Building a Chord Vocabulary

There are lots of possible chords. Almost all popular music follows “tertian” harmony, with chords built in thirds: C-E-G, etc.

Let me define “lots” a bit more precisely. By my count, there are roughly 47 different chord names used in the tertian system, including power “chords” and various altered and suspended chords used in popular music and jazz. Each of those chords can be built on 12 different tones, for a total of over 550 different chord sounds. (There will actually be more chord names than this, because of enharmonic spellings – Gb7 and F#7 have the same sound; on the other hand, there are fewer chord sounds than 47×12, because some, like C6 and Am7 contain identical tones).

Chords will vary in the number of pitches they can contain, from just two for power chords to seven for thirteenth chords. Each chord can have a number of ‘inversions’, which simply means a different note is in the bass – C-E-G, E-G-C, and G-C-E are all C major chords. The number of possible inversions will equal the number of tones in the chord, and the 47 chord names represent 228 different inversions. Multiply by twelve tones, and we’re up around 2700.

But we’re not done yet. Chords can be ‘voiced’ in many different ways. Since a C major chord contains the notes C-E-G, we can play a C major by using 332xxx, 3320xx, 33201x, 332010, x320xx, x3201x, x32010, xx201, xx2010, or xx010. That’s ten different voicings, and we haven’t even left first position. The fact is, many chords can be played in over 100 different voicings on the guitar. There will actually be a lot of duplicates (for reasons I’ll get into later on), but a guitar can play well over 20,000 different chord voicings. In fact, the guitar is capable of playing more chord voicings than any other instrument I’ve encountered.

Can anyone really play 10, 15, or 20,000 different chords? Yep, you bet. But if you learn one chord at a time it’s a Sisyphean task (as long as I’m building your chord vocabulary, I might as well build your regular one as well!). What we need is a strategy. I developed a system that worked for me in navigating the fretboard, and I’ve refined it as I’ve taught it to others; if you follow this system, you’ll be able to do it too.

Step 1: Learn the ‘cowboy’ chords. These are the open position major, minor, and dominant 7th chords: A, C, D, E, G, Am, Dm, Em, A7, B7, C7, D7, E7, and G7. That’s just 14 chords, and you can learn them by rote in two or three weeks if you don’t know them already.

Step 2: Learn the way notes are named. The musical alphabet contains the letters A-G, with two pairs of letter names one fret apart: B-C and E-F. All the other letter names are separated by two frets, and the fret in between can be called either of two names – on the first string, we have F at the first fret and G at the third fret; the fret in between can be called either F# (F-sharp) or Gb (G-flat).

Step 3: Any chord fingering can be moved to any position on the neck. As long as ALL the strings you play are moved by the same amount, the chord type will remain the same. So if you know that x02220 is an A major chord, xx444x will be a B major chord.

The trouble here is that it’s hard to strum a chord that doesn’t have strings played at one end or the other – the first or sixth strings. Since we had to move two frets to get from A to B, moving the open first string up two frets gets you a strummable B chord: xx4442 (finger it 2341).

Using this logic, you can turn the 14 cowboy chords into hundreds of different chord voicings. This is the essence of barre chords: you can turn E major (022100) into F major (133211) by using your first finger across all six strings.

What might not be so obvious is that you can also turn other cowboy chords into moveable voicings by leaving out one or more strings. G7 (320001) can become Ab7 by leaving out the two bass strings: xx1112. G major (320001) becomes C major by leaving out bass strings (xx5558) or the high E (87555x). You can actually create about 3-400 different voicings just by moving these basic chords!

Don’t overlook the possibilities of moving the two four-fingered chords either. Angling your third finger to dampen the second string on B7 creates a x212x2 voicing – since it has no open strings, it’s moveable. So is C7 if you angle your first finger to dampen the high E: x5452x is a D7 voicing.

Step 4: Take common chords and learn which chord tones fall on each string, and then learn to change them according to some basic rules of thumb. To illustrate this idea, I’ll use E major: 022100. The notes of the voicing are E-B-E-G#-B-E; those are the root (E), third (G#) and fifth (B) of the E major scale. So our chord voicing is R5R35R.

Notice that you’ve got a couple of ‘5’ notes in there. You’ve also got three ‘R’ notes. In music theory terms, those are called ‘doublings’, and they don’t change the name of the chord.

Now let’s apply some rules of thumb…

The 9th note of the scale is the same as the 2nd note; that’s going to lie 2 frets above a root (R), or 2 frets below a 3rd (3). Since this particular voicing has only one third, we want to keep it for now, and we’ll change one of the ‘R’ notes to a 9, creating an Eadd9 chord: 022102 (R5R359)

The 4th note of the scale is the same as the 11th note, and it lies one fret above 3 or two frets below 5. But an 11th chord is a dominant chord type, so it also contains a b7 – we’ll get to that shortly. But a ‘sus’ chord replaces 3 with 4 – so 022200 creates an Esus chord (often written as Esus4).

