All About Chords

Feb27

Instead of sitting down with a bunch of boring theory textbooks, you can use music to understand how harmony and chords work on the guitar. Does that sound like a cool way to learn about guitar harmony?

If you think so, then that’s how we’ll start our exploration of chords: with a tune. Actually, a chunk from a tune. Let’s check it out.

Strum each of these chords twice, anywhere on the fretboard.

C, Am, F, G7, C

Now, let’s work backwards to understand just how this musical phrase works, in terms of the chords that we find in it.

G7 to C

Look at the last chord change: G7 to C. Why do we play this? Why not play an Eb7b9 or an F#13b5? Or even something simple like an F major? What’s so great about a G7? Well, play those other chords with C, and listen to what your ear says about each. That will give you the best answer.

The most satisfying chord to play before the C is the G7. What the heck does that mean: “satisfying?” It partially means what we expect to hear, what we are accustomed to hearing, and what we’ve heard in a billion other phrases and tunes.

So, what is it about the G7 that makes playing it before C so satisfying? A few things. Let’s talk about ‘em:

  • The sweet note of the G7: B
  • The no-no interval, or tritone
  • The movement of a perfect 4th up from G to C

Let’s look at each of these under our musical magnifying glass.

The sweet note

The sweet note of a chord is its third: In G7, that’s a B. Play a G7 without a B and you’ll see why B is sweet.

The G7 sounds pretty drab without that B, doesn’t it? It’s like putting up a Christmas tree but not decorating it. Let’s put that B back in before things get out of hand.

The B is what gives the G7 its peppy, optimistic sound. And there’s another reason why B is important in helping G7 to C sound satisfying.

B is just a wee little bitty bit shy, one half-step shy to be exact, from C. This closeness of B to C causes tension. It’s like that box of chocolate Pop Tarts way up on the top shelf that the little kid can almost but not quite reach. We like to have this tension and resolution combo, and the B helps provide it.

Understanding the role the sweet note plays can improve your entire sound. Learn more about the third and the other ingredients that go into chords by reading Guitar Chords. Check it out here:

The no-no interval, or tritone

There’s another reason why the G7 moves so satisfyingly to the C. It’s called the tritone interval. This interval will make your straight hair curly, your milk go sour, and will propel the G7 smack into the C with cataclysmic force. (That last sentence sounds great if you pretend you’re Charlton Heston.)

The tritone is an interval, which means it’s two notes: B and F. Play a B and an F, listening to how unusual they sound together and how much tension they produce. In fact, play this tab:

Example

Tritone to minor 6th

Here’s the sound file for this tab: [aac1.mid]

This movement of the unstable tritone to the stable minor 6th (the C and E notes) is another reason why G7 to C sounds good.

By the way, there’s an interesting newsgroup message that relates some of the beliefs that Ancient Greeks and others had about the tritone. To read this message, surf to this subdomain: groups.google.com. When you’re there, click Advanced Groups Search. Then, enter this text in the box that reads “Message ID”: cornell.791886334@michigan

Up a fourth

What’s another reason why G7 to C will put a smile in your step and a twang in your Tang? What’s the root of the G7? The G. What’s the root of the C chord? The C. What’s the interval between these two roots, G and C? A perfect fourth. Chord movement by an ascending perfect fourth generally sounds good.

We can even take that a bit further by saying that a huge number of chord movements in most types of songs use ascending perfect fourths (or a descending perfect 5th).

Listen to some examples of this interval: play a D note followed by a G note. Just play notes now, not chords. Then, play a G followed by a C note, and an A followed by a D. Now, let’s flesh this idea out by playing a chord progression that moves only in fourths. Play this:

C, F, B dim, Em, Am, Dm, G7, C

Notice I said “fourths” and not perfect fourths. Almost all of the movements here are ascending perfect fourths. One movement, from F to B, is not a perfect fourth, but our furry friend the tritone.

How does this progression in all fourths sound to you? It provides tension from the B dim and G7, you have a mix of all the chord types in the major scale: minor, diminished, major, and you’re moving by one of your ear’s favorite intervals: the ascending perfect fourth. All is well with the universe. Go in peace.

What can you do with it?

What can we use this all fourths progression for? For one thing, use it to write tunes. Let’s say you’ve come up with a melody and you don’t know what chords to put to it. No problem. Assuming the melody is in C major, sing the melody while strumming the all fourths progression given a little while ago. Play it slowly; listen carefully; feel the Force…whoa, sorry. Wrong movie.

Chances are, your melody will sound pretty good over those chords for at least some of the notes. Wherever it doesn’t sound so good, either change the melody, or swap out the chord.

How to practice

The V7-I progression is pretty important, so you want to practice it in as many keys as you can manage. The progression we did in this section is in C. Let’s transpose the progression to other common keys.

Keep in mind that you can play the following chords anywhere on the fretboard – at least at first. Don’t worry about playing a particular voicing, playing all over the neck, or playing on just a certain string or strings. Just play the form of the chord you feel most comfy with.

Let’s do V7-I in these keys: F, G, A, E, D and for extra credit, Gb.

Here are the chords:

Key F: C7, F
Key G: D7, G
Key A: E7, A
Key E: B7, E
Key D: A7, D
Key Gb: Db7, Gb

Now, that shows what to practice. But, how do you practice ‘em? That breaks down into where to practice ‘em, then how often, and other questions.

First, as said a short while ago, play the above progressions in each key wherever you feel most comfortable playing them. This would likely mean open position chords if you’re a beginner.

Practice the V7-I progressions until you can play them in time with a metronome. Start with 90 BPM, and play a phrase like this:

| V7 V7 | I I | V7 V7 | I I |

In other words, strum the V7 twice, then the one twice, and repeat that sequence. Then, go on to the next key. This might be more fun if you had a playalong partner to do it with. So, here’s a Powertab file you can use for that.

This file has all the V7-I progressions in the list above. Load them into Power Tab and play along with them. If the tempo is too fast, change the tempo marker, which you can do under the Music Symbols menu.

If you haven’t downloaded the super cool and free Powertab yet, here’s where to get it.

Once you get good at playing these progressions, you’ll want to keep playing while you switch keys. In other words, if you’re strumming along to G7 and C, you’d want to have a buddy or a computer program call out the next key at random. “Key A!” “Key E!” and so on. It’s your job and your joy to play through without missing a beat.

Read the next installment of All About Chords at MaximumMusician.com. We’ll look at why chords are built in thirds, the progression every guitarist must know, how to practice it, and the many uses of regurgitated cat hairballs.

About Darrin Koltow

Darrin is the creator of Maximum Musician, a terrific site where you can learn about improvising, harmonizing melodies, playing by ear, good practice habits, motivation, and other topics.

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