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Guitar Chord Variations

Note Priorities

There are 6 strings on a guitar, yet there are 7 notes in a (technically correct) 13th chord. Likewise, you have only 4 fingers (and maybe a thumb) to fret all of these notes, so clearly, we need to concentrate on playing what's important to the sound of the chord. This is a good thing anyway; a common mistake by many musicians is to play more than is necessary, so please don't restrict this idea to notes in chords - use it for whole compositions!

Firstly, we must include the notes that are specified. For example, a C13-9 must include the 13th and flattened 9th! After specified notes, the next most important note in a chord is the 3rd because it sets a minor or major tone. The 7th is important to the sound of the chord if it's specified (eg C7) or implied with a higher extension (eg C9).

The root note is usually being played by the bass player, and/or in the left hand of a keyboard part. It is often played an octave lower than the note above which the extensions are added, unless a different bass note is specified. So in those cases we can play a clearer and more interesting chord by omitting the root. An unaltered 5th generally does not add much to the chord, particularly if the root is clear, whether played by you or someone else. Unnecessary notes only serve to "muddy" the sound of the chord, so experiment to find what sounds good.


No, nothing to do with the weather forecast! Because it is not possible to play all variations, it is sometimes necessary, and often desirable to play some notes in the chord an octave higher or lower than their "real" note. This is not a handicap; instead, it unlocks the door to a musical tapestry of harmony.

Even the humble C major, played normally as C E G, can be played as G C E - it's still a C chord, although if the composer specifically wanted it played this way, it probably would be written as C/G.

There are many good chord books filled with different inversions of different chords for each of the 12 root notes.

Notes Close Together

Some players feel uncomfortable playing notes separated by one or 2 semitones within a chord. Often, these notes are separated by an octave to disguise the discordance, however, this does not need to be. Suspended 4th chords usually sound best when the 4th and 5th are played next to each other. Even semitones can sound pretty together; here are a couple of examples of the "minor add2" chord that uses open and fretted strings to place the minor 3rd and added 2nd a semitone apart.
Am add2 Dm add2
These diagrams show the interval of the open string in small boxes - only the large circles indicate fretted notes. Remember also that strings marked "x" are muted and not played.

A common mistake for beginners is to over-emphasise "special" chords, or play them hesitantly. All this really achieves is to highlight the chord at the expense of the song. There are reasons to highlight certain passages of music, but learning new chords is not one of them! So practice chord inversions and fingerings to make them fit into the context of the song and other surrounding chords.

The Power Chord and Overdrive

Care needs to be taken if you use a lot of overdrive/distortion. One of the by-products of overdiving (distorting) your tone is inter-modulation distortion which adds "difference notes" to the chord, in addition to the notes you're playing. These notes may or may not have a relationship to the notes you actually want. You can minimise this partially by reducing the bass level, but as a rule of thumb, the more complex the chord, the less overdrive you can use.

The power chord, however, results in intermodulation distortion notes that ARE in tune. It contains just 2 notes; the root and 5th, and you'll find that distortion adds notes in tune below the ones you're playing! Here's an example:
C5 power chord

Alternative Bass Notes

The root note of the chord is usually used also as the bass note, which the bass player or keyboard player will incorporate into a bass line. Sometimes you will see a chord shown with a different note underneath a line or following a slash, for example, a C with an E bass is written as "C/E" or "C on E".

The bass note does not necessarily have to be part of the chord, such as C with a Bb bass, written as C/Bb. Bass notes written this way are important to the sound of the chord, and should be played. Here's an example with the 3rd being used as a bass note for D major:

Poly Chords and Substitutions top

These are chords that have identical or similar notes to other chords. There are 3 common chords which have repeating intervals:

Augmented Chords

An augmented chord (root, 3rd, +5) has intervals of 4 semitones between each note, so the following chords have the same notes:

  • C+ = C, E, G#
  • E+ = E, G#, C
  • G#+ = G#, C, E

Diminished Chords

Likewise, a diminished chord (root, m3, -5, 6) has an interval of 3 semitones between each note, so the following chords have the same notes:

  • Cdim = C, Eb, Gb, A
  • Ebdim = Eb, Gb, A, C
  • Gbdim = Gb, A, C, Eb
  • Adim = A, C, Eb, Gb

7-5 Chords

A 7-5 chord is a 7th chord witha flattened 5th (root, 3rd, -5, 7). It has alternating 4 and 2 semitone steps, so these chords have the same notes:

  • C7-5 = C, E, Gb, Bb
  • Gb7-5 = Gb, Bb, C, E

Here are the two chords; the only difference between the notes in these chords is the root note.
C7-5 Gb7-5

Substitutions - Identical Chords

These are chords which happen to coincide with the same notes in a different chord with a different root note. Here are some examples:

  • A6 = A, C#, E, F#
    and F#m7 = F#, A, C#, E
  • Am6 = A, C, E, F#
    and F#m7-5 = F#, A, C, E

Substitutions - Similar Chords

Finally, there are chords which are similar. For these, you can play some of one chord with a different chord. A common one is an 11th chord with just the root note, 7th, 9th and 11th, which is the same as a major chord one tone below the root note. Here is the 11th chord and some other examples:

  • A11 (no 3rd or 5th) = A, G, B, D (no C# or E)
    G/A (G major with an A bass) = A, G, B, D
  • Am+7 (no root) = C, E, G# (no A)
    C+ (C augmented) = C, E, G#
    E+ and G#+ also have the same chord notes
  • G7-9 (no root) = B, D, F, Ab (no G)
    Bdim (B diminished*) = B, D, F, G#
    Ddim, Fdim and G#dim also have the same chord notes

* this is the diminished chord that typically includes the 6th.

