Guitar Chords

A guitar chord is defined as a set of notes played simultaneously on a guitar. You have the option of playing them sequentially in what is known as an arpeggio, but for the purpose of this article, we will go by the simultaneous playing of notes.

Effect of Tunings

As you are aware, the notes on the fretboard are defined by the tuning of the guitar strings. In the standard tuning, the six strings are tuned to E2 – A2 – D3 – G3 – B3 – E4 pitches. Hence two notes on the same fret of adjacent strings are a Perfect fourth interval apart, except for a Major 3rd interval between the G and B strings.

The E2 and A2 strings are known as the bass strings, while the balance strings are known as the treble strings.

The guitar chords have separate chord forms depending on the string on which the root note lies – 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th. You will undoubtedly know that the strings are numbered from the High e (E4) as the 1st string to Low E (E2) as the 6th string, with B3, G3, D3, and A2 getting labeled as the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th string respectively.

Open guitar tunings simplify the playing of conventional chords, particularly if you are more into folk and blues music. You can play the chords with your single finger by fretting all six strings together. Hence open tunings are more suitable for steel and slide guitars.

Alternate tunings, also called regular tunings, have the same interval between each consecutive pair of strings. This interval in regular tuning can be major thirds, all-fourths, or all-fifths. These tunings are good for 3 to 5-string chords, but it is difficult to play chords spanning all the strings.

For the purpose of this article, we will consider standard tuning on a six-string electric or acoustic guitar.

Playing Guitar Chords: Open Strings, Inversions, & Note Doubling

The guitar chords have different voicings. You can use open-string notes, where the corresponding strings are not fretted, resulting in less hand motion and easy playing.

The guitar has the same notes on different strings. Hence the player may double some of these notes to increase the volume and change the chordal timbre. The doubling may be at the same pitch or in different octaves. Doubling a third note highlights the quality of a particular chord.

You will often come across a situation where the chord cannot be played in a closed position, or they cannot be played in the root position conveniently. You will have to go for open positions and the inversions of the chord in these conditions.

In addition, to the open chords where at least one string is played open, the chord shapes are classified as movable and barre chords. In the movable and barre shapes, moving the chord down results in a new chord as the chord structure and intervals between the notes are retained.

Guitar Chord Diagrams

A Chord diagram or the guitar chord chart is a graphical tool representing the relevant portion of the guitar fretboard hanging vertically. The vertical lines represent the strings, while the horizontal lines represent the frets. The number alongside the fret or in a circle at the nut location indicates the fret number to be played for the chord, particularly if the chord is played far down the neck.

The circles on the chord diagrams indicate the exact fret to be played, and the numbers in these circles represent the finger placements. Usually, in chord fingerings, the different fingers are allotted the numbers as given below.

  • 1 – Index Finger,
  • 2 – Middle Finger,
  • 3 – Ring finger,
  • 4 – Little Finger.

Any string marked with an ‘X’ symbol must be muted or skipped, while those marked ‘O’ are to be played open.

The chord diagrams for the left-hand guitars have the string numbers in opposite directions. The high e string for the left-hand fingers becomes Low E for the right-hand fingers.

Guitar tablature, also known as the guitar tabs, is another popular music notation method to represent the guitar chords or notes. The method is particularly useful for beginning guitarists and is usually provided along with the staff notation. In this method, all the strings are shown horizontally.

They are populated with numbers indicating frets on each string which are to be played in a particular order. The tablature may include other symbols to show different legato techniques.

We have covered the most basic guitar chords and their chord diagrams in our articles on “The Best Guitar Chords to learn” and “Guitar Chord Chart.

Drop 2 Tunings

Drop N tunings allow you to play extremely difficult chords, which would seriously stretch your fretting hand. A Drop N tuning means that the Nth highest note is lowered by an octave.

Consider the C7 chord with notes C, E, G, and Bb. The drop 2 tuning implies that the second highest note, G, is lowered by an octave. Hence the notes are G, C, E, and Bb. Similarly, the Drop 2 tuning of the second inversion of the C7 chord will be C, G, Bb, and E. This spans 3 frets and can be played easily.

