What are guitar chords?
As soon as you play more than one note, you’re playing a chord.
- Dyads = two-note chords.
- Triads = three-note chords.
- Seventh chords = four-note chords made up of a triad + the 7th note in the major scale
Triads are the most common chord in virtually every style of music. They’re one of the most powerful tools at a guitarist’s disposal when it comes to lead and rhythm playing.
We typically build chords by combining notes from a scale.
What is a scale?
The major scale is a seven-note scale based on whole and half-step intervals.
- Intervals describe the distance between two given notes.
- Ex: second (2), third (m3 or M3), fourth (P4), fifth (P5) etc.
- The smallest distance between two notes in Western style music is a half step (or semitone).
- A half step on the guitar is one fret.
- Two frets are referred to as a whole step.
Major scale formula: w w h w w w h
- (w = whole step, h = half step)
- That’s why a C major scale has these notes:
- C - - D - - E - F - - G - - A - - B - C
The major scale is the most important scale you’ll ever learn because everything in Western music theory is relative to the major scale.
How chords relate to a scale
Follow these steps to building chords from any major scale:
- We’ll use C major as our example
- Find all notes in the C major scale: C D E F G A B C
- Choose a note to build a chord from
- From there, apply the triad formula: Take a note – skip a note – take a note – skip a note – take a note
- Ex. To build a D chord, we start with D (take a note), skip E, take F, skip G, and take A
This gives us D F A, which works out to D minor
This gives you seven chords and since they all live within a single scale, we call these diatonic chords:
- C major = C E G
- D minor = D F A
- E minor = E G B
- F major = F A C
- G major = G B D
- A minor = A C E
- B diminished = B D F
How do you know if a chord should be major, minor, or diminished?
The answer lies within the major scale.
- The distance from one note to the next in a scale is not always the same.
- The notes E and F (as well as B and C) are only one half step apart.
- All other notes are two half steps (or one whole step) apart (two frets on your guitar).
These different gaps between notes result in different chord qualities. Still confused?
- Remember our take a note, skip a note triad formula?
- The fact that note distances vary causes our triad formula to give us notes with different intervallic relationships.
Let’s look at two chords in the key of C major, starting with C major (C, E, G)
- The distance from a C chord’s first two notes (C → E) is 4 half steps or a major 3rd interval
- That’s why a C chord in the key of C (C, E, G) is major – it features a major 3rd interval
- The major third in a chord is the determining factor of whether it’s major or minor
A D chord (D, F, A) in the key of C on the other hand, is minor.
- The distance from a D chord’s first two notes (D → F) is 3 half steps or a minor 3rd interval.
- That’s why a D chord in the key of C (C, E, G) is minor – it features a minor 3rd interval
- The major third in a chord is the determining factor of whether it’s major or minor.
This knowledge – which notes are only a semitone apart and the formula for the major scale (w w h w w w h) – is something you simply memorize.
It’ll help you understand chords, music theory and ultimately this will make it easier to communicate with other musicians.
Applying the triad formula to every note in a major scale and measuring the distance between each note in relation to the root note is a fantastic way to really understand this concept.
Intervals in major, minor, and diminished chords:
- Major chord = root, major 3rd (4 half steps), perfect 5th (7 half steps from root)
- Minor chord = root, minor 3rd (3 half steps), perfect 5th (7 half steps from root)
- Diminished chord = root, minor 3rd (3 half steps), diminished 5th (6 half steps from root)
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