Guitar Music Theory

In this online music theory tutorial you'll learn the theory behind guitar chords. Spending a little time on guitar music theory and harmony will save you a lot of time learning how to play guitar chords and will deepen your understanding of the guitar. Music theory provides you the means to communicate better with your fellow musicians. You'll learn songs faster because you actually now what you are playing. So do yourself a favor and go through this free music theory tutorial. The topics covered:
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the difference between major, minor, dominant, diminished, ... how to name chords how to find the notes of a chord how to construct your own guitar chords

It's best to go through this tutorial in chronological order, but in case you're looking for something specific here's a brief description of the pages to come:
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page page page page page page

1: 2: 3: 4: 5: 6:

constructing triads constructing seventh chords tensions guitar chord list & shortcut applying music theory on guitar solutions to the exercises

The starting point in many music theory tutorials is the C major scale: C Major Scale C 1 D 2 E 3 F 4 G 5 A 6 B 7

The C major scale (also called the Ionian scale) is the foundation on which the most of Western music is built. The letters in the scale are the note names: C is do, D is re, E is mi, F is fa, G is sol, A is la and B is si. The numbers are what we call the function of the note in the scale or chord. The 1 is also known as the 'root'.

There are 5 more notes: the sharps and flats. A sharp (written like #) is a note raised by a half note. A flat (written like b) is a note lowered by a half step. So between C and D comes the C# or Db. C# and Db are the same note named differently. Between D and E lies the D# or Eb. Between E and F is nothing because E and F are only a half note apart. Between F and G comes the F# or Gb. Between G and A the G# or Ab. And between A and B comes the A# or Bb. B and C are also only one half note apart. The first type of chord we'll have a look at is the triad. A triad is a chord that has 3 different notes. Triads are built by stacking thirds. A third (also written like 3) is a particular interval between two notes. There are 2 kinds of thirds: minor third major third interval of 3 half notes interval of 4 half notes notation: b3 notation: 3

We'll construct our first chord by stacking 2 thirds on the first note (C or 1) of the C major scale. First we count 4 half notes beginning from the first note: from C to C# to D to D# to E. Then we count 3 half notes from the E: from E to F to F# to G. C 1 E 3 G 5

This results in a C major triad or C. C to E makes a major third and E to G a minor third : this structure is typical for every major chord and can be written in a chord formula. Chord formula for major chords: 1 3 5 Let's do the same for the 2 of the C major scale : D 1 F b3 A 5

This results in a D minor triad or Dm. D to F makes a minor third and F to A a major third: this structure is typical for every minor chord. chord formula for minor chords : 1 b3 5 I'm not going to repeat this for every note in the scale, I think you got the picture by now. Let's do one more together, let's built a chord on the 7th note of the scale:

B 1

D b3

F b5

This results in a B diminished triad (Bdim). B to D makes a minor third and D to F also a minor third: this structure is typical for diminished triads. Chord formula for diminished chords: 1 b3 b5 Here's a list with all triads made on the C major scale: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Notes C E D F E G F A G B A C B D G A B C D E F Formula 1 3 5 1 b3 5 1 b3 5 1 3 5 1 3 5 1 b3 5 1 b3 b5 Name C major D minor E minor F major G major A minor B diminished Symbol C Dm or D- or Dmin Em or E- or Emin F G Am or A- or Amin Bdim or B°

Constructing seventh chords This online music theory tutorial will teach you 2 systems to construct guitar chords 1. The first system starts from the major scale.

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Construct the major scale with the same root as the chord you want to construct (how to construct major scales). For example: when you want to create an Am chord, construct the A major scale : A B C# D E F# G# Find the notes of the major chord : 1 3 5 In our example in the key of A this would be : A C# E Apply the chord formula on the major chord. The minor chord formula is 1 b3 5, so the 3rd of the major chord has to be lowered with a half note : A C E

2. The second system involves some memorization and will be explained later in the tutorial. Now we know how to make chords with 3 different notes, but what about chords with 4 or more notes? Chords with 4 different notes are called seventh chords and are used a lot in jazz and some kinds of pop music. Let's have a look at how to construct seventh chords:

We'll begin with the C major scale again: C Major Scale C 1 D 2 E 3 F 4 G 5 A 6 B 7

Seventh chords are made the same way as triads : by stacking 3rds on top of the root. Triads were constructed by stacking 2 thirds, seventh chords are constructed with 3 thirds. Let's try to construct a chord on the 1 of the C major scale : C 1 E G B 3 5 7

This results in a C major 7 chord (Cmaj7). C to E makes a major third, E to G a minor third and G to B a major third : this structure is typical for major 7 chords. Chord formula for major 7 chords: 1 3 5 7 The 2nd note of the C major scale : D 1 F A b3 5 C b7

This results in a D minor chord (Dmin7). D to F makes a minor third, F to A a major third and A to C a minor third : this structure is typical for minor 7 chords. Chord formula for minor 7 chords: 1 b3 5 b7 Let's jump to the 5th note of the C major scale : G 1 B D F 3 5 b7

