Guitarists often learn chords by reading “box” diagrams.
If you’ve ever had a lesson in your life (or even if you haven’t) you’re probably familiar with these: essentially a drawing of the guitar neck held vertically, with six vertical lines representing the strings and horizontal lines representing the frets. Fingers are shown by either dots or numbers on the notes you cover to create each chord.
These diagrams are very helpful. especially to beginners. Once you understand how to read them boxes, learning a new chord is as simple as looking at the picture. The problem is that many players never get beyond the concept of chords AS boxes: as fixed objects instead of a collection of notes.
A chord is any sound formed by more than two notes simultaneously. Some of my younger students like to grab random collections of notes and ask “is this a chord?” The answer is always yes, no matter how dissonant the sound might be. But the primary language of popular music is major and minor chords, and almost every other type of chord can be derived from this basic foundation.
A quick definition. “Major” and “minor” are different qualities a chord can have, with two different sounds. (We’re using “quality” to mean a characteristic, as opposed to a judgment of good or bad). Every type of chord has a distinct quality and emotional association to the listener: to be very simplistic about it, major chords are bright and uplifting while minor chords are more dark and moody. Try playing a sequence of minor chords and end with a major…it sounds (and feels) like the sun breaking through the clouds. (As an aside, one thing I love about classic country music is how sad major chords can sound with the right melody, lyric, and delivery. Think of George Jones singing “He Stopped Loving Her Today”).
Do the math.
A little simple theory. Major and minor chords are made up of three notes, the first (root), third, and fifth of the corresponding scale; these three notes together form a triad. This is a simple enough idea to understand if you just start from the letter that names the chord, call that note 1, and count the letters up the scale to find notes 3 and 5. So if we start from A and call that note 1, notes 3 and 5 would be C and E.
To work with this major and minor concept, strum a simple C chord followed by an A minor. Listen to the different qualities of these two chords…the bright chime of the C, the major, and the darker sound of the A minor. Then reverse the order and listen to the emotional lift that accompanies the change from A minor to C.
Both the C and Am chords as we usually first learn to play them are 5-note chords. Since it only takes three notes to form a chord, that means that some notes will be doubled by the same note in a higher octave. A simple C triad is C-E-G, while our 5-note C chord on the guitar is C-E-G-C-E. That’s 1-3-5-1-3, for those who are keeping track. The A minor has a similar form: the triad is A-C-E, and the guitar chord is A-E-A-C-E or 1-5-1-3-5. Again, note that the numbers are always counted from the root, or note that names the chord. So C is note 1 of the C major scale, while A is note 1 of the A minor scale.
Get out of the box.
Now here’s where we leave the box behind. You’re probably accustomed to playing all five notes of both these chords. Try holding the shape of either chord and playing just three strings at a time. You can extract three different versions of each chord this way: striking the three lower, three middle, or three upper strings. Notice how this brings out different notes, and adds an element of melody when you change chords or even just parts of the same chord. For example, strumming a familiar open position C brings out the high E, the 3rd of the chord. Strumming just the three lowest strings of the same chord brings out the open G, the 5th.
Playing the same chords as arpeggios gives us even more options. To play an arpeggio, hold the chord form with your fretting hand and strike or pluck the strings one at a time. Notice how this also brings in a melodic element even without changing chords, and even more so when we put a series of chords together.
This is a large topic but a simple one. Try applying these ideas to other chords, bringing out different notes. As you change chords notice how melodies are created in this way: now, instead of a series of “blocks” a chord progression becomes a series of simultaneous melodies. This melodic aspect helps a player create unique “signature” parts that help define the song rather than just strumming the same familiar box shapes.
As you explore and connect the dots, you’ll start to see how every chord can be broken down into sets of two, three, or four notes. Conversely, two- and three-string forms can be put together to complete larger formations. Applying this concept to barre chords will open up the entire neck and expand your chord vocabulary exponentially!
Note: this post originally appeared in slightly different form in Kim Copeland Productions‘ Songwriters E-Tip.