If you've ever wondered why some songs have a little extra oomph, or just sound straight-up classy, the answer may be seventh chords. For many musicians, they’re the secret ingredient that adds some serious flavour to their musical dish.
In this article we'll:
- Decipher what seventh chords are
- Explore their different qualities
- Listen to some examples
- Show you how to play them on guitar
So, whether you're a seasoned musician looking to expand your harmonic horizons or just a curious soul eager to know more about the magic behind the music - you’re in the right place.
The basics of chords
If chord construction is totally new to you, we’d recommend checking out our article on mastering triads first.
Here’s a quick recap for the rest of you:
- A triad is when three notes come together in harmony.
- We take notes from a diatonic scale (like major) to build triads.
- For example, if we take the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes from a C major scale – we get a C major chord!
Triads are the foundation for all chords and they come in four different flavors or ‘qualities’:
- Major – 1, 3, 5
- Minor – 1, b3, 5
- Augmented – 1, 3, #5
- Diminished – 1, b3, b5
These triads are the bread and butter of chord progressions, forming the backbone of almost every song you’ve ever heard.
The most commonly used triads are major, which sounds bright and cheerful, and its counterpart, minor, with its solemn and melancholic vibe.
But what if we want to get more nuanced than just happy or sad?
That’s where seventh chords come into play – they help us add an extra layer of complexity and richness to the music.
What are seventh chords?
Seventh chords, as the name suggests, include the seventh note from the scale – 1, 3, 5, 7.
- This additional note introduces another layer of harmony.
- Seventh chords are a favorite for musicians who want to add a level of sophistication to their progressions.
- It can be major, minor, or diminished, and its flavor defines the type of seventh chord.
Types of seventh chords
There are five different qualities of seventh chord – the most commonly used are the first three.
- Major seventh (maj7) – 1, 3, 5, 7
- Dominant seventh (7) – 1, 3, 5, b7
- Minor seventh (m7) – 1, b3, 5, b7
- Half-diminished seventh (m7b5) – 1, b3, b5, b7
- Diminished seventh (°7) – 1, b3, b5, bb7
Below is a chart showing the notes for each type of C seventh chord.
If you’re not sure how to play these chords, don’t worry! We’re going to show you in a moment.
What do seventh chords sound like?
Each type of seventh chord has a distinct color.
Whether it's the cozy charm of a major seventh or the edgy tension of a diminished seventh, these chords are tools we can use to convey emotion and tell stories through music.
Here’s a cheat sheet for conjuring up some magical moods.
Major seventh chords (maj7)
Known for their dreamy and sophisticated sound.
- You build a maj7 chord by adding a major seventh interval to a major triad.
- Often associated with jazz and bossa nova, they bring a touch of elegance to a progression.
Dominant seventh chords (7)
A bluesy and powerful feel.
- They feature a major triad with a minor seventh interval.
- You'll find them in rock, blues, and, of course, in dominant chord progressions.
Minor seventh chords (m7)
A mellow, reflective, and soulful quality.
- We get a m7 chord by adding a minor seventh interval to a minor triad.
- Frequently used in R&B, funk, and ballads, they evoke a sense of introspection.
Minor seven flat five chords (m7♭5 or half-diminished)
These chords bring tension and intrigue.
- Formed by a diminished triad with a minor seventh interval.
- Often used in jazz as transitional chords.
Diminished seventh chords (dim7)
An eerie and suspenseful quality.
- They consist of a diminished triad with a diminished seventh interval.
- Frequently used in horror movie soundtracks and for creating dissonance.
In the next section, we'll explore where you can find 7th chords in the vast landscape of music, from jazz clubs to pop charts.
Where do you find seventh chords?
Whether you're listening to a sultry jazz saxophone solo, feeling the bluesy soul of a singer's voice, or dancing to a pop hit on the radio, there's a good chance seventh chords are playing a role in shaping the musical experience.
Jazz, neo soul, and lofi hip hop
That chill, laid-back vibe you get from these genres stems from seventh chords
- Seventh chords are at the heart of jazz harmony and all the subgenres that stem from it
- They create those lush, intricate soundscapes that send us somewhere special.
