This article is about the basic theory of chords and how to read chord charts.
So let’s talk about chords. A chord is a combination of notes forming a magical harmony, which lies at the basis of Western popular music. Ever asked yourself why we call an E-major an E-major, or why the note B is so important? Maybe it sounds a lot like difficult mumbo jumbo at the moment, but believe me, at the end of this article you’ll be going: well, is that all there is to it?!
Basic chord build up
Before we get started, go and grab your guitar. It’s going to make things a lot easier to explain and you’ll learn faster, if you put theory straight into practice. But if you’re reading this during working hours with no axe in sight, no worries. Just try to picture the guitar neck in your hand and you’ll be fine. All set? Let’s get this party started.
All good things come in threes, or so they say. This definitely applies to the theory of chords. The most frequently encountered chords are triads, so called because they consist of three distinct notes: the root note, and intervals of a third and a fifth above the root note.
Changing major into minor
Let’s start with that E-chord we mentioned earlier. Does our E have an uplifting vibe or does it sound a bit down; major or minor? That’s all up to the moody third. To help yourself understand this better, grab your guitar and position your fingers on the open E-major chord as shown on the chord chart below. Give it a ring. Oh yeah, that’s an E-major alright.
If correctly positioned, the lower E-string is open, this is your root note. Your middle finger is on the second fret of the A-string, right next to the ring finger on D. Your index is holding down the G-string on the first fret. Now that’s the moody third.
The moody third
Why do we call it moody? Release the G-string with your index finger. Now that’s a G-note. Give the whole chord a firm strike. Sounds a bit down, doesn’t it? You just changed your E-major to an E-minor by switching between thirds. Feeling a bit confused? Don’t worry. For now it’s important to remember that the difference between a major chord and a minor chord is just one fret away. Or better put: one blue note.
So, why do we call a third a third? Good question. Here’s an extremely simplified answer. Forget the guitar for a minute and picture a piano keyboard instead. The octave, or the distance from one E to the other, is exactly eight whole notes; eight white keys. If the root note E is our first key, then the second is an F followed by the third, a G.
If you want to sharpen that G hit the adjacent black key. Unlike the white ones, a black key is half-tone. There are no black keys on the guitar neck, that’s why you switched from major third to minor third by going up or down a fret. Similar to what you would do on a piano keyboard. Makes sense, right?
To add a little bit more body to our E-chord we use the octave. As explained above, this is the same note played eight tones higher or lower. In this case your ring finger is holding down a higher E. If your guitar is tuned in E, striking the chord will sound very powerful. You’re hearing three different octaves: the open lower and open upper E-string, plus the E-note under your ring finger.
The fifth is your muscle
So let’s talk about that middle finger holding down the B-note on the second fret of the A-string. This is what we call the fifth. The root note combined with the fifth creates a solid sound. Adding a fifth is like adding some muscle to the chord. The combination of these two notes is also known as the power chord.
In short: a basic chord consists of a root note, an octave, a third and a fifth. That’s all there is to it. And here comes the fun part: you can apply these rules for any chord. Let’s put this knowledge into practice. Move your E-major one note up, which is one fret down the guitar neck. Your fingers are still in the same position, placed on different frets. Check out the chord chart below.
Going down the guitar neck
Yes, this is an F-major. Because you moved up a note all the strings open in E-major are now covered by your index finger. Remember, that’s one key on the piano keyboard and one fret on your guitar neck. If you move this position one fret down the guitar neck and strike the strings, the chord you’re hearing is a sharp F-major. Another fret down you’ll hear a G-major. And so on.
Every time you release your middle finger (a.k.a. the moody third) you change the chord into a minor. It’s as easy as that. The only thing you have to do is practice your grip. Yeah, I know, it hurts like hell. For now. But if you go down that guitar neck in this position once a day, by the end of the week your fingers will get used to it.