Chords - A Spotter's Guide

The inclusion of a tablature section in the Shadow Cabinet has been very helpful to many people, but also raised a few questions regarding chords. Many people know about the basic, common or garden variety of chords, but when all those little numbers start to creep in, well, things go astray.

I'm going to explain what they all mean and give you enough of the theory to enable you work out your own chords to various songs. Don't run away just 'cos I said theory ! This is going to be quite straightforward, so just relax :-)

Why Is This Useful ?

Each of the following snippets of theory will help you "narrow your search" when hunting chords. By understanding the theory, and what these theoretical constructs sound like, you'll be able to more successfully pick out the chords, and also remember melodies.

Firstly, let look at a musical scale. I've used tables here, so if your browser doesn't support them, then you got trouble.

Scale Of C Major
IntervalTonicSecondMajor ThirdFourthFifthSixthMajor 7thOctave


The use of intervals is very important when describing chords. An interval is simply the musical distance between any two notes. A major chord, at it's most basic form uses the tonic, major third, and fifth degrees (or notes) in a chord. A minor chord uses the tonic, minor third and fifth degrees. So you can see there's just one semitone difference between the two. For example A major uses A, C# and E, while A minor uses A, C and E.

Which musical note corresponds to which degree in any given scale depends on which scale you are looking at. This is where key signature comes into play, and here's where your memory gets a bit of a workout. The key of C, as shown above contains no sharps or flats - that's the easy one !

Key Signatures (Flats)
F1 Flat (Bb)
Bb2 Flats (Bb and Eb)
Eb3 Flats (Bb, Eb and Ab)
Ab4 Flats (Bb, Eb, Ab and Db)
Db5 Flats (Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb)

Notice the Cycle of Fourths happening there ? Each key is an interval of a fourth away from it's neighbour, and this adds or removes one flat from the key signature.

Key Signatures (Sharps)
G1 Sharp (F#)
D2 Sharps (F# and C#)
A3 Sharps (F#, C# and G#)
E4 Sharps (F#, C#, G# and D#)
B5 Sharps (F#, C#, G#, D#, A#)

Notice the Cycle of Fifths happening there ? Each key is an interval of a fifth away from it's neighbour, and this adds or removes one sharp from the key signature.

So Why Is That Useful ?

If you're jamming along with a song and can tell which notes you "can" and "can't" play then you can narrow down the range of chords that you'll have to search through.

Scale Of Eb Major
IntervalTonicSecondMajor ThirdFourthFifthSixthMajor 7thOctave
This is the key of the Civil War Lament on the first Jack Frost album. Try playing those notes along with it - see how it helps take the guesswork out of accompanying the song ?

What about numbers in chords ?

Now to the numbers. The numbers are simply telling you which extra notes must be added to the basic chord. So, Gsus4 means play a G chord (G B D) and add the fourth degree of the chord (C). Am7 means play an A minor chord and add the seventh degree of the scale (G). However a couple of questions arise from this basic scheme.

What's the difference between "sus" and "added" and "augmented" etc ?

No idea. I used to know well enough to pass my exams, but that knowledge, along with other high school flotsam, has long since deserted me. But on the other hand, I don't think there's much difference, practically speaking, between the words in each group of terms.

Sus, Added, or just the number

This is a new note being added to the chord. Don't change any of the others, just drop this one in. The tuning of guitar strings sometimes causes notes to be removed as a side effect though. For example, open A9 (X22000), has no C# in it, because the 9 (which is a B) is being played on the open second string, which used to play C#.

Are A9 and Aadded2 and Asus2 and Asus9all the same thing ?

I think so, but I'm sure there's a sound theoretical reason for them to be named differently. Practically speaking, I wouldn't worry about the difference though. The only difference I can think of for writing 2 instead of 9 is that the 9 is an octave above the 2 (see the first table - the 2nd and 9th notes are both D), but on the guitar, depending on where you're playing the chords, they're all mixed in together anyway. The hell with it is my feeling on this. We've got more important things to worry about !

Augmented/Sharp or Diminished/Flattened

As their literal translation suggests, these terms change the pitch of the indicated note by a semitone. So G7b5 means play a G7 chord (G B D F) and flatten the fifth degree of the chord (G B Db F). Don't confuse diminished notes with diminished chords, which are a whole seperate issue. You won't find many of these types of chords in Church songs anyway.