The 6th note of the scale is the same as the 13th note – 13 is used when it’s a dominant chord (containing a b7), and 6 when the 7th isn’t present. The 6 is two frets above 5, or three frets below R. So we can turn E major into E6 by using 022120. We can create a different voicing by changing the other 5, playing 042100.

The 7 is special – lowering R by one fret gives us the major 7th; lowering it two frets gives us a b7, which is what’s used in dominant 7th chords. Now we can create Emaj7 by using 021100, or E7 with 020100.

The b7 also lies three frets above 5 (and the natural, or major 7th is four frets above 5). That gives us another voicing of E7: 022130, or R5R3b7R. Or we can double the b7, playing 020130 for another E7 voicing. If you’re ambitious, you can even try 021140 for Emaj7 (R5737R) – flatten your first finger across the third and fourth strings, but bend backwards at the knuckle to clear the high E. Can’t clear it? That’s ok too – if you can lift enough to dampen the string, 02114x is yet another Emaj7 voicing (R5737x).

Having a b7 in a chord to create an E7 voicing allows us to revisit 9, 11 and 13. A 9th chord is a dominant 7 with the addition of the 2 (or 9) of the scale – as you’ll recall, that’s two frets above R. So we can turn the 020100 E7 into 020102 E9 (R5b7359). We can also make E9 by using 020132 (R5b73b79) or 024130 (R593b7R).

11th chords are dominant chords with the 4th scale tone added. In theory, an 11th chord also contains the 9th; in practice it doesn’t have to – including too many tones in a chord makes it sound muddy, so most voicings stick to a total of just 4 or 5 different tones, no matter how many notes might be allowed by theory. Since 4 is a fret above 3 or two frets below 5, we can create 000100 (R-11-b7-3-5-R) for E11.

13th chords are dominant chords with the 6th scale tone included. Like 11th chords, they contain 9 and 11 in theory, but usually not in practice. Since the 6 or 13 is two frets above 5 or three below R, we can easily build E13: 020120 (R-5-b7-3-13-R).

Step 5: Learn to apply the same logic to the chords of step 3. Because full barre chords often use too many fingers to make these variations practical, I start by simplifying them. Let’s take the A-shape barre chord for this one: played as a C major, it’s x35553, or xR5R35. If you barre it across all six strings, its still a C chord (3R5R53).

I start by considering what I’ll need to change for a chord. For an add 9 chord, I’ll want to move R up by two frets, or 3 down by one. So I’ll form a four-finger chord voicing that doubles only the note I want to change. So I might start with x3555x (xR5R3x) – and raising R by two frets I get my Cadd9: x5555x.

Experimenting with these rules of thumb can bring you tons of new voicings. Starting with the same chord, I can lower R by one fret for Cmaj7: x3545x (xR573x), two frets for C7: x3535x (xR5b73x), or three frets for C6: x3525x (xR563x).

Step 6: This is the pinnacle of chord formation, and it involves four parts:

a) Learn the notes on the fretboard
b) Learn the letter spellings of every major scale
c) Learn what notes are altered for each chord name
d) Learn which notes are important

If you can get these under your belt, you’ll never again need a chord dictionary, and you’ll create your own voicings anywhere on the guitar.

For learning the fretboard, I recommend learning by rote. Although it’s possible to learn by reference to other notes (especially in octave patterns), I think note names are as important to a musician as multiplication tables are to a mathematician – they’re part of our basic tools. When I set out to learn the fretboard, I did it by making flash cards; I’d shuffle my little deck, flip over a card, and try to find that note name on all six strings as quickly as I could. Then I’d move on to the next card. As I recall, it took me about three weeks to have the fretboard down cold, working about 15 minutes a day.

I’d take the same approach to scales. Major scales are a basic element in music theory, so if you have them absolutely memorized you’ll find lots of uses for what you’ve learned.

For chord names, there’s a key built right into the name:

‘m’ in a chord name (or a minus sign in some charts) means minor – the third is lowered one fret from the major scale

‘+’ or ‘aug’ in a chord name means the fifth is raised one fret from the major scale.

‘sus’ in a chord name means the third is raised one fret to become a fourth (NOTE: many publications are now using names like ‘sus2’; these names imply the third is replaced with the scale degree that follows ‘sus’. This isn’t part of standard music theory – and leads to duplication of chord names, as Csus2 is the same chord as Gsus – but it’s also a fact of life for guitarists today, even if it’s theoretically incorrect!)

‘°’ in a chord name means both the third and fifth are lowered one fret

‘add’ in a chord name means the tone that follows (like add9 or add11) is added to the chord, with no other alterations

‘maj’ in a chord name followed by any number refers to the 7th; the chord will include a major 7th rather than a b7. (In some jazz charts you may see a triangle instead of ‘maj’, as in C 7)

‘7’, ‘9’, ’11’, and ’13’ imply two things: first, that the 7 is flatted – it’s two frets below R; second, the chord may include any odd number below the one in the name (so an 11 may include 9)

‘alt’ in a chord name means you can raise or lower the 5 by one fret, and you can raise or lower the 9 by one fret. So “C7alt” may be C7b5, C7+, C7b9, C7#9, C7b5b9, etc. – it’s your choice

Chord symbols may appear in any order without changing the meaning; C+7 is the same as C7+.

