Much to our chagrin, guitar is primarily an instrument of harmony. This is especially true when you play in ensembles or rock bands. What does this mean? CHORDS of course.
Remember the old distinction on those heavy metal albums “Lead Guitarist” and “Rhythm Guitarist”? Truth be told, the lead guy was also playing chords and rhythm for most of that album.
One of our biggest challenges as guitar players is chordal knowledge. A harmonic lexicon if you will. How do you build your chord vocabulary? Here are three methods of increasing difficulty.
Build your Chord Vocabulary: learn songs
This is absolutely the first step you should take. The latter two steps will be total drudgery if you skip this one. I recommend starting out with some simple rock songs that can get you playing power chords and open position chords so you can learn some of the most essential shapes.
Songs with Power Chords
First of all, power chords are two (or three note chords) that contain a root (let’s say G) and its “fifth” (the note a perfect fifth above the root…in this case D). If we add another note, we’ll include the octave: the next higher G on the guitar.
To play a power chord, place your index finger on the root (G – 3rd fret low E string). Then place your ring finger on the next higher string and two frets up (5th fret A string = D). To add the Octave just place your pinky on the next higher string right behind the ring finger (5th fret D string = G).
This is a moveable shape. So whenever you see a chord called something like G5 or D5 or E5 you will play a power chord. Just place first finger on the note and use the formula I just detailed to build the chord. The formula work if the root is on the E string, A string, or D string. But when root is D string the Octave will be placed one fret higher on the B string.
The only time things are different is when the root is an open string. In this case the 5th and octave will just be found on the second of the next two higher strings. Again, keep in mind that the Octave on the B string will be found on 3rd fret.
So you can take this formula and learn all sorts of songs. “When I come Around” by Green Day, “Time is Running Out” by Muse, “Seven Nation Army” etc. etc. And often, a power chord can be a fair substitute for a full chord when you are playing with a big ensemble, since a piano player or second guitarist might be playing the other notes of the full chord.
Open chords are played at first position and include open strings. These are all built from basic triads or seventh chords. There is no real formula for finding them, you just have to memorize the shapes. Or you could learn all the notes in open position, and learn music theory and figure out how to build the chords. But it’s just easier to memorize these from a chart.
Each open chord will usually contain octaves of one or more of the three notes of the triad. And there can be variations like E can become E sus4 or E7, Em, Em7, Em7b5, etc. Some from that list will be discussed a little later. But you can see there are a ton of chords to learn.
The most effective book for learning chords is The Complete Easy Beatles for Guitar, which you can usually order from your local music store. Songs like “Let it Be,” “Come together,” and “Penny Lane” are all transcribed in extremely approachable versions in this book.
Some other songs to look at are “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones, “Under the Milky Way” by the Church.
Achievement Unlocked! Barre chords are intermediate level chords as they require some serious fret hand strength. You will be holding your first finger down across all the strings (usually), while you fret a chord shape with the other fingers. Your index finger is thus working like a capo.
Barre chords are all based on some open chord shape. Most commonly used are those based on the open E, A, and D shapes and their respective variations. You can of course do a barre version of the C chord shape, even the G and F chords.
My best advice for playing these chords is to allow your wrist and elbow to be heavy to help add extra force with your fret hand. Otherwise these will be taxing to play.
A great song for start learning these chords is “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell. Here is a link to version that is not tuned to an open chord. In this tune she uses the basic E barre chord shape to play a very rhythmic guitar riff based around the moveable shape.
Further Chord Vocabulary
This can become an advanced discussion. Often, we consider these to be “jazz chords,” but classical composers and even rock and pop music can utilize them.
I won’t go into the theory, but briefly give you some resources and a little insight into what some of the symbols mean.
Pick up a copy of “The Real Book” or “The Real Rock Book,” both of which have an extensive collection of songs in lead sheet form. These tunes all have quite an array of perplexing chords to get you started. Other valuable books are “Joe Pass Chords” or the “Incredible Chord Finder.”
Remember that Em7b5 chord I mentioned? What does that even mean? Well. The root is “E.” The little “m” means minor, so the chord includes a minor third: G. The “7” means it includes the note a whole step below the octave of the root (the minor 7 – in this case D). And the “b5” means, you guessed it, the fifth is flat or “diminished” so this chord includes a Bb instead of a B natural.
Keep in mind you can play many notes in nearly 12 places on the guitar (at different octaves). There are limitless possibilities. If you’re just getting started, a good exercise is just to play a tune in the Real Book with a chord vocabulary book always by your side. Try playing the song with at least three different voicings of each chord. A great song to start with would be “Autumn Leaves” or “Fly me to the Moon.”
My favorite ear training exercise is to open to a random page in the chord finder book and play the first chord I see. Then I try to improvise an 8 note melody from the harmonic character of that chord.
At this point, you should be meeting with a teacher that can assist you with music theory as it applies to the guitar. Together you can learn songs from the real book and discuss even further interpretations of the chords. Like how an A7b9/Bb is enharmonic to a Bbdim7 chord in first inversion. or a G6 chord is enharmonic to Em7/G.
Remember you don’t have to be a jazz guy or a classical composer to appreciate these advanced chords. They can help add musical color and more interesting harmonic movement to your playing and songwriting.