Guitar Music Theory

How to construct chords and play them all along the fretboard

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guitar music theory chord constructionIn this mega lesson on guitar music theory, we're going to discover what's the logic behind the chord shapes that are familiar to us. The majority of online guitar lessons show you some chord shapes to rote memorize, and stop there. In this tutorial, you'll learn how to use intervals to create new chord shapes, all along the fretboard , matching the rules of music theory with the geometry of the fretboard.

Why should I learn guitar music theory?

Usually, we guitarists are used to memorize as many chord fingerings as possible, as static shapes. There are tons of chord patterns : open strings, barrè shapes, higher positions, and so forth. The most common way to learn chords is to get a chord dictionary and try to brute force memorize all those diagrams until the muscle memory allows us to play the chords without overthinking.

This kind of practice is a good foundation, but actually, it's just a starting point, from which you should expand your chords knowledge and really learn how chords are built.

If you consider a chord as a rigid shape to be fretted on the fretboard, you will severely limit your options for expanding your sound and fully express yourself on the guitar.

What if you get able to modify a chord by adding or substituting notes in its shape, with a purpose. Or even get able to create chords on the fly in any part of the fretboard, depending on the musical feeling you want to produce at a given moment. For mastering these skills, first you need to know the chords theory and how to apply it to the guitar; this guide will help you with this.

What you'll learn with this tutorial

  • What chords really are
  • Whare are intervals and how to stack them for creating harmony
  • Why the well-known C major and E minor have those familiar shapes
  • Why different interval combinations create different chord kinds
  • How to play triads starting from any fret
  • How to construct chords on the fly in any fretboard area
  • Bonus 1 : interactive learning game for memorizing intervals geometry
  • Bonus 2 : Free pdf ebook with fretboard diagrams for all interval types

Melody vs Harmony

The three main pillars of music theory are melody , harmony , and rhythm . Melody is created with single notes played one after another, like playing a guitar scale . Conversely, harmony is all about the rules that dictate what happens when one or more instruments play multiple notes at the same time. An incredible palette of different feelings and colors lies behind harmony. In this guide we will focus on harmony, that is directly related to chords.

What is a chord

The classic music theory says that a chord is a sound composed of 3 or more notes played simultaneously . We can be a bit less rigorous and say that a chord, on the guitar, is created when you play some frets on different strings at the same time, thus more notes that play together. This is the opposite of playing a scale, in which you play one fret at a time. Depending on the chord shape you play, you can use 3 or more strings. For example, with a G major chord , first position, you play all the 6 strings, while in the case of a D minor chord you play only 4 strings. We're going to figure out the reason in the following of this tutorial.

A chord is usually identified by its root and its type (or quality, or kind)

Chord root: the "C" in "C major"

The root of the chord is simply the note that gives the name to the chord.

The root of the chord is the most important tone of the chord, as it is the foundation ( home base ) for the other tones that compose the chord.

Often you'll find this note as the lowest string in a chord fingering. When this happens, we say that the chord is in root position .

If the root of the note is not the lowest, we have a chord inversion ; we'll see later what this means.

For now, you only have to know that a chord in root position has the root note at the bottom and that note gives the name to the chord.

Some examples:

  • In the C major chord , the root note is C , and this is also the lowest note of the chord
  • In the A minor chord , the root and lowest note is A
  • In the E7#9add13 chord , the root note is E . The complicated part is the type of chord (a dominant with a sharp ninth with and an added thirteen, don't worry if you don't get it now)

Chord type: the "major" in "C major"

The type, or quality, of a chord, is given by the distance of the other notes from the root and their combination. Depending on these distances, we can have a lot of different types: major , minor , dominant , seventh , diminished , suspended , and many others. These distances in music are called intervals...

Introducing: intervals, the building blocks of chords

The most important concept you should understand if you want to master chords theory is called interval . An interval is simply a distance between two pitches . This thing translates easily on the fretboard, because we can express an interval in terms of distance between 2 frets.

Before moving on, you should be aware of some oddness of the intervals world:

  • The same distance between 2 pitches, can be called with different interval names
  • Two intervals with different names can have the same sound

These apparently strange behaviors are heredity of the development of western music theory across the centuries.

Having different names or sounds for the same thing could create confusion, but don't worry, with the proper indications, it will easy to understand intervals and avoid

Let's start with the major scale :

C D E F G A B C

Here are the notes of the major scale laid out horizontally on the fretboard:

C major scale horizontal fretboard pattern

Here's a bit of terminology that we'll need:3

the "unit of measurement" of intervals is the whole-step . We guitarist have to know that a whole-step is equivalent to 2 frets on the instrument. What about a half-step? Yes, just 1 fret. So, to recap:

  • 2 frets = 1 whole-step (often denoted with W), also called tone
  • 1 fret = 1 half-step (often denoted with H), also called semitone

By looking at the picture above, we can make some reasoning.

