How To Play Simple Chords On Keyboard And Guitar

Using the Musical Keyboard (Introduction to Basic Music Theory)

The main focus of this lesson is to instruct on how to play the simplest of chords on a keyboard while showing how to obtain them with some small amount of understanding. Hopefully, this will help the guitarist understand how chords are played on the guitar easier than using the guitar alone. It will also provide the guitarist with a quick introduction to the keyboard. By using the information provided below, the guitarist can more easily figure out what notes are being played with particular chords.

Having some small amount of musical training while I was young, I can say where things usually begin when a new student is being taught piano. It starts at middle C.

Middle C – The Starting Point

So, where is middle C? The placement of middle C on a musical staff can be researched on the person’s own time. I am sure it is found in a number of other places on the Internet. This lesson will show how to finger all the major chords, minor chords, and dominant 7th chords, hopefully without overwhelming you with music theory. So, let us have a look at a diagram of the some keyboards.

Figure 1 - Typical 61 Key Keyboard

Figure 2 - Typical 61 Key Keyboard with Octaves Shown

Note that middle C is off centre and not the middle note in the keyboard. This is because this and many other keyboards as well as full-size pianos are not symmetrical about middle C. The reasoning behind that is for some other topic of research that goes into the development of music as a whole. What is important is that you can learn how to locate middle C with a little practice.

Other common sizes for keyboards are 73 keys, 76 keys, and 88 keys. These can be seen below in Figure 3, Figure 4 and Figure 5, respectively.

Figure 3 - Typical 73 Key Keyboard

Figure 4 - Typical 76 Key Keyboard

Figure 5 - Typical 88 Key Keyboard

While middle C is not usually (see Figure 3) in the middle of the keyboard, it is almost there. It makes a practical place to start in terms of range of musical sounds. It also makes a very good place to start when studying music theory.

The C Major Scale

The notes of the C major scale are:

Notes of the C major scale

Each note in the C major scale can be numbered using regular numerals and Roman numerals:

Numbered C major scale

Note that I listed the next C in the scale while showing an octave instead of stopping at B as shown in Figure 2. This has to do with showing the formula for a major scale. This will make learning how to apply the formula to other notes easier later.

Notice that when the C major scale is numbered using Roman numerals, some are numbered with capital letters and some are numbered with lower case letters. (Jumping a little bit ahead, all chords in the C major family are built using only notes from the C major scale.)

When playing chords in the C major family, very little thinking has to be done because only the white keys are played. When each finger of the right hand assigned to one key, everything falls into place. If you place the thumb of the right hand on middle C, the rest of the fingers will each fall on one key naturally. Refer to Figure 6 below as an example.

Figure 6 - Finger Placement

So, start by playing the C major chord, commonly referred to as C. Place the thumb of the right hand on middle C (or any C), skip using the index finger, place the middle finger on E, skip the ring finger, and place the little finger on G. That is the simplest C chord you can make. To play the D minor (commonly shown as Dm) chord, just move the hand to the right one white key so the thumb plays D, the middle finger plays F, and the little finger plays A. To play the E minor chord (commonly shown as Em), move the hand to the right one white key. This is the same for all successive chords for the C major scale.

Now go back to the C major scale where it is numbered with Roman numerals. Those notes numbered with capital Roman numerals have chords that are major chords. Those numbered with lower case Roman numerals have chords that are minor chords. The exception to this last statement is the vii° chord. The vii° chord is a diminished chord. (It is a chord with a minor 3rd and a 5th that is lowered by a half a step. This information can be left for later exploration of knowledge of music theory.)


Numbered C major scale

Chord Names

Chord names 1

Chord names 2

Chord names 3

Chord names 4

When it comes to playing chords an octave higher, it is easy using a piano or other keyboard instrument. When playing guitar it is different because you can form different version of the same chord in different places on the fingerboard. If playing an electric guitar it is easier to play chords one octave higher because the fingers can be placed that high on the fretboard (fingerboard) more easily due to the way the guitar is built.

For the C major scale, the chords are shown for the respective note below:

C major scale with chords

Difference between Major Chords and Minor Chords

A full chord must be constructed of at least three notes. Any chord in the family of the C major scale (and any major scale for that matter) begins with the note which is the name of the chord, the third note up from that note and the fifth note up from the note of the name of the chord. For a C chord, that means the chord is made up of the notes C (I), E (iii), and G (V) of the C major scale.

Figure 7 - C major chord

What makes a minor chord minor? The answer is that the 2nd note in the chord (the major 3rd) is made a minor 3rd. This means that the 2nd note is reduced by a half-step. Example: D notes: D, F#, A – note that F# is not a note in the C major scale. Now it can be seen that the D chord is not a chord in the C major chord family. Dm note: D, F, A – note that the major 3rd (F#) is reduced to F.

Figure 8 - D and Dm

I once saw a musical play about a couple of piano students that made humorous the stories their careers starting from their early days. The piano teacher asked the question of the students “What makes a minor chord sound minor?” The answer was that a minor chord sounds sad whereas a major chord sounds happy. When you play a minor chord in comparison this generally sounds true.

Just using the knowledge associated with the C major scale we know where the major chords are for the notes: C, F and G. We the know the minor chords are for the notes D, E, A, and the diminished chord is associated with the note B. Remember, the method for playing all of the chords in the C major scale is provided in the paragraph below Figure 6. All chords in the C major chord family can be played by using the thumb, the middle finger and the little finger. Actually, for later use and knowledge, the same holds true for playing the chords to the left of the right hand but starting with the little finger and moving to the right. The fingers used on the left hand are the little finger, the middle finger and the thumb.