Different Types of Chords

With this background on the guitar chords and chord diagrams, let us now look at the different types of chords, their chord structure, main function, intervals, and notes.


Dyads are two-note chords with any interval between the two notes.

Power Chords

A power chord is a special case of the dyads, where the interval between the two notes is a Perfect Fifth. They do not have any quality like a major or a minor chord assigned to them. Guitar players prefer an electric guitar for playing these chords.

These power chords are extensively used in blues and rock music. Notes are often doubled in higher octaves while playing these chords. For example, the E5 power chord is played as 0 – 2 – 2 – x – x – x. The second 2 in the above representation shows the second fret on the D string, i.e., the E note. The exact shape is used for the G5 power chord, 3 – 5 – 5 – x – x – x. The root note is on the sixth string.


The triads are a special case of three-note chords which follow tertian harmony. Chords in tertian harmony are built by stacking the intervals of a major or minor third over the root notes. With three notes having two intervals and a choice between a major or minor 3rd, there can be four basic triads, as discussed in the following sections.

Major Chords

Major chords or major triad chords are built by stacking a major third interval over the root note followed by a minor third interval. Hence the chord structure is R – M3 – m3, and the note intervals are R – M3 – P5. These are the most popular chords that feature in a lot of popular songs.

These chords are built with the scale degree 1, 4, and 5 notes on a major scale (designated as I, IV, and V in roman numeral analysis) and the 3, 6, and 7 scale degree notes of the natural minor scale (designated as III, VI, and VII). The table below shows the Major chords and their notes.

Minor Chords

The minor chords have their two intervals in the opposite sequence to those of a major chord. It has a minor third followed by a major third interval. The chord structure is R – m3 – M3 with the note intervals – R – m3 – P5.

Minor chords have designations ii, iii, and vi in the major scale and i, iv, and v in the natural minor scale. The table below shows the minor chords and their notes.

Diminished Triads

The diminished triads are built by stacking two minor third intervals over the root note. The chord construction is R – m3 – m3 with the note intervals – R – m3 – d5. These chords are designated as viio and iio in the major and natural minor scales, respectively. The table below shows the diminished triads and their notes.

Augmented Triads

The augmented triads, in contrast to the diminished ones, are formed by two major third intervals over the root note. The chord construction is R – M3 – M3 with the note intervals – R – M3 – A5. These triads do not occur naturally in the major or minor scales but are formed from the third-degree notes of the harmonic and melodic minor scales.

Chord Progressions

A series of chords played together in a musical way defines a chord progression, also known as the harmonic progression, chord change, or the succession of chords. All of your favorite songs are built upon the foundation of harmony or chord progressions.

The chords formed from the harmonization of any scale are assigned a scale degree named based on the chord’s function. The chords can be broadly classified into the tonic (I, iii, and vi in the major scale), subdominant (ii and IV), and dominant chords (V and viio).

The subdominant chords lead to the dominant chords, which are said to have a dominant function, whereby the dominant chords have a strong tendency to resolve to the tonic chord. Hence, the simplest chord progression is formed by Subdominant – Dominant – Tonic chords. The best examples of the concept are the I – IV – V – I in blues and the ii – V – I progression in the jazz music genre.

The V – I progression in the root position provides the perfect authentic cadence.

The seven chords formed by harmonization of a major scale can be put in a sequence based on the circle of fifths as


You can make short cyclical progressions by selecting a sequence of chords from the series above.

Chord Inversions

All the above chords, which we had discussed, were in the root position. This means the root note is the bass note or the lowest pitch in the chord. If you re-arrange the notes of the chord in such a way that the root note is no longer the bass note, you have created an inversion. For a chord containing n notes, there can be (n-1) inversions.

First Inversion of a Triad

To create the first inversion of a triad, the root note in the closed position is shifted up an octave. Consider the C major chord with notes [C E G]. If we shift the C one octave higher, we get the first inversion of the C chord with notes [E G C]. The first inversion of a triad is denoted with a superscript ‘6’ on its roman numeral designation. This nomenclature is known as the figured bass system. In C major scale, the C major chord in the 1st inversion is denoted as I6.

