Building Major and Minor Chords

Hey you! Stop fumbling around on the guitar like a chimpanzee with a jigsaw puzzle. Understanding chords is one of the most essential musical skills you can acquire, and it's easier than you think. Look: If you can count to 10 OK, 13 and know the alphabet as far as G, you can understand what notes are in any chord youre playing. Any chord.

And because of that, you can understand right away which notes to play for a melody or solo over the top of that chord, and a whole lot of other useful things that will finally make you sound better than that geek down the street who got a guitar a year after you and already plays circles around your sorry behind.

Here's the Word on Building Chords:

First, let's start with something simple. Play this C chord:
Learning the Notes on the Guitar

If you don't know the names of the notes on the guitar, or at least enough of them to be able to figure out the rest, then you need to take out a piece of paper, draw a neck of a guitar, and label every fret. Start with the low E string and put an F on the 1st fret, F# on the second fret, and so on, all the way up the neck, for every string. Do this a few times until you just know it. This is really helpful. You do want to learn this instrument, right? If not, give your guitar to the smartest person you can find - yes, for free - and take up a more suitable hobby for someone of your intelligence level, like making wind chimes out of beer cans. Oh that was mean. Sorry. I feel bad, so just to help you out this first time through, here is a diagram of the guitar neck with all the notes labeled:

What notes are in the chord?
Starting with the low E string, youve got E-C-E-G-C-E. Whats that spell? No fool, its not Even-Cannibals-Eat-Grilled-Carrots-Eventually. Spell it in alphabetical order, and throw out the duplicate letters. It spells C major: C-E-G. All the other notes are duplicates.

Here's an easy way to spell out what turns out to be the basis for almost any chord: Start on any letter in the musical alphabet (A, B, C, D, E, F, G) and don't worry about sharps and flats for this exercise just choose a letter, any letter.

OK, let's say you chose C. Now skip the next letter in the musical alphabet (D) and pick the following letter, E. Now skip the next letter (F) and pick the next letter, G. There's the basis for your chord: C, E, and G.

There's an easy formula here. Choose any letter, then skip the next letter and take the one after that. Then do it again: Skip the next letter and take the one after that. You'll have to learn to deal with sharps and flats to cover all the chords you might want to build, but the alternating letters concept is the basic formula that makes up major chords, minor chords, 7th chords, 9th chords, 13th chords, diminished chords, and on and on. I'll explain 7ths and 9ths and more in my next column, but for now, lets take a closer look at both major and minor chords and how they're built. (It also turns out that major and minor chords are largely the basis for almost all other chords youll ever learn, including 7ths and 9ths and more.)

When you chose that C note you were, temporarily at least, making C your "root note" (for this example anyway). In music, and when figuring out chords, give your root note the musical designation "one." Now you can give a number to the rest of the notes accordingly. D would be two; E, three; F, four; G, five; A, six; B, seven; and C would be one again. This kind of thinking crosses over to a very easy and basic knowledge of musical scales (if you don't know about scales, see my column on scales).

Now if you look at the C major scale we just gave numeric designations to above, you'll recognize that C is the root note of the C scale, E is the (major) third of the C scale, and G is the fifth of the C scale.

The important thing to learn here is that a major chord is made up of three notes: a root note (any note can serve as the root note, if thats what chord you want to play), and the note that is a major third (four frets) above that root note, and the note that is a fifth (seven frets) above that note.

So if a major chord is made up of your chosen root note, its major third, and its fifth, then any major chord shape you play a barre chord, an open string style chord, any kind will contain the same three notes as that same major chord played elsewhere on the guitar, even though the duplicate notes and the order of the notes might be different.

For example, check out the C major barre chord at the 8th fret.
The notes in this chord, from the low E string, are C-G-C-E-G-C. Throw out the duplicates and youve still got C-E-G. The root note C, the major third (E), and the fifth (G).

And even if the notes in the chord dont appear in alphabetical order, they still can be arranged to spell the chord. Look at the C barre chord at the 3rd fret.

That chord dont forget, you probably dont want to play the low E string when you play this barre chord (even though that note is in the chord, it just sounds too strange here) is spelled, from the fifth string up: C-G-C-E-G. Throw out the dupes and you've still got C-E-G.
To sum all this up, you've really only got to understand this: To spell out a chord, pick your root note, then pick the third letter above that for your third, and pick the fifth letter above the root for your fifth. Adjust notes accordingly to deal with sharps and flats, but remember that a major third is four frets above your root, and the fifth is three frets above the major third.

Here's a chart that spells out major chords for all 12 chromatic possibilities:

A B flat* B C C# D E flat ** E F F# G G# or A-flat A A-C#-E B flat-D-F B-D#-F# C-E-G C#-E#-G# D-F#-A E flat-G-B flat E-G#-B F-A-C F#-A#-C# G-B-D G#-B#-D# or
A flat-C-E flat A-C#-E
* the more common name for A#
** the more common name for D#

Minor Chords

If E is the major third of C, and helps make up a C major chord, you should know that E flat is the minor third of C and is part of a C minor chord. There isn't a minor third in a major scale, but there is in a minor scale. Consequently, there isnt a major third in a minor scale, only a minor third. To learn more about scales, go here.

A C minor chord differs from a C major chord only in that it is spelled C-E flat-G instead of C-E-G. Look at any C minor chord shape you know and youll see that only one note one fret actually changes the C major chord to a C minor chord. A minor third is only three frets above your root note, while the major third of any chord is four frets above the root note.

Because the third of a chord has the power to change the chord from major to minor, the third of the chord is very important in creating the color or mood of that chord. You should take a look at all the chords you know, figure out which note is the third of that chord, and experiment with changing it from major to minor, and vice-versa.

There is a very important distinction between major and minor chords, and you should know the sound difference and the fingering difference on the neck of the guitar for all the chords you use.

It's also very likely that you use a lot of what are known as "Power Chords" especially if you play hard rock, heavy metal, or anything that resembles the modern rock stylings of bands like Korn, Limp Bizkit, Godsmack, etc. Power chords actually contain only a root note and a fifth, sometimes more than one of either of those two notes. They dont contain a third at all, either major or minor. That ambiguity actually presents opportunities to use either major or minor scales to solo over those chords, but thats something best left to another column. Again, see the column on scales mentioned throughout this article to learn more about scales, which is essential knowledge for soloing.

Heres a chart that spells out minor chords for all 12 chromatic possibilities:

A B flat* B C C# D E flat ** E F F# G G# or A-flat A A-C-E B flat-D flat-F B-D-F# C-E flat-G C#-E-G# D-F-A E flat-G flat-B flat E-G-B F-A flat-C F#-A-C# G-B flat-D G#-B-D# or
A flat-C flat-E flat A-C-E
* the more common name for A#
** the more common name for D#

Ill explain 7th and 9th chords and more in my next column. In the meantime, learn this stuff. Its easy.

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