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Remember ...

... that you don't need to know any of the theory behind chords in order to play. You can simply skip the next section and go straight to the chord diagrams page and start to experiment. HOWEVER, if you want to become a musician, not just someone who can hack out a couple of tunes, you'll get there much quicker by finding out the why's and wherefore's right at the beginning. I will explain in my own plain English way the basic structure of music, and hopefully you'll be able to understand.

I use a lot of graphics, movies and analogies to teach music and the guitar. I spent most of my learning years listening — really listening — and sorting, filing and cataloging all the bits and pieces into a mental picture of music that I could refer to and rely upon. It's that mental picture of Music, that works so well for me, that I'm attempting to pass on to you here. The good news is that it's all much easier than it seems once you see the 'big picture'.

You will soon learn that the guitar is an instrument of repeating shapes and patterns and that the fretboard is itself the best 'graph paper' to use to explain what's going on.

Chords defined

Guitar lesson by Kirk Lorange


You have no doubt heard, with trepidation, about the thousands of chords you must learn in order to play music. I myself remember a book called "1001 Chords" and my feeling of total inadequacy because I still only knew half a dozen or so.

Well, you can relax. Chords are no big deal, especially on a guitar, as you will soon find out. The guitar 'fretscape' is one of shapes, geometric patterns, that can be moved along the fretboard as a unit. Comes in very handy.


First of all, let's define what a chord is:
a chord is a group of at least three notes played together.

Two notes played together are called a double-stop or sometimes an interval, but it takes three notes played together to become a chord. Which notes? To put it in musical terms, chords are formed by 'stacking thirds', which makes little or no sense if you're just starting out.

To put it in plain English: chords consist of any three alternate notes from the major scale. What does that mean? Well, let's imagine for a minute that the 7 scale notes are the 7 days of the week. If we select three alternate days, starting on Monday, we get this:

chord formula

Start with Monday, skip Tuesday, select Wednesday, skip Thursday and select Friday. That's a 'chord'. Now lets look at a whole week's worth:

chord formula

Each colored row is a chord ... it's as simple as that. You can see that there are seven possible combinations using this simple formula, one for each day of the week. Now lets do it with the major scale.

I'll use the C major scale because there are no sharp or flat notes in it and it's less confusing to look at, but this simple rule applies to all 12 major scales.

chord formula

Once again, each colored row in this graphic represents a chord, and you can see that there are 7 rows, one for each note of the scale. Each chord consists of a Root (sometimes called the Tonic), a Third and a Fifth ... the old "1-3-5".

Chords are named after their Root.

So, from the major scale we have built 7 triads, which is the term used to describe these simple three-note chords. Of course, guitars have 6 strings, so we need to double up some notes to make chords on guitars, notes from other octaves (more on that later), but you can always just play the three note triads on just three strings and still be playing a chord.

chord clock

Easy? Yes, but there is one flaw in this analogy: the intervals between consecutive week days are all 'one day', but our scale is made up of uneven intervals (see the scale clock to the left ... some are one hour apart, some are two), so those combinations can't all be the same. What that means in musical terms is that the chords will have different sounds, different flavors. There are two main flavors: Major and minor. There is no need at this stage to remember all the theory, but each major scale gives rise to three major chords, three minor chords and one 'half-diminished' chord, which is a kind of minor chord. The movie at the top of the page explains all this with animated graphics making it much easier to understand. These seven chords and the seven notes that gave rise to them are collectively known as the Key, and because this particular batch came from the C Major Scale, it's known as the Key of C Major.

Let's see what these chords look like on the fretboard —››