This week we are going to take a look at another cornerstone of playing the guitar – chords.
As guitar players, we hear about chords constantly. Their importance cannot be overstated. As a matter of fact, since the guitar is mostly an accompanying instrument, guitar players play chords most of the time. That is true even for most of your favorite guitar heroes…
There are many kinds of chords: power chords, open chords, triads, extended harmony, poly-chords, etc. And chords are present in basically all styles of music. Rock, country, jazz, pop, classical, funk… you name it.
So… what is a chord, you might ask?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines chords as “three or more musical tones played simultaneously”. Although I like that definition quite a bit, I would change it to “two or more musical tones played simultaneously”. Oh, just two notes played together are a chord? Well… this might be a hot topic among music theorists and musicologists, but yes. Remember the power chord? Well, it usually involves only two notes.
Chords are connected
Many beginning guitarists assume that they have to learn hundreds of completely different chords. What they don’t realize is that chords are related. You can expand them, compress them, change a few things, and always build on it. Let’s take for instance a C chord and a Cmaj7 chord. Even though they are different chords, they share the same three notes (C, E, G), with Cmaj7 having an extra note (B).
So, you can build all kinds of different C chords on top of the structure of that particular chord, or varying a few things on that chord. And yes, this all creates a plethora of “new” chords. It is more practical to see how these relate, rather than view them all as completely unrelated chords.
Oh, but what about chords with different roots and names? Well, let’s take Am for instance. It has two notes in common with the C chord (C and E). That means that 66.6 % of the C chord is identical to an Am chord and vice versa. Only one note changes. And for all of you theory enthusiasts out there, Am minor is the relative minor chord of C. And C major is the relative major chord of Am. And each major chord has a minor relative and vice versa. There are many other ways in which chords connect and relate to each other.
You can build on chords
Let’s take a Cmaj7 chord. Add a D an octave above, now you’ve got a Cmaj7(9). Now let’s add an A above that. Now you’ve got a Cmaj7(13). Now, let’s take the B (which is the seventh) and drop it by a half step to Bb. Now we’ve got a C13. Those are all different chords, but they are built on structures that differ very little.
The same applies to all other chord qualities (minor, dominant, diminished, augmented, etc.). You can build on chords and you can also take extended chords and make them simpler. In other words, you can take an extended C13 chord, remove two notes and you’re back at C7. Don’t worry if this sounds a bit advanced. The point to take away is that you can build on chords and simplify them as well.
Chords are the building blocks of harmony and progressions
Harmony is one of the most important parts of music. It is a defining factor on the effect of music. You can have the same melody and change the chords to have a very different emotional impact.
Another important aspect of music is progressions. These are composed of chords. As a guitar player, it is important to master certain progressions. For instance, the blues. The blues is a set chord progression that typically has twelve bars. And since the blues is what Rock and Jazz are based on, it is fundamental to master it.
You can mix and match chords
Remember the part about chords being connected? Well, the concept of chord substitution is a very powerful and popular tool in music. It literally is what the name suggests. You take a particular chord in a progression and substitute with another one. Naturally, there are rules and ways to go about substituting chords.
There is also poly-chords. That is definitely for more advanced musicians and we won’t get into it now. But for now, just know that you can take a few notes from one chord and combine it with a few notes from another chord to create a poly-chord. These are a very powerful tool. Obviously, it also involves a few rules or guidelines…but that’s for another time.
You will play mostly chords
Despite the hoopla with solos and other guitar-related fireworks, guitar players mostly play chords. Even if you are the lead guitar player, most of the time you will accompany the melody of the song. So yes, knowing as much as you can about chords and how harmony works will be a major factor in becoming a good guitar player.
This is partly because the guitar is traditionally an accompanying instrument, as opposed to a saxophone or trumpet which can only play single lines. Remember… the guitar is the most popular instrument on earth. One of the main reasons is because you can play songs on guitars. And that almost always means playing chords.
Wrapping it all up
Don’t let all of this theory stuff scare you. Really. The more you progress with your playing the more it will all make sense. One day you’ll wake up, slap your forehead, and say “NOW I understand!!”
Chords are a major part of becoming a guitar player. They form the building blocks of harmony and progressions. And make no mistake about it: guitar players play mostly chords. And just like with any other aspect of playing an instrument, the more you practice, the better you will be at playing them.
One of the coolest things about chords is that they are connected. These are not unrelated entities that exist in a vacuum. Chords, along with progressions, have structures that connect them in more ways than a beginner guitar player may realize. And that my friends, is a thing of beauty.
That’s it for now. Stay tuned until next week, and…