Second Inversion of a Triad

To create the second inversion, the root, and the third notes are shifted up by an octave from their root position. Hence the second inversion of the C major chord has notes {G C E]. It is denoted by a superscript ‘6/4’ in the figured bass system. So the 2nd inversion of the C major chord in the key of C will be denoted as I6/4.

Seventh Chords

The 7th chords are formed from the triads by adding a major or minor third interval over the basic triad. The possible array of these chords has been described in detail in our separate article on the 7th chords. The main types of the seventh chords are presented in brief in the following sections.

Major 7th Chords

The Major 7th chords are formed by stacking a Major third interval over the major chords. These are formed from scale degree 1 and 4 notes of a major scale. For example, In the C Major scale, the Major 7th chords can be built with C and F as the root notes.

The Chord formula for the Major 7th chords is [1 3 5 7]. The chord notes have intervals of R – M3 – P5 – M7 from the root note. The chord has the M7 note, which is the leading tone for any scale with a strong tendency to resolve to the octave.

The CMaj7 chord has notes – C, E, G, and B. The table below shows the Maj 7th chords and their notes.

Chord NameRootM3P5M7
CMaj7 ChordCEGB
C#Maj7 ChordC#E# (F)G#B# (C)
Dbmaj7 ChordDbFAbC
DMaj7 ChordDF#AC#
D#Maj7 ChordD#F## (G)A#C## (D)
EbMaj7 ChordEbGBbD
EMaj7 ChordEG#BD#
FMaj7 ChordFACE
F#Maj7 ChordF#A#C#E# (F)
GbMaj7 ChordGbBbDbF
GMaj7 ChordGBDF#
G#Maj7 ChordG#B# (C)D#F## (G)
AbMaj7 ChordAbCEbG
AMaj7 ChordAC#EG#
A#Maj7 ChordA#C## (D)E# (F)G## (A)
BbMaj7 ChordBbDF A
BMaj7 ChordBD#F#A#

Separate articles on these individual Major 7 chords show all the chord diagrams for beginner guitarists to help them play these guitar chords.

Minor 7th Chords

The minor 7th chords are formed by stacking an interval of a minor third over the minor triads. These are formed from the 2, 3, and 6 scale degrees of the major scale and the 1, 4, and 5 scale degrees of the minor scale.

The Chord formula for the Minor 7th chords is [1 b3 5 b7]. The chord notes have intervals of R – m3 – P5 – m7 from the root note. The minor seventh is the subtonic note of the scale. In the harmonic minor and the melodic minor scales, these chords exist on the scale degrees 4 and 2, respectively.

The Cm7 chord has notes – C, Eb, G, and Bb. The table below shows the Minor 7th chords and their notes.


Dominant 7th Chords

The dominant chords in music theory have a strong tendency to resolve to the tonic chord of the scale. The dominant 7th chord is built by stacking a minor third interval over the major chord built on the 5th scale degree of a major scale. Hence the intervals of the chord are R – M3 – P5 – m7, and the chord formula is [5 7 2 4] in terms of the scale degrees.

The chord exhibits a strong dominant function due to dissonant notes 7, 2, and 4 urging to resolve to 1(8), 1, and 3 degrees and the tritone between the notes 7 and 4.

The chord formula for the dominant 7th chords is [1 3 5 b7]. The table showing the Dominant 7th chords and their notes is presented below.

Chord NameRootM3P5M7
C7 ChordCEGBb
C#7 ChordC#E# (F)G#B
Db7 ChordDbFAbCb (B)
D7 ChordDF#AC
D#7 ChordD#F## (G)A#C#
Eb7 ChordEbGBbDb
E7 ChordEG#BD
F7 ChordFACEb
F#7 ChordF#A#C#E
Gb7 ChordGbBbDbFb (E)
G7 ChordGBDF
G#7 ChordG#B# (C)D#F#
Ab7 ChordAbCEbGb
A7 ChordAC#EG
A#7 ChordA#C## (D)E# (F)G#
Bb7 ChordBbDF Ab
B7 ChordBD#F#A

Half Diminished 7th Chords

The half-diminished 7th chords have an interval of a major third stacked over the diminished triads. These are formed from the scale degrees viio and iio of the major and minor scales, respectively.