This results in a G dominant 7 chord (G7). G to B makes a major third, B to D a minor third and D to F a minor third: this structure is typical for dominant 7 chords. chord formula for dominant 7 chords: 1 3 5 b7 Let's do it on the 7th note of the scale: B 1 D b3 F b5 A b7

This results in a B half diminished chord (Bm7b5). B to D makes a minor third, D to F a minor third and F to A a major third: this structure is typical for half diminished chords. Chord formula for half diminished 7 chords: 1 b3 b5 b7

Here's the list with all the seventh chords of the C major scale: :
Notes 1 C E 2 D F 3 E 4 F 5 G 6 A 7 B G A B C D G A B C D E F B C D E F G A Formula 1 3 5 1 b3 5 1 1 1 1 1 b3 3 3 b3 b3 5 5 5 5 b5 7 b7 b7 7 b7 b7 b7 Chord Name C major 7 D minor 7 E minor 7 F major 7 G dominant A minor 7 B half diminished Symbol Cmaj7 Dm7 or D-7 or Dmin7 Em7 or E-7 or Emin7 Fmaj7 G7 Am7 or A-7 or Amin7 Bm7b5 or Bmin7b5

Tensions Until now we constructed chords by stacking thirds on top of each other. The resulting triads or seventh chords form the basis. Other notes can be added to these basic chords, notes that we call tensions. The C major scale (again): C Major Scale C 1 D 2 E 3 F 4 G 5 A 6 B 7

Construct a chord on C --> Cmaj7: C 1 E 3 G 5 B 7

We use 4 notes in this chord, what means that there are 3 notes left from the C major scale: 2, 4, 6.If one or more of these notes become part of the chord, we call them tensions or chord tensions. Usually tensions are played one octave higher compared to the chord tones. This benefits the clarity of the chord. Let's add an octave to the tensions:
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2 becomes 9 (2+7(one octave)=9) 4 becomes 11 6 becomes 13

Let's apply this to Cmaj7: Add 2 to Cmaj7 and we get Cmaj9

C 1

E 3

G 5

B 7

D 9

Maybe major chords are not a very good example to explain tensions because the two other tensions that are left, 4 and 6, behave in a special way in combination with major chords. The first thing we have to look at are avoid notes : tensions that are a half note above a chord note. These notes sound very disharmonic in the chord so they are almost never used, only in case the disharmonic sound is wanted as an effect. The 4 of the C major scale is a half note above the 3 (chord tone) of that chord (f is a half note above e) --> the 4 is an avoid note for major chords. A possible way to deal with this is raising the 4 half a note : f turns into f# and is no longer an avoid note. The basic scale is no longer C major (C Ionian) though, but C Lydian (a kind of guitar scale or mode). We call this chord a Cmaj7(#11). The 6 also behaves differently in combination with major chords. When we add the 6 to a major chord we don't play the 7 and there is no octave added to the 6. This is because the 6 and 7 sound too close to each other. Add 6 to C major and we get a C6 : C 1 E 3 G 5 A 6

The same happens to the 6 in combination with minor chords : the 7 is not played. Add the 6 to Dm7 and we get Dm6 (watch out : the 6 is no longer the note a because the root of the chord changed to D. The six of D is B (D E F# G A B C#) : D 1 F b3 A 5 B 6

The 4 is not an avoid note for minor chords because it is two half notes away from the b3 and not one half like it is with major chords. So we can safely add the 4 to Dm7 and we get Dm11: D F A C G

1

b3

5

b7

11

The 4 added to a dominant chord is also a special case. When a 4 is combined with a dominant chord, the 3 of the chord is not played. We call chords like this sus4 chords. As a guitar chord sus4 chords are often combined with a 9: G 1 C 4 D 5 F b7 A 9

Here's an overview of chord types and possible tensions: Chord Type Major Added Note 2 4 #4 6 2 4 6 2 b2 #2 4 6 b6 Symbol Cmaj9 / Cmaj7#11 C6 Cm9 Cm11 Cm6 C9 C7(b9) C7#9 C7sus4 C13 C7(b13)

avoid note #11 from lydian scale no 7

Minor

Dominant

no 7 b2 and #2 from altered scale

b6 comes from altered scale

Guitar chord list & shortcut Here's a list of all common chords and their formula's: Chord Type Major Triad Minor Triad Diminished Triad Augmented Triad Major 7 Minor 7 Dominant 7 Half Diminished 7 Diminished 7 Augmented 7 Suspended 4 minor/major 7 Chord Formula 1 3 5 1 b3 5 1 b3 b5 1 3 #5 1 3 5 7 1 b3 5 b7 1 3 5 b7 1 b3 b5 b7 1 b3 b5 bb7 1 3 #5 b7 1 4 5 b7 1 b3 5 7