  • The distance between each note and the next is 2 frets ( 1 whole-step ), except for the couples E-F and B-C, that are just 1 fret distance ( 1 half-step )
  • From C and D there is 1 whole-step ( 2 frets ), we call this distance a Major Second
  • From C and E there are 2 whole-steps ( 4 frets ), we call this distance a Major Third
  • From C and F  there are 2 whole-steps + 1 half step ( 5 frets ), we call this a Perfect Fourth
  • From C and G there are 2 whole-steps + 1 half-step + 1 whole-step ( 7 frets ), we call this a Perfect Fifth
  • From C and A there are 2 whole-steps + 1 half-step + 2 whole-steps ( 9 frets ), we call this a Major Sixth
  • From C and B there are 2 whole-steps + 1 half-step + 3 whole-steps ( 11 frets ), we call this a Major Seventh
  • From C and the upper C there are 2 whole-steps + 1 half-step + 3 whole-steps + 1 half-step ( 12 frets ), we call this an Octave

So what WWHWWH means? (you should know the answer now)

It's likely you've already stumbled upon the notation above. Now you should know that this strange set of symbols is just a way to describe the major scale.

Indeed, WWHWWWH means 2 whole-steps, 1 half-step, 3 whole steps, 1 half-step

C-W-D-W-E-H-F-W-G-W-A-W-B-H

(have a look at the fretboard picture above and you'll notice that between E-F and B-C are only 1 fret apart, or 1 half-step (also called semitone)

Intervals Types

The table below shows the 7 main types of interval of the major scale:

NoteIntervalSemitones
CRoot0
DMajor Second2
EMajor Third4
FPerfect Fourth5
GPerfect Fifth7
AMajor Sixth9
BMajor Seventh11
COctave12

And now the tricky part: we can raise or lower an interval and get a different type of interval. By "raising" and "lowering" I mean increasing or decreasing the distance between the two notes that compose an interval.

We can change that distance by 1 half-step up or down (1 fret on the fretboard), or even 1 whole-step (2 frets on the fretboard). The table below shows you what happens if you lower (by 1 half-step) or you raise (by 1 half-step) one of the main intervals of the major scale

Flat Interval (1 hs down)IntervalSharp Interval (1 hs up)
Minor Second (1 hs)Major Second (2 hs)Augmented Second (3 hs)
Minor Third (3 hs)Major Third (4 hs)Augmented Third (5 hs)
Diminished Fourth  (4 hs)Perfect Fourth (5 hs)Augmented Fourth (6 hs)
Diminished Fifth (6 hs)Perfect Fifth (7 hs)Augmented Fifth (8 hs)
Minor Sixth (8 hs)Major Sixth (9 hs)Augmented Sixth (10 hs)
Minor Seventh (10 hs)Major Seventh (11 hs)Augmented Seventh (12 hs)
Octave (12 hs)

See the potential confusion? We have some intervals that have different names , but the same distance (thus the same sound).

Also, why sometimes an interval lowered by 1 step is called " minor " (e.g. minor second) and sometimes " diminished " (e.g. diminished fifth)?

Well, welcome to the strange world of the...

Enharmonic Equivalents

"In modern musical notation and tuning, an enharmonic equivalent is a note, interval, or key signature that is equivalent to some other note, interval, or key signature but "spelled", or named differently (source: Wikipedia ")

Ok, but why do intervals have the same name?

Well, the answer is.... context !

The same note or interval may have a different function depending on the musical context in which is used. For example, you can play the 4th fret of the E lowest string and call it G# or Ab depending on the music key you're in.

Don't worry if this concept is not totally clear now, when you'll start creating your chords you'll understand better.

Connecting distances to sound

So far we have considered intervals as geometric concepts . But we are musicians and we deal with sound! It's crucial to familiarize with the sound of these intervals .

Take a moment to play some major seconds, major thirds and perfect fifths on your guitar. On one single string, select a fret , play it, then go up horizontally 2, 4 and 7 frets and play the second note , on the same string. Try to focus on the sound of the interval , and sing what you are playing (singing helps a lot develop the inner ear, as Steve Vai suggests ). Pay attention to the differences in the interval sounds.

One powerful way to memorize and internalize intervals sounds is to associate them to the first notes of a song you already know. Here are some examples taken from very famous tunes, but you should select songs that you really like . Memory is all about emotion! (here's a post on memory and practice strategies )

  • Major third : first two notes of " When the Saints Go Marching In "
  • Perfect fifth : beginning notes of " Twinkle Twinkle Little Star "

There are really infinite options; for example, are you an Iron Maiden fan like me? Well, here are some memory hooks courtesy of The Irons :

  • Major third : first notes of the intro riff of " The Number of The Beast "
  • Perfect fifth : first two notes of the riff in the polka-style of " Mother Russia ", soon after the arpeggiated section (min 0:54)

Try to experiment with different intervals and find melodies that contain them.

