Chord Theory for Beginners

I apologise, chord theory for beginners is not an overly inspiring title for an article, but there is no other way of selling it, chord theory can be pretty dry.  But it is essential to have at least a basic understanding of chords and how they are put together if you are going to get the most from your guitar playing.  Let us get going on chord theory for beginners.

So what is a chord?

Chords are, by definition, when three or more unique notes are played simultaneously.  Some may well argue that you only have to play two notes to create a chord, as in a power chord, but strictly speaking this is known as an interval rather than a chord.

The first question to answer in understanding chord construction is can you play any three notes to create a chord?  I guess if you took the definition literally, that playing three notes simultaneously makes a chord, this would be true.  However, if you try playing any three random notes together there is a very good chance that it will not sound too good.

To be able to construct chords that sound harmonious when played you need a reference point and for this purpose we will use the major scale.  I have to admit the only thing that I remember from my school music lessons was the teacher droning on at the beginning of each lesson the mantra:

Tone, tone, semi-tone, tone, tone, tone, semi-tone

It was almost like if she did it enough it would penetrate our sub-conscious, so it was the same before starting the lesson the same thing chanted over and over again.  Mind you I guess it worked as it has certainly stuck in my head.  However, if I had only bothered to listen more to her I would have realised that she was not mad and what she was actually trying to teach us was the major scale.

But what is a tone and what is a semi-tone?

In music there are seven notes lettered A to G.  Moving from note A to B is raising the note by a full tone.  You can however, also raise the note by a half note or semi-tone which sharpens the note so if we raise the note A by a semi-tone it becomes A sharp which is written A#.  You can also lower or flatten the note by a semi-tone.  Therefore if you lower B by a semi-tone you get B flat which is written Bb.  So if you consider the C Major scale the notes in that scale are C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C.  Interestingly when you use the tone, tone, semi-tone, tone, tone, tone, semi-tone formula you would expect the F and C to be  flat, that is Fb and Cb.  However, there is a quirk in music theory which is there are no sharps or flats between E and F and B and C.  Therefore in the C major scale the notes are as detailed.    If you consider the D-Major scale the notes in the scale are D – E – F# – G – A – B – C#.  It is perhaps easier to visualise if we lay it out on the guitar fretboard.  If you play the sixth string, that is the thickest string, behind the ninth fret you are playing a C.  Play this for yourself going from the C, behind the 8th fret, all the way up the fretboard to the 20th fret where you return back to C but in this case an octave higher.

C Major on guitar fretboard

We have already established that the definition of a chord is that they are created by playing three or more notes simultaneously.  If there are three notes in the chord it is known as a triad whereas more than 3 notes it is an extended chord.  Irrespective of the number of notes played a chord, constructed from the major scale, is made up of every other note in the major scale.  Put simply chords are created by stacking notes in thirds.  Therefore if we return to the C-Major scale a C Major chord is therefore constructed from the root note C and every other note so C – E – G – B.

A triad is played from the first, third and fifth notes in the scale which in the case of the C-Major scale are C – E – G.  To play an extended chord we add the seventh note to this triad which in this case is the note B.  By doing this the name of the extended chord that we have created is the C Major seventh chord.  You can extend this logic still further to create a C Major ninth chord.  This might sound impossible if you remember that there are only seven notes in the major scale but by raising the scale an octave and continuing to count up you can see that you can add the ninth note to create the C Major ninth chord.  This is shown in the diagram below where you can see that the C major chord is created from the notes C, E and G whereas the C Major seventh is made from C, E, G and B.

C major and C major 7th chords





So to sum up chord theory for beginners:

  1. Chords are created when you play three or more notes simultaneously.
  2. Major chords are created from the notes in the major scale.
  3. A major chord is created using every other note in the major scale.
  4. A Major triad is constructed from the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes in the major scale.
  5. An extended major chord can be created by adding the seventh, ninth, eleventh and even thirteenth note in the major scale.

Next time we will move on from chord theory for beginners to look at creating some great sounding chord progressions.


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