Extending the Knowledge of Minor Chords to Find the Rest of the Major Chords on the Keyboard

Figure 9 - White Keys and Black Keys, Sharps and Flats

Figure 7 shows an octave of keys from the notes C to C. The top of the figure shows how an octave normally looks while the bottom of the figure shows the octave as if the black keys in the octave were extended to the full length of the white keys. The extension of the black keys is done to show that there is movement of one half-step between all keys, black or white even though some white keys have no black keys between them. Note that there is no sharp (#) or flat (b) between the notes E and F and B and C.

Aside: However, the movement from the notes E to F and B to C or the movement of F to E and C to B is still only one half-step. This is important to understand because using this knowledge along with of what notes are in the C major scale allows us to figure out for ourselves the formula for the major scale if we so wish. More importantly, with this knowledge, if we forget the formula for the major scale, we can refer to the C major scale to figure out the formula.

Because we know what makes a minor chord minor, we can extend that knowledge to figure out what the major chords are for the notes D, E and A by using the chords Dm, Em and Am. Place the right-hand fingers on a keyboard for one of the minor chords mentioned. Just move the middle finger (the one on the 2nd note of the chord) up a half-step. To moved up a half-step is to move up by one key – black or white. Refer to Figure 7 above for reference.

Using Dm to find D: Using the notes D, F and A => move the middle finger up by one half-step gives the notes D, F# and A. Refer to Figure 8 as an example. Imagine moving the fingers from the notes indicated on the bottom chord of Figure 8, Dm to the top chord of Figure 8, D.

Using Em to find E: Using the notes E, G and B => move the middle finger up by one half-step gives the notes E, G# and B.

Using Am to find A: Using the notes A, C and E => move the middle finger up by one half-step gives the notes A, C# and E.

Using Bdim to find B: Using the notes B, D and F => move the middle finger up by one half-step and the little finger up by one half-step gives the notes B, D# and F#.

We can also use the above knowledge to figure out what the minor chords are what the minor chords are for C, F and G. To do this, simply finger the chord and move the middle finger down one half-step. Cm has the notes C, Eb and G. Fm has the notes F, Ab and C. Gm has the notes G, Bb and D.

Figure 10 - C and Cm

Now it is possible to figure out all of the major and minor chords for all the notes on the keyboard. It is good to note that this method is easiest to use for the white keys. The only chord that has not be explicitly discussed is Bdim. Bdim has a minor 3rd and a minor 5th. You should be able to figure out or research what the notes are for the chords B and a Bm. You could also use the major scale formula to obtain the B major scale and work from there.

NOTE: It is important to reference the keyboard (a real one or the diagrams) when studying this material to have a visual aid.

The Major Scale Formula

The major scale (as well as every other scale) has a set formula. However, if you know the C major scale and the key spacing, you can figure out the formula every time. Again, it is important to know that there are no black keys between the keys B and C, and E and F.

Half-Steps and Whole-Steps:

A half-step is a movement (up or down) form one key to the one immediately next to it. (Refer to Figure 7). Examples: C to C#, G# to A, E to F, B to C, A# to A, C to B or G to

A whole-step is a movement of 2 half-steps. Examples: C to D, E to F#, A# to C or F to D#.

C Major Scale Formula:

C major scale formula

  • W = Whole-step
  • H = Half-step

By using the major scale formula you can figure out all the major scales. This information can be used in many ways. Such as figuring out all of the major chords on the keyboard. However, because a major chord is made up of the 1st note of the chord, the major 3rd from the 1st note of the chord, and the major 5th from the 1st note of the chord the major scale formula will provide you with the major chords in the root note chord family for the root (I) note, the fourth (IV) and the fifth (V) notes of the major scales. Again, remember that you have already been provided with the method of figuring out all the major and minor chords for all the keys on the keyboard. Stick with the white keys for now.

Notes Aside

By figuring out all of the major scales and putting them in ascending order you end up with half of the Cycle of Fifths. This is information used for chord progressions in many songs. The numbering of the notes in the chord family (originally presented in the scale) is also often used in chord progressions of songs.

When figuring out a major scale, it is a good indication that it is correct if the 7th note is a half-step below the 8th note.

If the chords in the music you are playing are contained within the major scale, you can use that scale to solo.

Dominant Seventh Chords

Dominant 7th chords are often associated with a bluesy sound. To figure out how to play a dominant 7th chord, reduce the (major) 7th by a half-step and fit it into the chord fingering. Dominant 7th chords are written as follows: A7, B7, C7, etc.

The 7th of the C major scale is B. The dominant 7th is A#/Bb. A# and Bb are the same note. They are called equivalent harmonics. The notes of the C7 chord are C, E, G, and A# or C, E, G, and Bb.

Applying This Knowledge to the Guitar

One of the main advantages to learning about music theory using a keyboard is that the keyboard is a much more linear instrument than the guitar. One key follows directly after another. On the guitar, when you get to the last fret on one string, the next note on the next string is not the next note as it is on the keyboard. The same note of the same pitch appears at more than one place on the guitar.

To take this theory and apply it to guitar remember that standard tuning on a 6 string guitar is (low to high): E A D G B e. You can remember this by using the letters of standard tuning as an acronym for

Eddie Ate Dynamite, Good Bye

Another piece of information that is important to know about the guitar is that a movement of 1 fret (up or down) is a movement of a half-step. A movement of 2 frets is a whole-step. Now you can pick out scales and chords on the guitar as well as the keyboard.

The rest is for you to explore.