7 Filling In All the Other Chords – Guitar Theory


Filling In All the Other Chords

In This Chapter

  • Playing power chords
  • Defining suspended chords
  • The seven types of seventh chords
  • Sixth chords and ninth chords
  • Elevenths, thirteenths, and more

Most guitarists learn chords by reading chord charts or having another guitarist show them new chords. And this way of learning is good up to the point where you realize that not every chord is on a chord chart (or at least the chord charts to which you have access) or that your friends don’t know a particular chord you want to know.

But you already know about how and where to find notes on your fretboard, and you also now know how to construct the four basic types of chords. Whether you know it or not, you now have the ability to make any chord. And also whether you know it or not, the name of any chord gives you specific directions on how to build it.

In this chapter, you’ll learn how every possible type of chord is created and you’ll also get charts for many more open-position chords. What’s even more important is that you’re laying the necessary groundwork toward being able to create some very new and exciting variations on these chords down the line, as you’ll discover in Part 5.

Chords Without Thirds

In Chapter 6, you learned that the four basic chords (major, minor, augmented, and diminished) are all made up of a root note, plus the third and fifth notes of the Major Scale of the root note. And you probably deduced that all chords need to have a root, a third, and a fifth.

Of course, in music theory, and especially in guitar theory, this is not always the case. There are two types of chords that do not involve the use of thirds. One is technically not a chord but has, for all intents and purposes, become one through the prominence of the electric guitar.

Power Chords

Play an E major chord and then play an Em chord, listening carefully to the difference between the two. Hopefully, by this point in your guitar playing you’re hearing the difference between the major and minor chords fairly clearly.

Now, play either the E or Em chord one more time, only this time play only the three thickest strings, the ones closest to you. Do this again and listen closely. Is this a major or a minor chord?

Try repeating this same procedure using A and Am. For our new “mystery chord” strike only the A, D, and G strings. Both of these new chords are shown (and played) in the next illustration.

Track 21

E and A power chords (E5 and A5).

Some people will hear these new chords as being major and some will hear them as being minor. As you learned in Chapter 6, it’s the third that determines whether a chord is major or minor and these chords have no third. Because of your work with intervals in Chapter 5, you may be hearing them simply as fifths.

And that’s exactly what they are. They are called power chords, and are often referred to as 5 chords because they are made of the root note and the fifth note from the Major Scale. So, for example, the E5 chord from our last example contains the E note (the root) and B note (second fret of the A string), which is the fifth note of the E Major Scale. The third note, the one at the second fret of the D string, is another E. It is an octave higher (eight notes) than the open low E string.

Here are chord charts for open-position power chords. Make careful note of which strings not to play.

Open-position power chords.

Suspended Chords

In a suspended chord, or “sus” chords, as they are often called, the third of the chord is replaced by another note, usually the fourth of the Major Scale.

Suspended chords are like power chords in that they sound neither major nor minor because they have no third. Technically speaking, without having a third they cannot be any of the four basic chords, so suspended chords are a special category all their own.

As mentioned, the fourth usually serves as the replacement note for the third and is generally written as “sus4” in a chord chart or musical cheat sheet or fake sheet. You would construct a sus4 chord like this:

root perfect fourth perfect fifth

Occasionally, the major second is used as a substitute for the third, as shown here:

root major second perfect fifth

This chord is commonly referred to as “sus2” even though that’s another can of worms that we’ll deal with later. Technically, there isn’t such a thing as a “sus2” chord but so many musicians use the term “sus2” nowadays that it’s become commonplace to use it.

Open-position suspended chords.


To make a sixth chord, simply add the sixth note of the Major Scale to the basic chord, whether it is major or minor. For example, C6 would be made up of C (the root), E (the major third), G (the perfect fifth), and A (the major sixth). Cm6 would be made up of C (the root), E (the minor third), G (the perfect fifth), and A (the major sixth).

Open-position sixth chords.

Seven Types of Sevenths

There are seven different kinds of seventh chords, each one with its own distinct tonal mood. This makes perfect sense when you realize that, in the Major Scale, the seventh is the next interval of a third up from the fifth. You’re simply stacking another third directly on top of the triad of your basic chord.


When you see just a “7” in the chord name, the chord is called a dominant seventh. It has a bluesy feel and sounds transitory, though not to the extent that the augmented and diminished chords do. You create the dominant seventh by adding a minor third up from the fifth. Most people find it a lot easier to think of it in terms of adding the flat seventh from the Major Scale. So the formula for dominant seventh is:

Open-position dominant seventh chords.

Major Sevenths

Major sevenths are made by starting with the major chord (root, third, and fifth) and then adding to it the note an interval of a major third higher than the fifth. This note turns out to be the seventh note of the Major Scale, so you might prefer to think of it this way:


You may occasionally find major seventh chords denoted by “delta” symbols, or triangles (“∆”). Cmaj7, for instance, may also be written as C∆7.

It’s helpful to know that the term “major” is essentially a default position when it comes to chords. You never see the word “major” used on a chord sheet because you’re supposed to assume a chord is major unless told otherwise. You’ll always see “m” for minor, “aug” or “+” for augmented, or “dim” for diminished. But if you see a chord marked “E,” for example, you can correctly assume it’s meant to be E major.

In fact, the only time you’ll see the term “major” or its abbreviation “maj” is when you’re supposed to play the major seventh chord. This is easy to remember and helps to distinguish a major seventh from a “regular” or “plain” dominant seventh.

Open-position major seventh chords.

