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Guitar Chords and harmonised scales

Updated on February 1, 2016

Guitar Chords in A

Maybe you have noticed that songs use a similar palette of chords - the reason for this is that there is a related set of chords in each key. If you learn a song in the key of A, for example, any other song in the same key will use much the same chords - and when you understand this, it should make learning songs much easier.

In this article, we'll look at how these chords work together, and they can be classified as root 5 chords, that is, the root note of each chord is found on string 5.

  • Chord 1 = A
  • Chord 2 = Bm
  • Chord 3 = C sharp m
  • Chord 4 = D
  • Chord 5 = E7
  • Chord 6 = F sharp m7
  • Chord 7 = G sharp m7b5

The pattern of chords in a harmonised scale is the same for all the different major keys. The tonic chord ( Chord 1) is followed by two minor chords, then two major chords. When you see a description of the 1, 4, 5 chords (I, IV, V) these are the three major chords in any key.

Chords in A

Chord chart info

In these chord diagrams just play the middle 4 strings, barre chords are shown with the loop symbol. Remember, the root note is on string 5, and this will follow the fret numbers for the A major scale at the bottom.

Also shown: the scale patterns for A major and A pentatonic scales, both of which will work with all these chords.

Barre chords: if you struggle with barre chords, there are alternatives. See my other hub Barre Chords and how to avoid them. The three - note chord form shown for Bm7 is a good substitute for a full barre chord - mute the 4th string. Most of the time this chord form is easier and also sounds better than the full barre chord shape.

Chords in C (Key of C)

Chords in C

Now we have the same root 5 chords, but in the key of C. As C is three frets up the neck from A, all the chords form the same pattern, but three frets higher. There are some slight variations, as you could use either major and minor chords, or chords with added sevenths. It's good to know these variations as they will often sound better.

Playing in other keys

It's much easier to transpose, that is, move to another key on guitar than most other instruments. On piano all the patterns look completely different, but on guitar and bass the patterns remain the same, just up or down the neck.

Here are all the notes on string 5:

  • Open string = A
  • Fret 1 = Bb
  • Fret 2 = B
  • Fret 3 = C
  • Fret 4 = C sharp/ D flat
  • Fret 5 = D
  • Fret 6 = D sharp or E flat
  • Fret 7 = E
  • Fret 8 = F
  • Fret 9 = F sharp or G flat
  • Fret 10 = G
  • Fret 11 = G sharp or A flat
  • Fret 12 = A, but one octave higher than the open string.

So if we wanted to play a song in Bb you could shift all the chord pattern up one fret from A, or down two frets from C.

For D, just move all the chord pattern up two frets from the C pattern. If you start running out of frets high up on the neck you can switch to root 4 chords instead, which I will cover in the final section of this hub.

Transposing benefits

When you play the chords of the harmonised scale in several different keys it will really help to embed the information, even if it seems like hard work at the time. There are some keys you almost never use, so they can have a very low priority. I would recommend learning the following keys, along with the relevant scale pattern:

E, F, G, A, C, D

For Jazz: Eb, Bb.

Any other keys can be covered by using a capo. It's really worth getting used to using a capo to change keys, especially if you are playing with different singers.

Root 4 chords: D major

Root 4 chords

These are essential chords to know, as they sound great in chord/melody arrangements. They are more difficult to play, as the minor 7th shape is a bit tricky.

Root 6 chords are covered in my other hub entitled: Guitar Chords and scales in E.


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    • Jon Green profile image

      Jon Green 3 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      It really helps to integrate scales and chords together, as you will always know how to improvise on any chord sequence. Also, you have all the building blocks for songwriting and composition.

    • Dressage Husband profile image

      Stephen J Parkin 3 years ago from Pine Grove, Nova Scotia, Canada

      I wish someone had thought to put diagrams like this together when I was learning. Being able to visualize how the scale fits with the chord progression is a big help.