We’ve got some awesome neo-soul chord progressions for you to try out.
Blues and rock’n’roll
Old school rock’n’roll and blues music rely heavily on dominant sevenths chords, in particular.
- From slow, soulful ballads to foot-stomping shuffles, these energetic styles wouldn't be the same without them.
- Legends like Chuck Berry and B.B. King got the audience jumping with their dominant riffs!
In the world of R&B, minor 7th chords set a cool tone.
- They create a smooth, soulful atmosphere, perfect for love songs and heartfelt ballads.
- Artists like Marvin Gaye and Alicia Keys know how to set the mood with some tastefully placed seventh chords.
Check out our R&B guitar techniques article if you’re interested in learning more!
How to play seventh chords
Enough talk – let’s learn some seventh chord shapes!
A string root
The A string is a nice sonic center for a chord voicing on the guitar, not too low, not too high.
You won’t be treading on the bass player’s toes with these.
E string root
A bit beefier in tone – these work well if you’re playing solo.
D string root
Nice and bright! These shapes work well for snappy funk progressions.
Of course, it’s totally up to you when to use certain shapes. It all depends on the situation – we’re just giving a rough guide.
Learning to play all these shapes comfortably will take time and practice. However, it’ll open up a world of possibilities for creating and performing new music.
Let’s look at some examples of seventh chords in context to inspire you!
Examples of seventh chords in music
Let’s look a some different songs that use seventh chords – each example increases in complexity.
Whether you're into jazz, rock, funk, or pop, you'll find seventh chords adding depth and character to many timeless tunes.
We encourage you to seek out the TABs or chord charts for these and try them for yourself.
Beginner: House of the Rising Sun – The Animals
This iconic folk-rock song has a haunting and bluesy quality, proving that just one seventh chord can really give a progression some character.
- It features a minor progression with a dominant seventh thrown in for good measure.
- The song is in 6/8 time signature and all the chords are arpeggiated.
- This is definitely a fun one to practice on guitar – if you know your open chords it’ll be a breeze to learn!
Intermediate: Summertime – Ella Fitzgerald
This jazz classic (originally written by George Gershwin) is rich with seventh chords – practically all qualities are covered.
- A beautifully sparse arrangement, and Ella outlines the chords with her vocal runs – creating a dreamy and melancholic atmosphere.
- This is just one of many countless covers, and it remains a staple of jazz repertoire.
Advanced: Superstition – Stevie Wonder
When it comes to harmony, Stevie Wonder knows exactly what he’s doing.
- This funk classic is driven by dominant seventh chords, contributing to its infectious and danceable groove.
- It's a prime example of how 7th chords can elevate funk music.
- There are also many tastefully placed #9 and #11 extensions for those of you looking to delve deeper!
Expert: Kind of Blue – Miles Davis
Can’t get enough? Here’s a real challenge!
This entire album is a jazz masterpiece, with various tracks featuring different combinations of seventh chords, key changes, and modal improvisation.
There’s an endless amount of musical information to uncover here – enjoy the ride!
We’ve reached the end of our harmonious journey for today, let's do a quick recap:
- Seventh chords consist of four notes, the Root, 3rd, 5th, and crucially – the 7th!
- There are five distinct qualities of seventh chords, maj7, min7, dom7, m7b5, and dim7.
- These chords convey emotions, from light and dreamy to dark and moody – they're tools for storytelling.
- Seventh chords play a crucial role in most genres of music, so every guitarist should learn them!
Now that you’ve got a deeper understanding of these chords, it’s time to experiment with them.
Whether you're composing, performing, or just jamming, seventh chords are your versatile companions, adding richness and flavor to every note.
Neo-Soul Learning Pathway
Become an expressive neo-soul guitarist in 3 months.Learn more
Featured Pickup Music Instructor
Sam Blakelock is a guitarist, educator, and the founder of Pickup Music. He's an expert at helping guitarists of all levels tackle fundamental techniques and complex topics in a straightforward & practical way.Explore Lessons