If I had to try to answer the question “How many guitar chords are there in all?”, my answer would be inaccurate, incomplete, and completely useless to your guitar learning progress anyway.
The reason is that the answer to this question would depend on variables such as whether:
- We’re including every position of each chord on the guitar fretboard (which would make the total number of chords close to infinite).
- We’re only counting the chords that can be formed when using standard tuning. (If we take the possibilities formed by alternate tunings, the number would be even closer to infinite).
What is more relevant to your learning is knowing how many different guitar chord types there are, what they are, and when to learn them.
Before we delve into the different chord types that can be played on the guitar, let’s clear some things first.
Open vs barre chords
These are neither different chord types nor different chords, but different ways of playing the same chord.
Open chords usually have at least one string played open, while barre chords are performed by having your index finger press all the strings of a fret (forming a barre)
The following example shows the chord diagrams for A minor played open and A minor barre.
If you strum both chords you will find they sound the same or nearly the same.
In both cases, you’re only playing notes that form the chord of A minor, which are A, C, and E.
However, you’re playing them in a different order and in different octaves. Hence the slight difference you hear when playing the same chord played in different positions.
Since a chord is defined by the notes it contains, not the order they’re played, open A minor, and barred A minor is exactly the same chord. (The only exception to this is when the root note is not in the bass, which will give us slash chords, as we’ll see below)
Different chords of the same type
A minor and B minor are two different chords, formed by completely different notes, but they’re the same chord type – minor.
Since it’s chord types we’re dealing with in this lesson, we won’t be distinguishing between the two. Just keep in mind that for every chord type there are 12 different chords – the total number of different notes in music.
Note: In the examples below we’ll build most chords starting on the root note C.
Since, by definition, a chord is three or more notes sounding simultaneous, power chords are technically not chords but dyads.
However in real life power chords fulfill the same role as chords, and are among the first you should learn, especially if you play and Rock, Punk, or Heavy Metal guitar.
There are a few chords, such as C6 and Amin7 that are made of the same notes – which would make them the same chord.
While technically they are and can be used interchangeably, these chords serve a different role in the harmony of the music.
In the following explanations, such chords will be considered different since the chord type is different.
The guitar chord types we’ll be going through will be grouped into categories.
For instance, Maj 7th, minor 7th, and dominant 7th chords will be grouped into the 7th chords category.
So, let’s start exploring all the different chord types you can play on the guitar.
There are four kinds of triads.
Major and minor triads are made of the first, third, and fifth notes of their respective scale.
Thus, the C major chord is made of the notes C, E, and G – the first, third, and fifth notes of the C major scale.
While C minor is made of C, Eb, and G – the first, third, and fifth note of the C minor scale.
Major and minor triad chords are the most commonly used chords in music, thus the first you should learn, first as open chords, then as barre chords.
The other two types of triads are the diminished and the augmented triad.
A diminished triad is made of the root, a minor 3rd, and a diminished 5th (C, Eb, and Gb) while an augmented triad is made of the root, a major 3rd, and an augmented 5th (C, E, and G#).
These two types of triad chords are much less common than major and minor triads and you may not need to learn them now if you’re a beginner on the guitar.
7th Chords are formed by adding the 7th interval from the root to an existing triad.
The three most common 7th chords are the major 7th (Cmaj7), the minor 7th (Cmin7), and the dominant 7th (C7)
These 3 chord types are explained in depth in this lesson on 7th guitar chords.
You should learn these types of 7th chords early on in your guitar learning journey since you’ll be encountering them quite frequently.
Another 7th chord that is into use is the Minor 7 (b5) chord, also known as the half-diminished chord.
It’s good to learn this chord (as well as how to use it in a musical context) if you’re an intermediate guitar player.
Other types of 7th chords can be formed such as the diminished 7th and the Major 7 (#5), among others, but it’s very unlikely you will ever encounter these chords.
Extended chords, also called Jazz chords since they’re mostly used in Jazz, are formed by stacking more thirds above the seventh, namely the 9th, 11th, and the 13th.
The most common extended chords are major, minor, and dominant 9th, 11th, and 13th chords.
There are other variations of these, however, these would require alterations to the notes of the scale and will be discussed as another type of chord – altered chords.
In all the chord types explored above, we have been stacking intervals of a third over each other and in all cases, the third note of the scale (E or Eb in the key of C) is present.
In suspended chords, the third is replaced by either the second (sus2) or the fourth (sus4) of the scale.
Thus Csus 2 is made of the notes C, D, and G while Csus 4 is made of the notes C, F, and G.
As the name suggests, suspended chords require some form of resolution, usually to a major or a minor chord.
Play the following chord progression and listen to the tension of the suspended chords getting resolved on the C minor and the G major chord.
The most common types of add chords are add 2 and add 9, while add 4 and add 6 can also be found.
The only difference between an add chord and a suspended chord is that a new note is added, but the third is not removed.
Thus, Cadd 2 is made of the notes C, D, E, and G.
In all the chords explored above, the root note is the lowest note played in the chord.
Thus, since C major is made of C, E and G, if we’re strumming the chord C, the lowest note we hit is the note C.
The order of the rest of the notes, such as whether you play C, E, G, C, E or C, G, C, E, C, doesn’t matter to the name of the chord as long as C is in the bass.
If any other note is in the bass, it is written as a slash chord.
Thus, C/G means that we should play the chord of C major, with G as the lowest note:
We can also have slash chords where the lowest note is not in the major or minor chord.
For instance, while C major is made of C, E, and G, you can find a slash chord that goes: C/D.
In that case, we would be playing Cadd 2, with the added 2 (the note D) in the bass.
Whether you call it a slash chord or an add chord doesn’t really matter. As explained above, determining how many different guitar chords there are in total is pretty pointless since, among other things, some chords can be called by different names.
Altered chords are either 7th or extended chords with a raised or a lowered 5th or 9th note (or both).
They have names like C7 (#5) or C9 (#11). As well as a chord known as the Naeoplitan 6th
Like extended chords, altered chords are not frequently encountered outside Jazz music.
Conclusion: How many chords should you learn?
Though all chord types seem to fit neatly into these 7 categories, there are literally thousands of chords, and different positions of the same chords, that you could learn.
Trying to learn all guitar chords will hurt your progress since you will have little time to practice things that are more important than building a huge chord vocabulary.
Learn as many guitar chords as you need to play music that’s already composed, or to write your own.
You’re going to encounter major and minor triad chords, the most common 7th chords suspended, and add chords for sure sooner or later.
Thus these should be learned earlier on.
With extended and altered chords (and these add to the total number of chords more than any other type of chords since they have more notes, thus more possible variations) you should go slow unless you’re into Jazz, fusion, or other musical genres that make frequent use of such chords.
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