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Guitar Lesson: How To Understand Major Chords

Feb 27, 2008
Maybe you know how to play a C-major chord. In this lesson we will take a closer look at the notes in the major chords you use and how you can learn to understand how a guitar chord is constructed.

In order to really understand guitar chords it will be a great help for you to...

1. ...know the names of the notes on the guitar fretboard.

2. ...understand how a major scale is constructed and played on the guitar.

3. ...understand which notes in a scale you need to construct a chord.

Let us take a closer look at the previous points.

We will start by learning the notes in the C-major scale in the first position on your guitar. We will begin with the note C on the fifth string. It can be notated in the following manner:


The two numbers tell you which fret to press down and which string to play. 35 means: Press down the third fret on the fifth string. This is the note C and we will now play the scale until we come to the next C note:

35 04 24 34 03 23 02 12

04 means that you should play the open fourth string, that is, playing the string without pressing down a fret. I will now show you the same scale with the note names in brackets before the notes:

(C)35 (D)04 (E)24 (F)34 (G)03 (A)23 (B)02 (C)12

A major chord is constructed by using the first, third and fifth note in the major scale with the same name. This means that a C-major chord consists of the notes C, E and G.

In our C-major scale example above this will result in a chord with the notes:

(C)35 (E)24 (G)03

This is a C-major triad. Acually, a C-major chord can be constructed in many ways. You can combine the notes C, E and G in various ways and it will still be a C-major chord.

Let us go back to the C-major scale and play all the notes you will find in the first position. We will start with the low E-string and go up to the note G on the third fret of the first string:

(E)06 (F)16 (G)36 (A)05 (B)25 (C)35 (D)04 (E)24 (F)34 (G)03 (A)23 (B)02 (C)12 (D)32 (E)01 (F)11 (G)31

In this sequence of the C-major scale we can pick some more notes to add to the triad we made previously. For example we can add the note E or G on the sixth string and the C on the second string and the E or G on the first string.

Here is one example of a C-major chord using the notes in the previous scale:

C: 36 35 24 03 12 01

To make this chord playable you can use your left hand ring finger for the note 36 and your pinkie to play the note 35.

If you knew all the names of the notes on the fretboard you could construct your own C-major chords by just spotting the notes C, E and G and then combining them.

Another way of looking at major chords is to feel how the notes relate to the root of the scale. In the C-major scale we constructed with all the six strings involved you can indicate all C notes with the number 1 as it is the root of the C-major scale.

The same way you can assign the number 3 to all E notes as E is the third note of the C-major scale and the number 5 to all G notes. This way of thinking will help you understand the function of the notes in a chord.

If we use this method on the C-major chord I showed you previously you will have the following sequence of numbers from the sixth to the first string:

C: 5 1 3 5 1 3

This way of thinking about guitar chords will help you understand the numbers attached to chords like C6 and C7 and gradually you will be more aware of how the scale notes in a chord sound and how to spice chords with additional notes. You will also be more and more skilled in the art of putting chords together by ear.
About the Author
Peter Edvinsson is a guitarist, composer and music teacher. He invites you to download your free guitar tablature at http://www.capotastomusic.com
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