Flattening the 3rd gives a minor 3rd (so named because it is the basis for a minor chord). Raising the 3rd note a semitone gives the same note as the 4th, so it is called the 4th, instead of a sharpened 3rd. The 5th note can also be flattened or sharpened to give a -5 or +5.
Chords with just 3 notes are called triads. Here are common triads comprised of the root note, the 3rd (un-altered, flattened or sharpened) and the 5th (also un-altered, flattened or sharpened).
Here are some triads in the key of A using the root, 3rd and 5th notes:
In case you haven't seen chord diagrams before, the numbers across the top show suggested fingerings for each fretted string. "X" means that string is muted and not played. I've also shown the interval notes (such as "m3" for minor 3rd, +5 for a sharpened 5th, etc), as well as the chord notes below each diagram.