Stacking intervals

Ok, I hope you have followed me to this point. Now we're going to learn how to combine intervals for creating new chords.

To construct a chord, we start from the root of that chord and add 2 or more notes.

Basic chords: major and minor

Major chords

By definition, a major chord is constructed with the root , a major third from the root, and a perfect fifth .

Let's try to build a C major.

By looking at the above f retboard image with the major scale shown horizontally , we see that the note distant a major third (2 whole-steps, or 4 frets) from the root C is the note E . Using the same reasoning pattern, we found that a perfect fifth from the root is the note G (7 frets, or 2 whole-steps, 1 half-step and 1 whole-step).

So our C major chord is composed of the notes C , E , G. Save this info for later.

Minor chords

By definition, a minor chord is constructed with the root , a minor third , and a perfect fifth . By looking at the intervals table above, we know that a minor third is a major third lowered by 1 half-step . So E becomes E flat , denoted with Eb

A note on sharps and flats

In music notation, we have 2 symbols that act on a note and raise or lower its pitch.

  • The sharp, #, raises a note by 1 half-step , thus, on fret up on the fretboard.
  • C# means C raised by one fret, so we instead of playing the C on the 8th fret of the lowest E string, we play the 9th fret.
  • Conversely, the flat, b, lowers a note by 1 half-step (1 fret down on the fretboard)
  • Cb means C lowered by one fret, we play the 7th fret of the lowest E string.

Wait, please! I was convinced that on the 7th fret of the lowest E string we had a B!

That's right, we have a B but also a Cb; as explained before in the Enharmonic Equivalents section , the name of a note depends on its musical context.

This case is a perfect example: our context was the C note , that we flattened by one half-step and thus we obtained a Cb (that has the same pitch of B but its name is Cb)

Let's apply what we've learned so far to the fretboard

First of all, be sure to have read our tutorial on guitar fretboard notes , it will show how to navigate the fretboard fluently . When it comes to music theory, it's crucial to understand how the notes are placed on the fingerboard, and the tutorial will help you master all the secrets of the fretboard.

Now we want to figure out how to play the C major chord on the guita r. As we already know, in order to play a C major chord, we have to play at least 3 notes at the same time: C, E and G .

Our instrument has some peculiarities that it's better to highlight:

  • In standard tuning , we can play at maximum 6 notes together (as the guitar has 6 strings, of course)
  • We can play the same note on different strings and on different octaves, so, in a 3 notes chord like our C major, we can double one or more notes ; we still have a major chord, what changes is the "color" of the sound (easier to listen to than to read)
  • We can change the order (in term of higher and lower pitches) of the chord notes, creating what we call " inversions ". Usually, we want the root of the chord as the lowest pitch , but, depending on the musical context, the feeling, and our personal taste, we can conceive different fingerings, each one with its characteristic sound.
  • Finally, of course, the number of possible chord fingerings is limited by the stretching capabilities of the left hand

So, with all these things in mind, let's find the C , E and G notes on the fretboard:

C major fretboard notesEvery combination of string that contains at least one C, one E, and G is technically a C major chord.

Some patterns sound good, others don't, but in music, there is not such a thing that absolutely right or wrong . Experiment as much as possible and get a feeling for all the options.

Let's dissect the well-known C major chord

In order to understand better chords building, let's start with a well-known shape: the C major chord in first position . In the picture below, we picked kept only the C, E and G notes that belong to this shape:

C major chord

As you can see, in this shape we have all the required notes for a C major chord, with the C played on 2 strings and the E even on 3 strings.

We can play the lowest E string, but we can also mute it , in order to have the C on the A string as the lowest pitch in the chord. As always, experiment with these variations and let your ear decide what you like the most.

Other fingerings for the C major chord

Now we can try to create new fingering for our C major chord . As we can know now, we have only to find some strings configurations that contain at least one C, one E, and one G. Let's have a look at the image below. What about the two shapes below?

alternative fingerings for C major

See? All of the chord shapes above contain exactly the same notes C, E and G. We can use different frets and strings combinations , that's the beauty of the guitar, but also a difficulty: having too many options could be confusing at the beginning .

It's likely that you already know the bar chord shape at the 8th fret , it's identical to the F major , moved 8 frets upper. Do you see the logic in this ? The chord type is always " major ", and indeed the shape of the bar chord for F major and C major is the same, what changes is the root , C instead of F, and in fact, the shape has been moved to the C root.

Seeing the intervals on the fretboard

Now we can go a step ahead in our music theory journey and begin thinking in terms of intervals . What does this mean?