The Chord formula for the Half Diminished 7th Chords is [1 b3 b5 b7]. The chord notes have intervals of R – m3 – d5 – m7 from the root note. These chords also exhibit a dominant function.

The Cm7b5 chord has notes – C, Eb, Gb, and Bb.

Fully Diminished Chords

The fully diminished 7th chords, on the other hand, have a minor third interval stacked over the diminished triad. These are not naturally occurring in major and minor scales and are formed on the 7th scale degree of the harmonic minor scales.

Their chord formula is [1 b3 b5 bb7], and the intervals of the notes are R – m3 – d5 – d7. The notes of C07 will be C, Eb, Gb, Bbb}.

Minor Major 7th Chords

The minor major chords are formed by placing a Major 3rd interval over a minor triad. These chords are built on the tonic notes of the harmonic and melodic minor scales. The chord formula is [1 b3 5 7], and the intervals are R – m3 – P5 – M7. The notes of CmM7 will be C, Eb, G, and B.

Augmented 7th Chords

The augmented 7th chords are of two types – Augmented Major 7th and Augmented Dominant 7th chords. They have minor 3rd and diminished 3rd intervals stacked over the augmented triads.

Thus, Augmented Major 7th chord has formula [1 3 #5 7] and intervals R – M3 – A5 – M7, while the Augmented Dominant 7th has formula [1 3 #5 b7] and intervals R – M3 – A5 – m7.

CMaj7(#5) – C, E, G#, B.

C7(#5) – C, E, G#, Bb.

7th Chord Inversions

Like the triads and other chords, the 7th chords have (4-1) = 3 inversions. The 1st, 2nd, and 3rd inversions have the 3rd, 5th, and 7th notes of the 7th chords as their bass notes. These are denoted by 7, 6/5, 4/3, and 4/2 superscripts over the roman numeral designation as part of their figured bass representation. For example, V7, V6/5, V4/3, and V4/2, respectively.

Suspended Chords

The suspended chords do not follow the tertian harmony. The 3rd of the triad is raised or lowered from its earlier major or minor third interval. It appears that this note is carried forward and resolves at the third or the tonic of the next chord in the progression. Hence the name suspended chord is used.

Suspended chords are of two types –

  1. Suspended 2nd chords – Formed by lowering the minor third interval to a Major 2nd. These are known as the Sus2 chords. The intervals are R – M2 – P5, which means M2 and P4 intervals are stacked over the root. The chord formula is [1 2 5].
  2. Suspended 4th chords – Formed by raising the Major third interval to a Perfect Fourth. These are known as the Sus4 chords. The intervals are R – P4 – P5, which means P4 and M2 intervals are stacked over the root. The chord formula is [1 4 5].

Extended Chords & Altered Chords

If you continue stacking major or minor third intervals over the 7th chords, you get the extended chords. The term ‘extended’ denotes that the chord intervals span more than one octave in the root or closed voicings. 9th, 11th, and 13th chords fall in this category. The 13th chord is known as a fully extended chord, as any further extension will take you to the third octave, and the notes will repeat.

While playing the extended chords on the guitar, some of the notes are omitted. We have covered these aspects in detail in our separate article on extended chords.

Altered chords are built by changing or chromatically altering (raising or lowering) the notes of the extended chords by a semitone.

The possible chromatic changes to extended chords are:

  • b9 and #9 to the 9th chords,
  • b11 and # 11 to the 11th chords,
  • b13 and #13 to the 13th chords.

The extended and altered chords have only three qualities – Major, Minor, and Dominant.

9th Chords

If you stack a third over the 7th chord, you get the ninth chord.

  1. Major 9th Chord – R – M3 – m3 – M3 – m3 or [1 3 5 7 9].
  2. Minor 9th Chord – R – m3 – M3 – m3 – M3 or [1 b3 5 b7 9].
  3. Dominant 9th Chord – R – m3 – m3 – M3 or [1 3 5 b7 9].

11th Chords

The 11th chords are formed by stacking a minor third over the 9th chords.

