Learn Your Chords
Weekly Newsletter #3
August 26, 2021
Welcome back to the Max Rich Music Weekly Newsletter!
Today I'd like to talk to you about chord construction. As much as we'd all love to just play solos and cool licks all the time, playing rhythm guitar and using chords is just as important (actually, even more important!) Whether you're a singer/songwriter, a metal shredder, a blues guitarist or any other type of player, learning how chords are constructed will permanently change how you think about guitar and harmony.
Stuck only playing chord shapes you learned from somebody else, you are severely limited in how you play or write music. But by learning how to construct chords you can essentially create an endless supply of colors and tones to play with. In order to do that there are a couple terms you should be familiar with:
-Diatonic: Derived from the scale. Simply put this means that if something is “diatonic” it means it contains only notes from that particular scale.
-Scale Degree: The number given to each of the seven notes of a major or minor scale, based on their position in that scale. Essentially this means that each of the seven notes of the scale gets a corresponding number. The root note will be 1, followed by 2, 3, etc. until you finish the scale on number 7 and the root note appears again as number 8 (hence the name octave). The sequence then starts over.
The construction of basic major and minor chords is fairly straightforward. All chords have a root note, which is usually the bass note of the chord and is used as the name for the chord. For example a G chord has the note G as its root.
In major and minor chords there are only two notes other than the root (also called the 1 of the chord). The other two notes are the 3rd and 5th scale degree. For this example we will use the key of C since it is easy and uses no sharps or flats. But remember, this process holds true for all keys, you must simply remember to account for the sharps or flats in whichever key you are working.
C - D - E - F - G - A - B - C
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
To illustrate this concept we will start with building a C chord. I’m sure you all know how to play a C chord, but understanding how it is built is equally important. The C is also the 1st scale degree, and to build a C major chord in the key of C major, we simply add the 3 and 5 of the scale to the root note to get the notes in a C chord. This equates to:
C - E - G
1 3 5
To build any other diatonic chord in this key we simply treat the new root note we are looking for as the 1 of that chord and add the corresponding 3 and 5 to finish the chord. For example, an F major chord:
F - A - C
1 3 5
(4 6 8)
As you can see the F is actually the 4th scale degree, but we are treating it temporarily as the 1. If treating it as the 1 and adding the 3 of that chord we simply go two notes down the scale from the F, which gives us A. The same is true for the 5 giving us C. In reality these are the 4, 6, and 8 of the scale but since we are treating the F as the 1 we think of them as 1 - 3 - 5.
Take a look at all the chords within C major:
In this table you can see the blue numbers representing the scale degree, and the red numbers representing the root, 3rd or 5th of the chord. The row of green letters represents the original C major scale, but is also the root note of each vertical chord. This results in the 1st and 8th column being the C major chord, the second column being a D minor chord, the third being an E minor and so on.
Now comes the question, “How do I know if it is major or minor?” Well, the answer to that lies in the 3rd of the chord. The third is actually the most important note of each chord because it signifies the tonality (whether it is major or minor). A major 3rd will be 4 half steps away from the root note, while a minor third will be 3 half steps away from the root note. You can check this on your guitar. Play a C on the A string, 3rd fret. Now count up 4 frets from there. You should be on fret 7, which is an E.
Now try this with an open D string. Counting up until we get to F:
1st fret = D#. 2nd fret = E. 3rd fret = F. Since you went up 3 half steps that means the F is a minor 3rd, making the D chord a D minor.
It is really that simple and you can, and should, double check all the rest of the chords in this key. However, you might notice that there is something strange about the 7th chord, or at least how the 7th chord sounds. It is not a B minor, but rather something else.
The 5th of every chord is called a perfect 5th and will stay the same regardless of whether the chord is major or minor. For example a D major chord has the same root and 5th as a D minor chord: D and A. It is only the 3rd that changes. Hence the name perfect (there is also a tonal reason for the name but it is unrelated to this discussion).
When you play a power chord you are actually playing a perfect 5th. There is no 3rd and therefore the chord isn’t major or minor, it is an ambiguous chord. A perfect 5th is 7 half steps above the root of the chord.
All of the chords in a diatonic major scale have a perfect 5th except the 7th chord. It actually has a diminished 5th. This means that the perfect 5th is shrunken, or diminished, by one half step. It has a dissonant tone and is excellent for creating tension. Playing the 7th chord also resolves nicely to the 1 chord because it is so dissonant.
So now that you hopefully understand the basic chord construction for major and minor chords, go through the chord shapes you already know how to play and check out each note in the chord. Find out the name of each note and see whether it is the root, major/minor 3rd or the perfect/diminished 5th.
This is an excellent starting point to becoming fluent in harmony and truly understanding music. If you want to reach your ultimate potential, it is not enough to simply be passive in your approach to learning, but you must seek out challenging and new material that will supplement your playing and make you a better songwriter, performer, and musician.
Thank you for reading and please feel free to email me back with any questions. I am happy to help walk you through this any time.
Keep on shredding!