Minor Sevenths

And keeping that thought about the use of “maj” for “major” comes in handy when you see a minor seventh chord. Remember that the “m” for minor means that the third has been changed. So any minor seventh will have a minor third but still keep the dominant seventh (the flatted seventh of the normal dominant chord). In other words, the minor seventh would be made in this fashion:

Minor sevenths are denoted by using the “m” of the minor chord and the “7” of the dominant seventh. E minor seventh, for instance, would be written out as “Em7” on a chord chart.

Open-position minor seventh chords.

Minor Major Sevenths

This distinction between minor and major becomes very important because there is such a thing as a “minor major seventh.” You would start with the minor chord and then add the major seventh to it, like so:

Minor major seventh chords are very rare, but they do show up quite a bit in rock music as part of group playing. When the guitarists are playing a minor chord and the bass player moves from the root note down a half-step to the major seventh, usually on his way to the root note of the next chord, together they have created the minor major chord.

Minor major sevenths are denoted with the “m” of minor and the “maj7” of the major seventh, usually the latter encased in parentheses, as in “Am(maj7)” as an example.

Open-position minor major seventh chords.

Augmented Sevenths

Dominant sevenths are often added to augmented chords. They are denoted as regular sevenths with “(#5)” added to the notation, such as “D7(#5).” You construct them in the following way:

Diminished Sevenths and Half-Diminished Sevenths

Diminished chords are a special case. When you see the term “diminished seventh,” you are adding a dominant seventh to a diminished chord and then also taking the added step of diminishing that dominant seventh. As crazy as it sounds, you’re flatting a flatted seventh note!

However, lowering a flatted seventh note one additional half-step gives you the sixth, so many folks prefer to think of diminished seventh chords in this manner:

Diminished sevenths are also called “full diminished sevenths” and are usually indicated by “dim7” or a degree sign with the 7, as in E°7.

Things get a little more complicated because you can also add just a dominant seventh to a diminished chord, like this:

These are called “half-diminished chords,” and you’ll commonly see them written out as minor sevenths with “(b5)” attached. “Am7(b5)” would be an example. A degree sign with a vertical slash through it is also used in some music notation. This degree-with-vertical-slash symbol replaces the “m7(5)” part of the chord name.

Open-position augmented, diminished, and half-diminished seventh chords.

Extending Chords Beyond the Octave

You might think that, since the Major Scale has only seven notes, there would be no more possible chords than these. But where would be the fun in that? There are also what are called extended chords, which means they use notes extended past the octaves. This may seem strange, but it’s very simple to grasp with a little bit of renumbering of your scale degrees.

Take a piece of paper and write out the notes of the C Major Scale on two different lines, like this:

Now add the degree numbers over the top of the first line, but on the second line continue on numbering the notes from 8 to 14, like this:

The root, third, and fifth are already spoken for in the basic chord, so you won’t have need of the numbers 8, 10, and 12. The second and fourth are used for the suspended chords, so you usually will not see those numbers used either. And you’ve already used six and seven, so all that’s left are nine, eleven, and thirteen.

Adding On

If you see a chord that says “add9,” or “add11” (simply adding the thirteenth is the same as a sixth chord), you simply follow the instructions. First, you will have to figure out that the ninth note of the scale is the same as the second one, but once you made that realization, you would put together an “add9” chord this way:

An “add11” would be constructed like this:

Piling On

Ninth chords (like “C9”), eleventh chords, and thirteenth chords require extra steps. Any chord with a number higher than seven, meaning just the number without the word “add,” implies that the seventh is still part of the chord. If the word “maj” is also in the chord name, as in Cmaj9, Dmaj11, or Amaj13, this means that the major seventh is the chord you’re giving another note to.

So, any “9” chord would be made:

And “maj9” chords would contain the following notes:

In eleventh chords, it’s implied that both the seventh and ninth are present. For thirteenth, you assume that the seventh, ninth, and eleventh are already there. So C11, for example, is C, E, G, B (dominant seventh), D, and F. Cmaj13 would be C, E, G, B (major seventh as indicated by the “maj” in “maj13”), D, F, and A.

Finally, you can also have accidentals added to the mix. For instance, C7(9), which is C, E, G, B, and D or C7(13), which is C, E, G, B, and A.

When an extended chord includes an accidental, such as E79, it is called an altered chord.

Putting Theory to Practice

You’ve learned quite a lot in this chapter and it will not all sink in immediately. The best way to get chord theory into your head is to think about it from time to time in small doses. And it’s best to do so both in generic terms and specific terms. For example, if you’re sitting on hold on the phone, go over the difference between a major and a minor chord in generic intervallic terms. Major is “root, major third, perfect fifth.” Minor is “root, minor third, perfect fifth.” When you’ve got that locked up, try adding sevenths. Again, don’t worry about specific chords and notes. Focus first on the formulas.

When it comes to learning the specific notes, start in very small doses and use only chords you play often. You’re at a red light in your car? What are the notes of an Em chord? It’s very helpful to remember them in order of scale degree, like E, G, and B, in answer to this question.

Work on one chord at a time. If you can memorize the notes of one chord every week, you’ll be making great progress.

The Least You Need to Know

  • Power chords (also called “5 chords”) have only the root and fifth of a chord. Technically, they are intervals, not chords.
  • In suspended chords, the third is replaced with either the fourth or the second.
  • There are seven different types of seventh chords. You will run into dominant sevenths, major sevenths, and minor sevenths much more often than the other four types.
  • “Add” chords add a single note. In extended chords such as ninths, elevenths, and thirteenths, it’s implied that some kind of seventh is part of the chord.
  • Memorize chord construction first by formula and then by specific notes. Do both in very small quantities at a time.