Learn One Chord, Learn Them All
Weekly Newsletter # 6
September 16, 2021
Welcome back to the Max Rich Music Weekly Newsletter
The foundation of all great guitar playing is chords, and as such, it is incredibly useful for us guitarists to really know our chords, inside and out.
What this means is that we must know not only how chords are made but also the various forms of those chords all over the neck. Everybody knows how to play an open C chord, but can you play at least 5 other forms of a C chord? What about 10?
You might ask, “Why do I need so many forms of one chord?”
Well, that’s like a painter asking, “How many shades of blue do I really need?”
The answer is, as many as possible! You see, the more tools you have in your toolkit, the more musical decisions you can make. It is always better to make a musical decision because you like a specific sound, rather than making that decision simply out of a lack of other options. If you only know a couple C chords, then every song you play will inevitably sound very similar, and you will begin to get frustrated with your lack of diverse musicality.
What exactly is it that makes these various forms of a C chord sound different? Well it is the inversion of that chord.
To begin with we will be discussing triad chords only (but this principle applies to all chords, triads are simply the easiest form of chords). A triad is simply a three note chord, made of the root note, the 3rd and 5th.
If you are unfamiliar with chord construction, feel free to read the newsletter from week 3 here. It will help you understand this one more thoroughly.
Check out the free PDF of the chords and triads for this lesson here.
In a C major scale the notes are:
C D E F G A B C
Within this key, if C is your root, then the E is the 3rd and G is the 5th. If E is your root, then G is the 3rd and B is the 5th and so on.
An Inversion is simply mixing up the order in which the 1, 3, & 5 are arranged. In Root Position the root of the chord is also the bass note. This creates a standard root position chord in which the 1 is the lowest note, the 3rd is the middle note and the 5th is the highest note.
When dealing with triads there are only two inversions (other than root position). This is obvious because there are only two other notes to choose from so therefore there can only be two other bass notes besides the root.
1st Inversion is when you take a root position three-note triad and move the root note to the top of the chord. As a result the 3rd is now the bass note and the 5th is now in the middle of the chord.
2nd Inversion is the exact same process, just now you take the Root and the 3rd and move both of them to the top of the chord which leaves the 5th as the bass note, the Root as the middle note and the 3rd as the top note.
These inversions may not seem like a big deal but because the top note changes pitch, it creates a different melody. Have you ever heard guitar players playing a bunch of chords together and simultaneously playing a melody? This is called chord melody playing and is essentially just playing a variety of inversions in order to create melodic movement while maintaining the harmonic progression.
In order to practice your inversions, it is important to visualize small three string shapes of the chord. Ideally you should practice all three inversions (Root, 1st and 2nd) on each set of 3 strings. The attached PDF has them all written out for you in the key of C.
In addition to practicing your C major chords, it is just as important to practice the inversions of minor and diminished triads. These three chords will cover any triad chord you might find in major or minor harmony. It may seem daunting, but the principle is the exact same as the C major inversions.
Getting fluent at these will help your playing and prevent you from having to jump back and forth across the fretboard when you go from playing single notes to playing chords.
The good news is that once you learn the main chord shapes for one type of chord, they stay the exact same for every other type of the same chord. For example, if you learn the inversions on the high strings for a C major chord, then you have basically learned every inversion for a major triad on those strings, regardless of the key.
The chord shapes of these inversions will stay the exact same, whether it is C or F or Bb major. The frets will obviously change, but the shape can simply be moved around (provided you aren’t using open strings). On the PDF, the chords in parentheses are the closed string versions of the same chords using open strings. Use these closed versions when transposing from key to key.
In order to master all three chord types (major, minor and diminished) you should practice playing the C major chord scales on the PDF. In it you can see the triad shapes in root position for every chord in the scale of C major:
As you can see all the major shapes are identical, as are all the minor shapes. The fact that the shapes repeat makes this process very easy.
Check out the 1st and 2nd Inversions of these same chord scales:
These examples are only listed on two sets of strings, but you can apply this principle to all the other sets of strings as well.
Now when you are playing rhythm guitar you have at least three inversions for each chord on every set of three strings. That means using only a simple triad on three strings you have 12 shapes of every chord in the scale. 12 C chords, 12 Dm chords etc.
When you take all 7 chords in a scale into account that means you now have 84 variations of the 7 chords within a scale. Think about all the options you have using those!
And remember, even though that seems like a lot, the shapes repeat themselves, so you really only have to learn 12 total shapes!
As always, I’m happy to help answer any questions or clarify anything that seems confusing. Please send me an email and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible with an answer.
Thanks for reading,
Keep on Shredding!