In this post I will teach you everything you need to know about how to build chords on guitar for a solid foundation of chord theory. 💪
We’ve all been there, looking at a complicated chord written down (Am7b9#13no5), feeling lost, and resorting to playing the simplest form. However, once you grasp how to read these chord notations, you’ll be able to confidently tackle even the most intricate chords. That’s precisely what this video is all about —breaking down the primary chord types and decoding chord notations.
Before you dive in, it’s necessary that you are familiar with intervals on the fretboard, like recognising intervals such as 1, 3, 5, and 7. If you need to strengthen your interval knowledge, I go through this extensively in my CAGED Fretboard Visualisation Masterclass.
By the end of this lesson you will know how to build chords on guitar.
We can break down all chords into three types. Take note to how each version builds upon the previous chord type:
Triads are basic chords consisting of three notes, all stacked in thirds. There are four essential types:
- Major Triad: 1, 3, 5
- Minor Triad: 1, b3, 5
- Augmented Triad: 1, 3, #5
- Diminished Triad: 1, b3, b5
You may be familiar with Suspended Triads, but these aren’t amongst the essential four because they actually deviate from traditional harmony because they do not comprise of stacked thirds:
- Suspended 2 (sus2) Triad: 1, 2, 5
- Suspended 4 (sus4) Triad: 1, 4, 5
All of these triads form the foundation for more complex chords.
2. Seventh Chords
Seventh chords add a fourth note to triads, the seventh degree. There are five primary seventh chord types to know:
- Major 7: 1, 3, 5, 7
- Minor 7: 1, b3, 5, b7
- Dominant 7: 1, 3, 5, b7
- Minor 7b5 (Half Diminished): 1, b3, b5, b7
- Diminished 7 (Full Diminished): 1, b3, b5, bb7 (double flat seven)
Seventh chords build upon triads, and make your chords vocabulary more colourful and jazzy.
3. Extended Chords
Extended chords incorporate additional notes – 9, 11, and 13 – above the octave (1). They are essentially seventh chords with extensions. For example:
- Major 9: 1, 3, 5, 7, 9
- Minor 9: 1, b3, 5, b7, 9
- Dominant 9: 1, 3, 5, b7, 9
These chords stack an additional third onto seventh chords.
When encountering more complex extended chords, you may need to omit certain notes to make them playable on guitar. For instance, a Major 13 (1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13) has 7 notes, but guitars typically only have 6 strings. Thus to play this chord it would require omitting the 11.
In addition to the chord types mentioned above, there are three chord modifiers that you should understand:
1. Add Chords
These simply add an extra note to a basic triad. For instance, Cadd9 includes the 9th degree (2) in addition to the triad.
The reason it’s notated as Cadd9 instead of Cmaj9 is because there’s no 7 in the chord. If there were a 7, “add” chords become extended seventh chords.
2. Modified Notes
Some chords include modified notes, like Cmaj7#11, where #11 is the modified note. This alters the chord’s tonality.
Cmaj7#11 could be constructed in a few ways on guitar:
- 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, #11 (the most complete – does not imply best)
- 1, 3, 5, 7, #11
- 1, 3, 7, #11 (the most concise and clear)
3. Slash Chords
When you see a chord like C/E, it means a C chord with an E in the bass. In this instance, E is the 3rd degree of C major. That would make C/E the first inversion of a C major triad.
Slash chords don’t always need to contain notes of the parent chord. For example, C/D is a C major triad with a D in the bass.
Understanding these three methods of chord theory will allow you to decipher and play a wide range of chords effectively.
As you experiment and build different chord variations across the neck, you’ll enhance your chord-playing skills and broaden your musical horizons. Chords are the building blocks of music, and mastering them opens up endless possibilities for your playing.