What are the notes in a guitar chord?

Guitar chord construction for beginners

Simply put, a guitar chord is a group of three or more notes played together on the guitar.

Thus, if you’re strumming say, the chord of C major you’re playing the notes C, E and G.

Now, if you strum the C major chord in the open position, you will notice that you’re playing five notes, not three.And when you strum it as a barre chord with the root note on the 8th fret of the E string, you play six notes.

Yet, all the notes you play when you strum any of the chords above are C, E, and G, repeated in different octaves, in different places of the guitar fretboard.

When you’re playing C major in the open position you’re playing the notes C E G C E and when you’re playing it as a barre chord you’re playing C G C E G C

In this lesson I will show you how chords are constructed and how to find the notes in a guitar chord.

Scale degrees

Chords are derived from scales.

While chords can be derived from any scale, the major scale is used as a reference point for constructing chords.

Thus, since the scale of C major is made of the notes C D E F G A B the numbers 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 represent each respective note.

The reason the C major chord is made of the notes C E and G is that the formula for major chords is 1 3 5.

That is, every major chord is made of the first, third and fifth note of its respective scale.

Triads

Triads are chords that have three notes.

We have already explored the major triad above.

The other types of triads that are used are the minor triad, the augmented triad and the diminished triad.

This is the formula for each triad chord:

Major:             1    3    5 (C E G)

Minor:             1  b3    5 (C Eb G)

Diminished:    1  b3  b5 (C Eb Gb)

Augmented:   1     3  #5 (C E G#)

Suspended chords are also triads but the third interval is replaced by either the second or the fourth.

Sus 2:    1  2  5 (C D G)

Sus 4:    1  4  5 (C F G)

Since the third interval from the root is very consonant, while the second and fourth are very dissonant, suspended chords sound unstable and need to resolve to another chord.

7th Guitar chords

7th chords are also very popular among guitar players.

These are formed by adding the 7th note to an existing triad.

This is the formula for the four most common types of 7th chords:

Major 7th:         1    3   5   7 (C E G B)

Minor 7th:         1  b3   5 b7 (C Eb G Bb)

Dominant 7th:  1    3   5 b7 (C E G Bb)

Minor 7th (b5): 1  b3 b5 b7 (C Eb Gb Bb)

Other types 7th chords exist but it’s unlikely that you’ll encounter them outside of Jazz music.

Extended chords  

These chords are formed by stacking more intervals of a third over an existing 7th chord, giving us chords of a 9th, an 11th or a 13th.

For instance we can take a C major 7th and turn it into a C major 9th by adding the note D:

C major 7: 1 3 5 7 (C E G B)

C major 9: 1 3 5 7 9 (C E G B D)

Into a C major 11 by adding the note F:

C major 11: 1 3 5 7 9 11 (C E G B D F)

And into a C major 13 by adding the note A:

C major 13: 1 3 5 7 9 11 13 (C E G B D F A)

Since a 13th note has seven notes and can’t possibly be played on a six string guitar, one or more notes are left out. These are usually the root note and the fifth.

The same is done with 9th and 11th chords when the left-hand fingers cannot comfortably play the notes.

When we do this, the sound of the chord is heard anyway since the omitted notes are implied by the rest of the notes in the chord.

Inversions/Slash chords

Have you ever seen a chord like this: C/G?

Referred to as slash chords, these chords have the same notes as the chord before the slash. In the case above it is a C major.

However the note following the slash is the bass note instead of the root.

In the two versions of the C major guitar chord given as an example at the beginning of this lesson the lowest note in the chord, is the note C.

To play a C/G chord you simply put the G in the bass, as in the chord diagram below:

Conclusion

In this lesson I gave you a brief overview of how chords are constructed.

We haven’t been through all possible guitar chords and what notes they are made of.

One reason for this is that there are too many guitar chords to be able to do that in one lesson.

The other reason is that memorizing all the notes in all guitar chords isn’t in itself a worthwhile goal to pursue.

Rather, you should learn what the notes in the guitar chord you’re learning are, listen to how they sound relative to each other (ear training) and play that chord with other chords that sound well with it in a chord progression.

Acquiring these abilities will help you see the theory applied into practice, which can then be used for writing your own guitar songs.


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