There are some other variations out there – the use of lower case for minor chords, as in d7 for Dm7, but they’re pretty rare.

At the end of this lesson is a handout I made for my students a few years ago showing all the chord names, symbols, and formulas:

The last key, especially for chords with formulas of five or more notes, is knowing which tones are important to include. Your ear should always be your guide, but as a set of general rules:

  • Always include the highest number in the chord name (i.e., an 11th chord needs an 11th)
  • Include any altered tones whenever possible (#5 for a + chord, etc)
  • Include both the 3rd and b7 for dominant chords whenever possible
  • Include any tones that create a characteristic sound (b3 for minor chords, 4 for sus chords)

Notice that this list of rules doesn’t mention the root. There’s a difference between what we do in theory and what we do in practice, and the root of a chord usually isn’t very important to the sound – or at least not as important as other chord tones, and if a chord has too many notes to play them all, something has to go. For a little more information on how to handle the ‘big’ altered and extended chords, see my previous GN lessons on those topics.

Chord Spellings

TypeSpellingWritten As
‘Power’1-5C5, C(no 3rd)
Diminished1-b3-b5Cº, Cdim, Cmb5, C-b5
Minor1-b3-5Cm, Cmi, Cmin, C-
Major b51-3-b5C(b5)
Augmented1-3-#5C+, Caug
Suspended1-4-5Csus, Csus4; ‘sus2’ etc. sometimes used (incorrectly)
Diminshed 71-b3-b5-bb7Cº, Cº7, Cdim7
Half-diminshed1-b3-b5-b7C ø, Cm7b5, Cmi7b5, Cmin7b5, C-7b5
Minor 6th1-b3-5-6Cm6, Cmi6, Cmin6, C-6
Minor 7th1-b3-5-b7Cm7, Cmi7, Cmin7, C-7
Minor add91-b3-5-9Cm(add 9), Cmi(add9), Cmin(add9), C-(add 9); ‘add 2’ sometimes used
Dominant 7th1-3-5-b7C7
Major add91-3-5-9C (add9), C2
Minor add41-3-5-11C (add4), C (add11), C4 – can be confused with power chords
Major 7th1-3-5-7Cmaj7, CM7, C∆
Augmented 71-3-#5-b7C7+, C+7
Augmented major 71-3-#5-7Cmaj7+, C+maj7, C+∆
Minor 6/91-b3-5-6-9Cm6/9, Cmi6/9, Cmin6/9, C-6/9, Cm69, Cm6 (add9)
Minor 9th1-b3-5-b7-9Cm9, Cmi9, Cmin9, C-9
Ninth b51-3-b5-b7-9C9b5
Sixth/seventh1-3-5-6-b7C6/7, C7/6, C7 (add13), C7/13, C67
6/91-3-5-6-9C6/9, C69, C6 (add9), C9/6
Seven flat 91-3-5-b7-b9C7b9
Seventh sharp 91-3-5-b7-#9C7#9
Major 9th1-3-5-7-9Cmaj9
Seventh b9 aug1-3-#5-b7-b9C7b9+, C+7b9
Augmented 9th1-3-#5-b7-9C9+, C+9
7 sharp 9 aug1-3-#5-b7-#9C7#9+, C+7#9
Suspended ninth1-4-5-b7-9C9sus, C9sus4
Minor 11th1-b3-5-b7-9-11Cm11, Cmi11, Cmin11, C-11
Seventh b9#91-3-5-b7-b9-#9C7b9#9
Seventh b9#111-3-5-b7-b9-#11C7b9#11
Ninth #111-3-5-b7-9-11C9#11
Major 9th #111-3-5-7-9-#11Cmaj9#11
7b9#9 augmented1-3-#5-b7-b9-#9C7b9#9+, C+7b9#9
7b9#11 augmented1-3-#5-b7-b9-#11C7b9#11+, C+7b9#11
13th suspended1-4-5-b7-9-13C13sus, C13sus4
Minor 13th1-b3-5-b7-9-11-13Cm13, Cmi13, Cmin13, C-13
13th #11b91-3-5-b7-b9-#11-13C13#11b9
13th #111-3-5-b7-9-#11-13C13#11
Major 13th1-3-5-7-9-11-13Cmaj13
Major 13th #111-3-5-7-9-#11-13Cmaj13#11

©2007 Tom Serb

Tom (“Noteboat”) Serb is a longtime Guitar Noise contributor and founder of the Midwest Music Academyin Plainfield, Illinois. This advice first appeared in Volume 4 # 23 of Guitar Noise News. Sign-up for our newsletter to receive more free tips like this by email.