Chords on Guitar: Understand and Play

In this lesson you will learn to play all the essential chords on guitar, and develop understanding of the theory and function of each one.

A chord is defined as any group of three or more notes played together. They are normally formed by stacking notes on top of each other from a particular scale. Most of the chords in this book are formed from harmonising the major scale.

To form a chord, we simply stack alternate notes from a scale. For example, in the scale of C Major:


If you notice, we took the first note C, then skipped the next note (D) and landed on the third note E. We repeated this process and skipped the fourth note (F) and landed on the fifth note G. The notes played together in this way are called a triad.

The first, third and fifth notes of a major scale form a major chord. This is true of any major scale. This chord is given the formula 1 3 5.

The formula 1 3 5 gives us the notes C E and G, however, we can alter any of the notes to form a different type of chord. For example, if we flatten the third we generate the formula 1 b3 5. Using the root note of C again, we now have the notes C Eb G.

Essential Chords Example 1b:

As you can hear, this structure has a very different sound from the previous major chord.

Any chord with the structure 1 b3 5 is a minor chord. In fact, any chord that contains a b3 is defined as a minor sound.

We can also flatten the 5th of the chord. The structure 1 3 b5 is not very common in music although it does sometimes occur in jazz. However, the structure 1 b3 b5 occurs frequently. It is called a diminished or occasionally a minor b5 chord.

The formula 1 b3 b5 built on a root of C generates the notes C Eb Gb.

Essential Chords Example 1c:

This is a bit of a stretch to play on the guitar, but the notes do not have to be played in this order. They can be played more comfortably like this:

Essential Chords Example 1d:

To achieve this voicing I moved the b3 of the chord up by one octave.

As you can hear, the diminished chord has a dark and sinister air to it.

The three triads you have learned so far are

1 3 5 Major

1 b3 5 Minor

1 b3 b5 Diminished or just ‘Dim’

Most chords on guitar you come across, no matter how complicated can normally be categorised into one of these basic types. Jazz chord progressions however are normally formed from richer sounding ‘7th chords’ which are the focus of this book.

There is, however, one more permutation that crops up occasionally, it is the augmented triad, 1 3 #5.

From a root note of C, the notes generated by this formula are C E G#. There are two tones between each of the notes of the chord.

Essential Chords Example 1e:

Two useful voicings of the augmented (Aug) triad are

Essential Chords Example 1f:

Finally, there are two types of triad that do not include a 3rd. These chords on guitar are normally named ‘suspended’ (or just ‘sus’ chords), as the lack of the 3rd gives an unresolved feel to their character.

In a ‘sus’ 2 chord the 3rd is replaced with the 2nd of the scale, and in a sus4 chord, the 3rd is replaced with the 4th of the scale.

In C, the notes generated by the formula 1 2 5 are C D and G

Essential Chords Example 1g:

The notes generated by the formula 1 4 5 are C F and G.

Essential Chords Example 1h:

It is first important that you learn to play some useful chord voicings of these basic triads as they do sometimes occur in jazz chord charts, especially in early ‘swing’ jazz.

In any chord, it is acceptable to double any note. For example, a major chord could contain two roots, two 5ths and only one 3rd. There were rules to govern their use in ‘classical’ times, although these days there are common chords on guitar shapes or ‘grips’ on the guitar that are frequently used.

As the focus of this book is on 7th chords, which are more common in jazz, only a few of the basic triad chord shapes are shown here.

Major Chord Shapes:

Essential Chords Example 1i:

Minor Chord Shapes:

Essential Chords Example 1j:

Diminished (minor b5) Chord Shapes:

Essential Chords Example 1k:

Augmented (major #5) Chord Shapes:

Essential Chords Example 1l:

Suspended 2nd Chord Shapes:

Essential Chords Example 1m:

Suspended 4th Chord Shapes:

Essential Chords Example 1n:

You probably already know most of these chords on guitar, but if you don’t, my advice is to ignore them for now while we get focused on 7th chords. You can come back to these voicings as a reference when you need them.

To create a major 7th chord we simply extend the ‘1 3 5’ formula by an extra note so it becomes ‘1 3 5 7’.

Instead of C E G we now have C E G B:

(C) D (E) F (G) A (B)

Essential Chords Example 1o:

In these voicings, I have changed the order of the notes to make the chords on guitar playable. The chord is now voiced 1 5 7 3.

As the major 7th’s chord formula is 1 3 5 7, you might expect that the minor 7th’s formula would be 1 b3 5 7. This, however, is not the case.

To create a minor 7 chord we add a b7 to a minor triad. The formula is 1 b3 5 b7.

The formula 1 b3 5 b7 built on a root note of C generates the notes C Eb G Bb.

Essential Chords Example 1p:

Once again, the notes in the lower chord voicing have been rearranged to make the voicing playable on the guitar.

As you’re probably wondering, a minor triad with a natural 7 on the top 1 b3 5 7 is called a “minor major 7th” or m(Maj7) chord and we will discuss these structures in chapter twelve as they are an important sound in jazz. They are given this name because they are minor triads with a major 7th added on top.

When we extend a minor b5 chord to become a 7th chord, we once again add a b7, not a natural 7. In fact, it is a general rule that if a triad has a b3, it is more common to add a b7 to form a four-note ‘7th’ chord.

As you can see in the previous paragraph, this is not always the case, so be careful when applying that ‘rule’.

A (diminished) minor b5 chord with an added b7 has the formula 1 b3 b5 b7 and generates the notes C Eb Gb Bb when built from the root note of C. This chord is named ‘Minor 7 flat 5’ or m7b5 for short. It also is common for m7b5 chords to be referred to as ‘half diminished’ chords.

Essential Chords Example 1q:

Finally, we come to one of the most common jazz chords on guitar; the dominant 7 chord. It is formed by adding a b7 to a major triad. 1 3 5 b7. With a root of C this formula generates the notes C E G Bb.

Because of the fundamental major triad 1 3 5, this chord is a ‘major’ type chord, but the added b7 gives it an extra bit of tension.

Essential Chords Example 1r:

These four chord types can be summarised:

Chord Type Formula Short Name
Major 7 1 3 5 7 ‘maj7’
Dominant 7 1 3 5 b7 ‘7’
Minor 7 1 b3 5 b7 ‘m7’
Minor 7 b5 1 b3 b5 b7 ‘m7b5’

It is the modern way of thinking that all chord types in jazz function in one of the above contexts. We will discuss this at length later, although what this means in simple terms is that even a complex chord, such as C7#5b9, can be viewed in its simplest form as just C7.

A C Minor 11 chord can be simplified to become a Cm7-type chord and a C major 9th chord can be reduced to a Cmaj7-type chord. This is very useful when viewing jazz tunes from a soloing perspective. There are a few exceptions to these rules when playing chords, and those will be addressed individually.

This idea of chord ‘types’ or families is especially useful when we’re starting out playing jazz chords, or when we’re given a particularly difficult chord chart to read with little preparation time.