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Guitar Chords and Scales

Updated on November 22, 2020

Guitar chords - basic theory

When you are playing songs on guitar or piano, the chords and the melody line are totally connected. The scale used will fit the chords, and vice versa. So, learning both aspects of a song together should really help you understand music and song writing.

The first grid shows the C major scale on guitar - the headstock would be above the grid, and the 6 vertical lines are the strings. The strings are numbered, with 6 on the left (the thickest string) and 1 on the right.

  • The C major scale is: C D E F G A B C.
  • 8 notes, but only 7 different notes. Notes 1 and 8 (the octave) are the same.
  • Further down the same scale is shown, this time with the note names.
  • Start on string 5 - fret 3, fret 5
  • Then string 4, frets 2,3,5
  • Then string 3, frets 2,4,5

Chords in the key of C

If we build a chord on each note of the major scale, we get the following sequence:

C Dm Em F G Am Bm7b5 C.

Chords I, IV and V are major and these are the chords you will find in virtually every song in this key. Chords ii, iii, and vi are the minor chords, and may also make an appearance. Any melody or bassline is going to use the same C major scale notes.

I've shown F maj7 instead of F, and G7 as well as G, because these are useful and very common in songs of all styles.

Just to recap - the notes of the C major scale fit all the chords above. Once you have learned the scale pattern, you can move it up the guitar neck without alteration to play in all the other keys - for instance, moving up 2 frets will give you the D major scale, as C to D is a 2 fret interval. All the chords in the sequence follow suit, so the I IV and V chords in D would be D, G, A.

  • In other words, once you have the pattern of the chords and scale firmly understood, the same template can be used for all the other keys.

Power chords

Power chords, or 5 chords, are common in rock, grunge, metal styles. They usually sound best with some amp distortion. You can use the same shape for playing C5, F5 and G5, and it should also help in learning the note names on guitar.

Open String 6 is an E, so fret 1 = F, fret 3 = G, Fret 5 = A, etc.

Fingering is important - use fingers one, three and four.

Am pentatonic scale

The Am pentatonic scale is shown at the end - played in a box from fret 5 to fret 8. You can use this scale with all the other chords on this page, and it's easier to use than the C major scale. It is made up from the same notes, with 2 removed.

There is a very cozy relationship between C and Am - and Am is called the relative minor.

Learning tips

It's too difficult to memorize all the notes in one sequence. Break the scale into two parts, and learn them separately, then combine them together.

Learning the pentatonic scale is easy - just remember that the gap between notes on the same string is either 3 frets, or 2 frets.

Improvising is much easier using the pentatonic scale, probably the reason behind it's huge adoption throughout world music. I find that a good approach is to use the pentatonic pattern, but then add in the added two notes from the major scale if and when you need them. So effectively switching from Am pentatonic to C major. This will work in all the other keys too.

Other chords in C

  • When you see numbers in a chord name, they are referring to an interval, the distance up the major scale from the starting note. From C, D would be a 2nd, E would be a third, F would be a 4th, G would be a 5th. If you see a C major 7 chord in a song, it's just a C chord with an added B note, which is note 7 in the C major scale. In the real world, count down from note 8 as it's the same as note 1, but a lot nearer.
  • C7 means C with a flat 7, so that chord has a Bb added. This note is not really in the same key, and tends to lead to an F chord.
  • C6 is just a C chord with the A, or 6th note of the scale added.
  • Dm7 is a D minor chord with an added C, the seventh note starting from a D.


Why are there gaps in the major scale pattern?

-It's because there are the black notes on the piano, the flats and sharps. None of which appear in the C major scale, which is why it's used as an example.

Are all the other instruments using exactly this sequence of chords and scales?


Even bagpipes?


Remember, the Scottish definition of a gentleman is someone who owns a set of pipes, but chooses not to play them!


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