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Guitar Chord Theory for Beginners

Updated on September 20, 2012

Guitar Chord Theory for Beginners is a simple and easy way to learn how chords are formed on the guitar. In easy to understand terms you’ll learn about Major, Minor, and Dominant chords including how Intervals are used in their construction. You'll also learn some different techniques for practicing chord fingerings. It is assumed that you have a basic understanding of how a Major scale is constructed, if not click the link to learn how a Major Scale is formed.

What is a Chord?

A Chord is a group of tones played either separately or strummed as a whole. A chord must have at least 3 different sounding tones. A basic chord constructed of three different tones is called a triad the word triad meaning 3. While tones can be doubled, say adding another C tone to a C major triad, example: C E G C, the doubled tone, really has no affect on the type of chord being played, it’s still a C major chord.

Let’s take a look at the C major scale. C D E F G A B C. Counting from the first C to the last C each degree of the scale would be numbered consecutively as: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8. Each tone of the scale has its own function. The function of a tone has to do with how the overall sound of the harmony---two or more tones sounded together---is affected when that tone is changed in relation to the other tones, if we add, take away, flat or sharp tones the sound of the chord will vary accordingly.

Each chord type has its own ambiance. Major chords have a strong stand-alone feel not needing any resolution. They sound final. Minor chords can have a mysterious, dark, or melancholy feel when heard while dominant chords always give you the feeling that they have to lead somewhere. They need to relieve a tension.

Chord Formulas and Intervals

There are many different chord construction formulas of which there are three basic types. They are: Major, Minor, and Dominant. All other chords are derived from these three basic types.

An Interval is defined as the distance between two tones. Intervals are thought of as moving chromatically in half-steps as does the guitar fingerboard. Using the C major scale as an example: C D E F G A B C and counting the distance between C and E we find that the distance is 3 therefore the interval is called a 3rd. The distance between C to G is 5 therefore that interval is called a 5th and so on.

Table of 12 Musical Intervals with Related Distances

Minor 2nd
1 Half-Step
Major 2nd
1 Whole-Step
Minor 3rd
3 Half-Steps
Major 3rd
2 Whole-Steps
Perfect 4th
5 Half-Steps
Augmented 4th
3 Whole-Steps
Perfect 5th
7 Half-Steps
Minor 6th
4 Whole-Steps
Major 6th
9 Half-Steps
Minor 7th
5 Whole-Steps
Major 7th
11 half-Steps
6 Whole-Steps
Intervals have many uses one of which is to construct chords

Intervals have their own character or quality which is defined by the distance from the root tone—the first degree of a scale--to the next. C to E on the guitar fingerboard is 2 whole-steps away, because of that specific distance the interval is called a major 3rd. E to G is 3 half-steps away which denotes an interval of a minor 3rd. Compare these values to the chart above.

Chord Construction

A major chord is then constructed by combining a major 3rd interval and a minor 3rd interval.

The Root of a chord determines the name of the chord, while the intervals used determine the type of chord it will be whether major, minor, dominant, augmented, or diminished.

In the key of C the major triad is spelled: C E and G.

In terms of a chord construction formula the major chord is: 1 3 5.

Important Tones: the 3rd and the 7th of a major scale

The two most important tones in any chord are the 3rd degree and the 7th degree. They, and they alone determine which of the three types, Major, Minor, or Dominant a chord will be. If we add the 7th degree of a major scale to the major triad what would we have?

In terms of intervals we would have a major 3rd C to E (2 whole-steps), a minor 3rd E to G (3 half-steps), and another major 3rd G to B (2 whole-steps).

Because of the addition of the natural, meaning unaltered 7th we have changed the sound of the chord. It is still a major chord but with the added 7th it now becomes a Major 7th chord and has a pleasing sort of floating sound that could also be classified as somewhat eerie.

In terms of a chord construction formula the major 7th chord is: 1 3 5 7.

What happens if we alter the 7th degree by flatting it--that means lowering the tone a half-step?

The intervals now become: a major 3rd C to E (2 whole-steps), a minor 3rd E to G (3 half-steps), and another minor 3rd G to Bb (3 half-steps).

The 7th tone now becomes a B-flat and the chord becomes a dominant chord: C7. Dominant 7th chords are used in Jazz and many different types of Blues. *This chord creates a tension that needs to be resolved. The chord it resolves to is the root chord of the scale that the tone is the fifth degree of. In other words, the C7 would resolve to an F major chord because C is the 5th degree of an F Major scale: F G A Bb C D E F.

In terms of a chord construction formula the dom7th chord is: 1 3 5 b7.

How will the sound be affected if we take the 3rd degree of the scale and flat it?

In terms of intervals we would have a minor 3rd C to Eb (3 half-steps) and a major 3rd Eb to G (2 whole-steps).

When the 3rd of any chord is flatted the chord becomes a minor chord. Minor chords can be dark sounding creating feelings of loneliness and misery. Listen to John Lennon’s song Working Class Hero written in a minor key and experience his sense of desperation.

In terms of a chord construction formula the minor chord is: 1 b3 5.

What do we get if we flat both the 3rd and the 7th in the same chord?

As you may have guessed the minor chord is now a minor 7th chord which is similar in style to a major 7th chord meaning that it cannot be used as a dominant 7th chord in a minor or major key.

In terms of intervals we would have a minor 3rd C to Eb (3 half-steps), a major 3rd Eb to G (2 whole-steps) and another minor 3rd G to Bb (3 half-steps).

In terms of a chord construction formula the minor 7th chord is: 1 b3 5 b7.

How to practice

Practicing guitar is a personal thing. However you feel comfortable while still being productive is fine. Other than being physical practicing is also mental. Take a break once in a while and think about what you are doing. Just sitting there learning meaningless chord fingerings by rote will not benefit you as much as gaining an understanding of what it is you are doing and how chord construction relates to the guitar.

One suggestion is to figure out and write down some major scales and find the open chord form for each root of the major, minor, and dominant chords.

C Chord Fingerings

One way to practice chords is to follow the above fingerings from left to right. First play the Cmaj fingering then the Cmaj7 then the C7 and so on. You can then either reverse the order or simply return to the first chord to begin again. Additionally you can also practice the fingerings in a random manner. You can finger all tones at the same time or lay each finger down in sequence, lowest tone to the highest.

Practicing slowly will help your accuracy and the development of a clear tone. As you finger a chord try to visualize the guitar neck and mentally make note of where each chord tone is and what scale degree of the chord you are fingering. When learning how to improvise this way of thinking will be very helpful.

Thanks for reading and keep playing!

*This explanation has to do with the Harmonized Scale which will be covered under a separate lesson.


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