The "no root" chords above are rarely written that way, however, it's common for guitarists to omit the root note (leaving it for the bass player), so these types of chord substitutions are common.

Higher notes in extended chords often form simple chords by themsleves that can often be played over other instruments that cover lower notes in the chord. The example of A11 above shows how similar it is to a G major chord over an A bass. Other examples are: Dm is the top 3 notes of C13, Eb major is the top 3 notes of C7+9.

Typical Chord Progressions top

Chord changes often follow a "cycle of 4ths"; that is, the root note of the next chord is the same as the 4th note in the current chord. For example, the following pattern in the key of C shows this, (with the exception of the first change).

     ||: C | Am | Dm7 | G7 :||

The 12 bar sequence is common to blues and rock 'n' roll. Here is an example in A:

     ||: A | D or A | A | A7 |
     | D | D | A | A |
     | E7 | D | A | E7 :||

Here are a couple of sequences using extended chords:

     ||: Amaj7 | F#7-9 A7 | Bm7 | E E7+5 :||


     ||: Cmaj7 | E0 | Dm7 | G13/Ab :||

G13/Ab means an G13 with an Ab bass (which is a flattened 9th in the G13 chord). This is usually played as:

Chord Resolution

Each chord has it's own feel or mood, depending on the notes in the chord, the inversion used, how it is played, the instrument, equipment & special effects used.

Chords with a seventh have an unresolved feel, and you would often expect to hear a major or minor chord next (following the cycle of 4ths mentioned above). For example, after a G7 or G13 you might expect to hear a C major. Of course, you can deliberately follow with something unexpected to emphasise a phrase.

Similarly a sus4 chord sounds unresolved and you would often hear it change to an un-altered 3rd. For example: Csus4 followed by C major.

Other Chords top

The scheme I've outlined covers just about all the chords you will see. There are a few additional chords in common use:

sus2 (suspended 2) = root, 2nd, 5th.   Just like the sus4 (suspended 4th) chord suspends the 3rd, the sus2 also omits the 3rd. So an Asus2 has the notes A, B and E.

m sus4 (minor suspended 4th) or "m add4" (minor add 4) = root, m3, 4th 5th.   Here's a "m7 add4" example used in "Walking on the Moon" by the Police:
Dm sus4

Note Collections

Some chords cannot be adequately described with a notation system, because they are derived experimentally on a variety of instruments in standard and special tunings. It is common for guitarists to use a combination of fretted notes and open strings to play chord runs with the open string "drone" notes played throughout.

Special Name Chords

Some chords have names to link them to the names of complementary scales. Others have been assigned by association with artists and songs. You can find more information on these chords in WIKI and other web resources. Here are some common guitar-based named chords:

  • The Power chord is discussed above - it's shown as a 5th chord (eg E5) meaning root and 5th only, without a 3rd.
  • The Lydian chord is the same as a maj7+11 (root, 3rd, 5th, maj7, 9, #11)
  • The "N" or Neapolitan chord is a major chord one semitone higher. For example, E major is E, G#, B.   E Neapolitan is an F major: F, A, C.   It is often played in the first inversion (starting with the 3rd note), so E Neapolitan becomes A, C, F. Because the F in this example is a 6th above the A, this is often called a Neapolitan 6th (or N6 or bII6) chord.
  • The Hendrix chord is a 7+9, commonly used by Jimi.
  • The mu or μ chord is an add2 chord, but arranged in this order: root, 2nd, 3rd, 5th. It's is often a pretty substitution for a major chord.
  • The So What chord is technically a m7sus4 (minor 7th cords with an added 4th), but it is arranged like the 5 lowest pitched strings on a standard tuned guitar. For example, "E So What" has the notes E, A, D, G, B.

Notation Shortcuts top
  • no description means a major chord (root, 3rd and 5th)
    for example, "C" means C major (notes C, E & G)
  • m, mi or min means a minor chord (root, flattened 3rd and 5th)
    '-' is sometimes also used for minor, but is ambiguos because it can be mistaken for a major chord with flattened 5th
  • dim or 0 (as in A0) means diminished (or m6-5)
  • Ø (as in AØ) or "half-diminished" means m7-5 (root, m3, -5, 7)
  • '+' at the end of a chord means "+5" or a raised 5th (eg C9+ means C9+5: root, 3, +5, 7, 9)
  • '-' at the end of a chord sometimes means "-5" or a flattened 5th
    More commonly it means a minor chord, but is ambiguous
  • Δ7 (a delta symbol, or triangle followed by a 7) means maj7
  • 'maj anything' means maj7 with the other notes specified, for example:
      • Cmaj9 means root, 3, 5, maj7, 9
      • Cmaj13 means root, 3, 5, maj7, 9, 11, 13

How many chords are there? top

And lastly, for the mathematically frivolous:

12 different chord root notes
x 4 third notes (as-is, flat, sharp or none)
x 4 fifths
x 4 sevenths
x 4 ninths
x 3 elevenths
x 2 thirteenths
x 12 possible bass notes
+ a few chords not covered in this definition
= over 220,000 chords!

Excuse me, I have some practicing to do ...

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