Well, the guitar is an instrument strongly based on geometry. Each interval has its specific shape, so we can assemble these geometries for creating chords, without thinking too much of notes names .

Let's see an example.

We have just seen that the C major chord is composed of the root, the major third and the perfect fifth .

What about the A major ? The A major is composed of the root, the major third, and the perfect fifth .

The same structure of the C major! The only difference is the root, in case of C major , the root is C , while in the A major the root is...A (surprised?)

This takes us to our first chords rule:

  • All the major chords are composed of the root, a major third and a perfect fifth .

R
b2
2
b3
3
4
b5
5
#5
6
b7
7


And what about minor chords?

  • All the minor chords are composed of the root, a minor third and a perfect fifth.

R
b2
2
b3
3
4
b5
5
#5
6
b7
7


To create a chord, major or minor, starting from whatever note on the fretboard, we have to choose the root , and then pick a major/minor third and a perfect fifth . That's all.

If you want to go beyond major and minor types and explore the structure of Seventh , Ninth , Diminished and so forth, have a look at our complete reference page on chords formulas .

How to find intervals on the fretboard?

Our mission now is to memorize the shapes of:

  • Major third interval
  • Minor third interval (that actually is a major third 1 fret below)
  • Perfect fifth interval

Once you'll have these intervals under your belt, you can assemble them as you like and create any chord you want.

Major Third Intervals

Here below you find the shape of a major third interval starting from each string. You'll notice that they have all the same shape, except for the interval between the second and the third strings , that is moved up one fret. This behavior is due the way guitar is tuned , you'll find more info on this in our full tutorial on guitar fretboard notes .

In the following diagrams, the root note is marked with a black dot. Other notes are represented by an empty circle.

Root on the 6th string

Major Third guitar intervals root on 6th string

Root on the 5th string

Major Third guitar intervals root on 5th string

Root on the 4th string

Major Third guitar intervals root on 4th string

Root on the 3rd string

Major Third guitar intervals root on 3rd string

Root on the 2nd string

Major Third guitar intervals root on 2nd string

Root on the 1st string

Major Third guitar intervals root on 1st string

Minor Third Intervals

The minor third interval is similar to the major third, just one fret lower. So, if you already know the major third, is an easy thing to memorize it.

Root on the 6th string

Minor Third guitar intervals root on 6th string

Root on the 5th string

Minor Third guitar intervals root on 5th string

Root on the 4th string

Minor Third guitar intervals root on 4th string

Root on the 3rd string

Minor Third guitar intervals root on 3rd string

Root on the 2nd string

Minor Third guitar intervals root on 2nd string

Root on the 1st string

Minor Third guitar intervals root on 1st string

Perfect Fifth Intervals

Root on the 6th string

Perfect Fifth guitar intervals root on 6th string

Root on the 5th string

Perfect Fifth guitar intervals root on 5th string

Root on the 4th string

Perfect Fifth guitar intervals root on 4th string

Root on the 3rd string

Perfect Fifth guitar intervals root on 3rd string

Root on the 2nd string

Perfect Fifth guitar intervals root on 2nd string

Root on the 1st string

Perfect Fifth guitar intervals root on 1st string

Guitar Fretboard Triads

guitar triadsBy assembling the shapes above in different ways you can create all the major and minor chords you like. You'll find also useful to learn the so-called guitar triads, that are small chords composed of just 3 strings (root, thirds, and fifths). They are helpful in many different situations. To learn more, read our post on guitar triads .

Free Bonus 1: Interactive Fretboard Trainer Software

guitar interval trainer To help you memorize guitar intervals in a fast and fun way, we've developed an interactive game that is very effective for internalizing the fretboard geometry. Give it a try, the game is totally free and runs online in your browser. Launch the guitar interval trainer now. .

Free Bonus 2: Guitar Chords Theory Ebook

guitar chords theory pdf ebook

We have created a free pdf ebook that expands the concept explained in this tutorial. It contains the fretboard shapes for all the possible intervals and shows you how to create chords of different types: sevenths, augmented, diminished and many more. You can download the ebook, along with many others, on the free download area.

Get your free access to the download area here

.

Guitar Music Theory - Conclusion and more resources

I hope that now you have a good understanding of how chords are built and guitar music theory in general. Here below you find several links to several resources that will help you improve your music theory applied to the guitar.

  • Guitar fretboard notes : a comprehensive tutorial for understanding the fretboard
  • Guitar triads : a simple but powerful concept that you can apply now to your melodies
  • Guitar Chords Formula : learn the structure of seventh, ninth, augmented, diminished, sixths chord and many other types.
  • Free Guitar Ebooks : access for free to the download area and get pdf ebooks on chords, scales, theory.

For questions, feedback and comments please drop a line below, I'd love to hear your thoughts!

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