  1. Major 11th Chord – R – M3 – m3 – M3 – m3 – m3 or [1 3 5 7 9 11].
  2. Minor 11th Chord – R – m3 – M3 – m3 – M3 – m3 or [1 b3 5 b7 9 11].
  3. Dominant 11th Chord – R – m3 – m3 – M3 – m3 or [1 3 5 b7 9 11].

13th Chords

The 13th chords are formed by stacking a Major third over the 11th chords.

  1. Major 11th Chord – R – M3 – m3 – M3 – m3 – m3 – M3 or [1 3 5 7 9 11 13].
  2. Minor 11th Chord – R – m3 – M3 – m3 – M3 – m3 – M3 or [1 b3 5 b7 9 11 13].
  3. Dominant 11th Chord – R – m3 – m3 – M3 – m3 – M3 or [1 3 5 b7 9 11 13].

Secondary Chords

The secondary chords are the chromatic chords, which are not in the key of the music being played at the time and are used to tonicize or emphasize the chords other than the tonic chord briefly by intensifying them.

There are two types of secondary function chords – the secondary dominants and the secondary leading tone chords.

Secondary Dominant

The secondary dominants use the power of the V – I progression to emphasize other chords briefly without modulating to them. For example, the V/vi chord in the key of C will emphasize the vi chord if placed before it in the chord progression. Consider the standard diatonic progression.

I – iii – vi – ii – V – I.

This can be modified to

I – iii – V7/vi – vi – ii – V – I.

to tonicize the vi chord, which is Am in C. The V7/vi chord will be an E7 chord with notes [E G# B D]. Note that E7 is not in the key of C.

Secondary Leading Tone Chords

Using the concept above, you can tonicize any major or minor chord in a scale using a secondary leading tone chord (SLTC). The SLTC is again a chromatic chord that can be in the form of a diminished triad, half or fully diminished 7th chords. They are designated viio/iv, viiø7/VI, or viio7/III.

To tonicize any chord, find the leading tone associated with it by lowering its root note by a half step. Use this lowered note as the root to form the SLTC.

For example, consider the progression V7 – viio7/vi – vi – V6/5 – I.

In D, the progression translates to A7 – A#07 – Bm – A7/C# – D

Even More Chords

We have so far covered all basic types of chords. Let us briefly know the other types of guitar chords as a general familiarization without going into too much depth.

Neapolitan Chord

It works as a predominant chord and leads you to the dominant chord in any progression. The Neapolitan chords are the major chords built on the second scale degree of the major or minor scales. Hence it is a chromatically altered chord. The chord formula is [b2, 4, b6].

Recall from our earlier discussion that ii and IV chords serve the predominant or subdominant function in a scale. They are often referred to as the ‘bII’ or the ‘N’ chords, and their first inversions as the ‘N6‘ chords.

You can read all the other details about them in our separate article.

Augmented 6th Chords

The augmented 6th chords, like the Neapolitan chords, are chromatic predominant chords, built with the purpose of having a better voice leading. The interval between the bass note and the top note is an augmented 6th, which gives these chords the name.

There are three varieties of these chords known as the Italian, French, and German Augmented 6th chords. The three notes (b6, 1, #4) are common between the three versions. The 4th note differs and gives them characteristic qualities. They can be built on any scale degree of the scale.

Borrowed Chords Or Modal Mixtures

You can provide unexpected variations to the listeners by borrowing the chords from the parallel modes. These chords are also known as Modal Mixtures, Mode Mixtures, Mutation, Modal Interchange, and Substituted Chords. The borrowing adds color to your music and provides harmonic variety. Borrowing is for a short duration and does not qualify for modulations.

The best example of using borrowed chords is the dominant major chords in the natural minor scale. These chords are borrowed from the harmonic minor scale, which has raised the 7th note.

Non Chord Tones

The non-chord tones, also known as the embellishment tones or the non-harmonic tones, are the notes that are not part of the chord being played out at the time. Their purpose is to spice up your music by providing movement, tension, and dissonance to it. The usual non-chord tones are at a second, seventh, or fourth interval with the root. These three intervals are the most dissonant intervals of the scale apart from the tritone.

This tension must be resolved in the next chord, or they form a 7th or an extended chord. There are 9 main types of non-chord tones classified by the method of approach and exit, steps, leaps, ascending, descending, etc.

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