Extended Chords


I’ve gotten some feedback from my article on Untangling Chord Progressions, and it seems there’s interest in how to use altered chords. Going through it logically, you need to be able to finger altered chords before you use them… altered chords come from extended chords, so you need to know them before you can make altered chords… and not a lot of guitarists are comfortable with extended chords. So I thought I’d approach this from the beginning with a lesson on altered chords.

Altered chords can be scary, because there’s so darn many of them! A major chord has only 3 different notes, so you can pretty well master the major chords by learning just 3-5 different fingerings. A 13th chord can theoretically have dozens of different fingerings – so it’s understandable that many intermediate guitarists figure enough is enough, they’ll just stay intermediate.

But getting to the stage of playing these advanced chords doesn’t really require learning hundreds of new chord shapes – it only demands that you can relate new chords to old ones in a logical way. By the end of this article, you’ll be able to form any chord extension that you want!

Extended chords are the 9th , 11th , and 13th chords. Like 7th chords, each can come in various ‘flavors’ such as dominant, major, and minor. Extended chords are most often in the dominant form, so that’s what I’ll cover in this article – just lower the 3rd for a minor form, and raise the 7th for a major form when you need them.

To begin with, you’ll need to know the seventh chords. There are a lot of different dominant seventh voicings available, but when I play chord changes, I think about what note I’m going to put on top of the chord – keeping the top note close together from one chord to the next gives you the smoothest changes. Since there are four notes in a seventh chord (1-3-5-b7) I normally work with just four voicings. Chord roots are indicated by squares:

Seventh chords

The next step is learning which other chord tones fall on each string. Most beginning and intermediate guitarists only worry about where the root falls, and place the rest of the fingers from rote. Take a little bit of time to learn the rest of the chord tones in these voicings (the b7 is shown as just 7 to avoid overcrowding the diagrams):

Chord tones

Starting with these simple chord forms, we can now add – and subtract – notes to make extended chords. Subtracting a note from a chord might be a new idea to you, but it’s useful, and sometimes essential, in forming extended chords – the formula for a 13th chord is 1-3-5-b7-9-11-13, which is seven notes… and we have only six strings to work with. Something’s got to give!

The most common note to sacrifice in any extended chord is the root. You probably haven’t thought about playing chords without a root before, but it’s a very handy note to drop: because it’s only a whole step over the b7, and only a whole step below the 9th , including the root can make a chord sound muddy. The root is often going to be picked up by another instrument anyway, such as bass or keyboards, so chances are good it won’t be missed.

Knowing where the root is on each of the four seventh inversions, and knowing it can move up two frets to the 9th (which is the same note as the 2nd note in the scale), it’s a simple matter to have the 9th chords at your disposal:

Moving up two frets

(any 1st string note can be doubled on the 6th string for a fuller sound)

Fuller sound

Moving on to 11th chords, the 11th (which is the same note as the fourth) and the 3rd are only a half step apart. The third is almost always dropped from 11th chords. Just like 9th chords, the root is optional, but so is the 5th – and the easiest way to form these chords is to drop a 5th by two frets, making it the 11th:

At the 11th

Last, we have the 13th chords. The 11th is almost always omitted from a 13th , and the root, fifth, and ninth are the usual choices for dropping a note. That leaves the 3rd , b7th , and 13th as the notes we truly need.

The 3rd and b7 are already in the basic chord we’re building from; I just raise the 5th by two frets (which may mean moving to the next string) to get the 13th . Then you can include one of the optional tones, the root, fifth, or ninth, and you have a nice 13th voicing:

13th voicing

Pretty painless, huh? In the next article, I’ll explain how these extended chords get altered to make your chord vocabulary even larger.

About Tom Serb

Tom Serb is a Chicago area guitarist who has been making music professionally since 1978. Over the course of the past twenty-five years he has managed to amuse himself by teaching, writing, performing, producing and composing. He is the author of Music Theory for Guitarists (NoteBoat, Inc., 2003), and a frequent contributor to the Guitar Noise forums.

Comments [3]

  1. I’m curious about something. You say that the 3rd is almost always dropped from 11th chords, but looking at your examples it is present in three out of the four. Are these the exceptions? Or am I misunderstanding something?

  2. No Eddie, you understood it right.

    For any given chord there are roughly 100 ways to voice it on the guitar. Since it’s not practical to teach thousands of chord fingerings, I use four dominant 7th chords as a starting point for teaching – the four voicings shown at the beginning of this lesson. Using the strategy of lowering the fifth by two frets results in the 3rd being present (it’s actually in all four voicings I show for 11th chords)

    Another strategy would be to raise the 3rd by a half step. I didn’t take that route because many chord voicings are synonyms of each other – C11 voiced without a 3rd or 9th is identical to a C7sus chord. That’s a tough concept for many to grasp – a chord name describes the possibilities for the harmony, rather than telling you where to put your fingers. Keeping the 3rd in the illustrations avoids that problem (but as you recognized, causes a different one)

  3. What annoys me about lessons about extended chords often I see, is the presumption that all budding and budded guitarists are going to be playing with a band. So the moment you go on about how dropping some note will be alright cause the drums etc will take over uninspires you if you gonna be solo player. I wish you would think of this alternative approach and mention it! Because such presumption implies you can only really aspire to play guitar IF you play with other musicians. WHY so?

Leave a Comment