On guitar music theory page 2 we learned the first system to construct chords. Here's the second system: 1. Memorize the chord names, chord notes and chord formula's of all the chords (7) in the C major scale: Cmaj7 Dm7 Em7 Fmaj7 G7 Am7 Bm7b5 2. C D E F G A B E F G A B C D G A B C D E F B C D E F G A

3. Once you know the chords of C major it's easy to find other chords. Example: how to find the chord tones of Emaj7: 1. 2. 3. 4. You already know the chord tones of Em7 : E G B D You know the chord formula of minor chords: 1 b3 5 b7 You know the chord formula of major chords : 1 3 5 7 Adapt the chord tones of Em7 to the chord formula of major chords: bring the 3 and the 7 a half note up 5. The chord tones of Emaj7 are : E G# B D#

Example 2: Adim7: 6. 7. 8. 9. You already know the chord tones of Am7 : A C E G You know the formula of minor chords: 1 b3 5 b7 You know the formula of diminished chords : 1 b3 b5 bb7 Adapt the chord tones of Am7 to the chord formula of diminished chords : bring the 5 and the 7 a half note down 10.The chord tones of Adim7 are : A C Eb Gb Example 3: C#7: 11.You already know the chord tones of Cmaj7 : C E G B 12.Now we have to add a step: we have to find the chord tones of C#maj7. To find these we just have to raise each chord tone with a half note: C# E# G# B# 13.You already know the formula of major chords : 1 3 5 7 14.You know the formula of dominant chords : 1 3 5 b7 15.Adapt the chord tones of C#maj7 to the chord formula of dominant chords : bring the 7 a half note down 16.The chord tones of C#7 are : C# E# G# B Applying music theory on guitar Now you know the most important parts about guitar music theory and harmony, but how do we bring this knowledge in action, how can it help us becoming a better guitar player? Read on... The first thing you need to know: not every chord tone is equally important :
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3 and 7 are the most important notes of a chord because they make a chord major, minor or dominant. The 1 is the least important note, because it's the bass player's job the play the 1 (amongst other notes luckily for him).. The 5 is the second least important note and doesn't sound very good most of the times. Tensions add interest and color, so it's better to use tensions instead of the 1 and 5

The second thing you need to know: 1 half note equals one fret on the guitar neck. Let's have a look at some guitar diagrams:

Take a C chord: C E G (1 3 5) Here's the guitar chord diagram:

X15135 Let me explain the symbols you see under the chord diagram. Read from left to right (from low E string to high E string) and we have:
o o o o o o

X 1 5 1 3 5

: : : : : :

don' play the low E string the 1 is played on the A string the 5 is played on the D string the 1 again, now on the G string the 3 is played on the B string the 5 again, this time on the high E string

It's ok to use a note more then one time, like the 1 and 5 in this example, but this can sound a bit harsh. Let's spice this chord up a bit:

X15735 Instead of playing the 1 again on the G string, we changed it to the 7. Let's add some color :

X1379X We exchanged the 5 on the D string for the 3 and we changed the 3 on the B string to a 9. If you play in a band and you don't want to get in the way of the bass player you better leave the 1 out of your chords.

Another good idea when playing in a band is to voice your guitar chords on the higher (4) strings.

XX3795 We exchanged the 1 on the A string for the 5 on the high E string. This chord is what we call a chord inversion : a chord voicing that has a note other then the 1 as it's lowest note. There are three types of chord inversions : 3 is the lowest note (first inversion), 5 is the lowest note (second inversion) or 7 is the lowest note (third inversion). Our example is a Cmaj9 chord and the 3 is the lowest note, so this is the first inversion of Cmaj9. How can we make this major chord a dominant chord? Easy: bring the 7 half a note down (major 1 3 5 7, dominant 1 3 5 b7). The chord diagram:

XX3b795 How can we make this chord minor? We have to lower the 3 from the dominant chord half a note (dominant 1 3 5 b7, minor 1 b3 5 b7) The guitar chord diagram:

XXb3b795 Another system to construct your own guitar chords is by using the guitar chord finder. Select the root and the type of chord you're looking for and the guitar chord finder displays all the notes of your chord on the guitar neck. Now it's up to you to pick out the notes you want in the position you want.

Here's a chord exercise for you: find me the chord tones of the following chords (the solutions are on the next page) : For example : Gm7 : G Bb D F Now it's your turn : Fm7 : Abdim7 : C#maj7 : E9sus4 : A7 : Edim7 : Gm7b5 : B7b9 : D#m7b5 : Bmaj7 : Here are the solution for the guitar chords: Fm7: F Ab C Eb Abdim7: Ab Cb Ebb Gbb C#maj7 : C# E# G# B# E9sus4 : E A B D F# A7 : A C# E G Edim7 : E G Bb Db Gm7b5 : G Bb Db F B7b9 : B D# F# A C D#m7b5 : D# F# A C# Bmaj7 : B D# F# A#

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