Seven simple facts about chords

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As a guitarist, you will probably be playing chords about 80 percent of the time, if not more. Even if you end up being the lead player in a band, chords will take up most of your playing time. In other words, there’s no way around this one. A guitar player that can’t play chords, might as well give up the instrument.

That being said, chords can be extremely fun to play. They appear in killer riffs, sweet accompaniment for songs, and everything in between. Like most things guitar-related, practice is key when it comes to chords. For now, let’s get more familiarized with them.

Here are the seven simple facts about chords – but we are going to look at them a little differently.  I’m not going to show you a ton of chord charts (you can find those anywhere on the internet).  These facts are more like ‘background info” so that you know what a chord actually is, and what makes them what they are.

A chord is a combination of notes

The simplest definition of a chord is: two or more notes played at the same time. As simple as that sounds, it is nonetheless an accurate definition. Double stops? They are chords. Power chords? Obviously chords. Complex extended harmonies? Yes, those are chords as well. Whenever you strike two or more notes at the same time on your guitar, you are playing a chord.

Chords are related to scales

Even though a chord can be made up of any random combination of notes, randomness is not commonly associated with chord construction. So, what is? Intervals, or the distance between two notes. Take for instance a C major chord on its simplest form. It is composed of the root, the third and the fifth. This might sound complex, but if you attended kindergarten, you can comprehend it. Remember your C, D, E, F, G, A, B? Well, that’s a C major scale. Take the first note of that scale (C), the third note (E), and the fifth note (G). Now play them together. That’s it, that’s your C major chord! And this is exactly how chords are constructed.

Want to play a C major 7th chord? Well, then just put the root (the first note), the third, the fifth and the seventh. That would be C, E, G and B. That is your C major 7th chord. Of course, we are using the easiest scale with the simplest chord quality. But once you learn a bit of theory, you can figure out what any chord is, note by note. And that applies to very complex chords as well.

Power chords are for guitarists

Even if you don’t play rock, chances are you will play power chords any time you have distortion on. So… what are power chords? They are composed of the root note and the fifth. Back to our C major scale, that would be C (root) and G (the fifth). No more, no less. These chords are almost always played with some kind of saturation. That could be anything from warm overdrive to screeching distortion. Power chords are a lot of fun and lend themselves well for riffs on electric guitar.

And here comes the fun part. Power chords are not major or minor (or dominant seventh for that matter). Because they don’t have a 3rd (the note that dictates the chord quality, i.e. major or minor) power chords can be used for either one. Think of it more a bass note. So how does the song get its sound then, you might ask. The quality of the harmony is going to be present regardless, even if you use only power chords. But that is a topic for a more advanced harmony article.

Chords can be played in many ways

It is quite amazing that chords can take so many shapes and forms… literally! They can be power chords, double stops, inversions, extended harmonies, and even arpeggios. Don’t know what all those terms mean? Don’t worry. With time and practice, you will come to dominate these ways of playing chords and many more. The point here is to illustrate that chords can be played in a wide variety of ways.

So, if you are bored with playing that open C chord over and over, know that there are other ways to play it. However, it is important to note that how you play a chord will depend on the style and context. For instance, a C major open position chord is not automatically interchangeable with a C major 7th chord or even a power chord. Again, only practice and studying will reveal when and how to use a particular way of playing chords.

Chords are found in all styles

It doesn’t matter what style of music you play – unless you’re B.B. King, you’re gonna have to play lots of chords. So, you might as well master them. Rock? You’ve got your power chords and more. Jazz? Then extended chords and beyond will be your friends. Country? Triads and open chords will be your thing. Oh, please don’t get me wrong. Just because you play rock does not mean you don’t have to learn extended chords. And vice versa.

Let me state it very clearly – the more chords you know, and the more ways of playing them you can master, the more complete guitarist you will be. You should learn all kinds of different voicings and ways of playing chords. This will make your playing stronger. It will also make music much more fun to play.

Chords are not exclusive to guitar players

Simply put, chords are present in harmony. And harmony is always present in the music. Even instrumentalists that cannot play more than one note at a time know chords. In-demand sax or trumpet players typically have a deep understanding of how harmony/chords work. They also tend to play a chordal instrument, typically piano.

Wrapping it all up

Chords and harmony, in general, are a central part of the music. This is true of any style, from rock and blues to country and bossa nova. As an accompanying instrument, guitarists are expected to be able to play chords. This is true even for a beginner guitar player. If you are at a birthday party and someone hands you a guitar to sing “Happy Birthday”, chords are what you will be playing. Remember to have fun and dedicate some time daily for practice.

That’s it for this week. Stay tuned and…

Peace Out!

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