Major seventh or seventh ?

When we talk about chords like C7, G7, A7 etc...we're not telling the whole story. Here's is where the "count the notes in the scale" method breaks down. The seventh note in, for example, the scale of C is a B. But a C7 chord has C, E, G and Bb ! This is because it's quicker to say C7 that Cb7 - just remember that you should always use the flattened 7th, unless its a major 7 chord. In that case, use the note from the major scale, in this case, a B, not a Bb. Most Church songs use major seventh's by the bucket load ;-), while normal seven chords are not often used.

These two chords are very easy to tell apart. The major seventh is the "cool, airy, relaxed" one, while the seventh "wants to resolve" - it's the jazzy chord from all those twelve-bar blues songs you've heard. Check out the way G7 goes to C. It wants to resolve ! Ever heard that Phil Collin's song...what was the damn name...anyway, it ENDS on a seventh chord, without resolving, and leaves you feeling VERY frustrated ! A major seven chord doesn't do that to you.

Diminished Chords

Just a stack of minor thirds (notes that are three semitones apart). Take your first note, go up a minor third, play that note, go up a minor third and so on. There are only 3 of these chords !

How To Transcribe A Church Song

Other than the use of luvverly thick chords, with ninths and major sevens hanging off them, there are few surprise in Church songs. This means that you can use a few basic rules to have a damn fine guess at the chord structure.

Tonic, sub-dominant, dominant and relative minor ! These are your friends ! Any chord you manage to work out is likely to be one of those four. This is best illustrated by example.

In the key of C, your four basic "rock 'n' roll" chords are C, F, G and Am. Try strumming those and see how they fit together - get their "sound relationship" into your head because they'll be your "best guess" chords while you're hunting.
Basic Chords In Key of C
Relative MinorA minor
Sub DominantF
The next layer out is the relative minor chords to the sub dominant and dominant. In this case they are D minor (relative minor to F) and E minor (relative minor to G). A relative minor chord is the minor chord three semitones below the major chord you're talking about. This chords uses some of the same notes as the scale of that major key, that's why it is relative to the major key.

Those chords will cover much of what you hear in Church songs. As you learn how the addition of other notes (nines, seven, sixes, sus4) changes the "flavour" of a chord, you'll know when to add them.

So if you find that in various places you can play Em and G, looking out for C (sub dominant, or a fourth up from G), D (dominant, or fifth up from G), Am (relative minor to C) and Bm (relative minor to D).

I'm still stuck, what else can I do ?

If you are stuck with a particularly dodgy chord, you'll have to build it up one note at a time. Listen to that piece of music over and over again (though you probably already have !), with guitar in hand. Select notes from the melody and bass line (or just random if you have to) and see if they "fit". If they seem to do so, then choose others and keep adding. Use your knowledge of chords, key signatures and the "feel" of intervals to guide your choices. Try and learn what a sus4, a seventh, a ninth feel like when you're playing them. It'll help you in your soloing too. Keep adding notes until the chord you're strumming fits in with the song you're listening to. Does it give the same feeling when you play that chord as part of the song ?

Prove It !

Here's a live, as-I'm-typing, honest-to-goodness demonstration ! I'm serious here, I'm not making this up ! I'm going to try and work out the chords to Peter Koppes' Arabia - a slightly non-standard chord structure. If I knew more about the music theory behind "arabian" sounding music it'd probably help, but I'm just going to have to play it by ear.

The start - there's a low bass "E" being played and it sounds minor, so try strumming E minor over it. Yep, that works. But there's a rising note, it goes up in each bar - from E to F# to G to A. So let's try that - strum E minor, then stretch out with the pinky, playing the 024000, then 025000, then 022200. That's the first couple of bars, now it feels like its changing - but that last A that we added seems to have "held over" into the new bit, is this some kind of A chord ? To me, this change "feels" like a big enough shift to be a fourth - so from Em, up a fourth, with an A in it - gotta be A minor ! And yes, it is !

The descending bass line in the A minor section should be easy to follow - I just tried stretching my third finger out to play Am7/G (302010) but it sounds wrong - that Am7 sounds too relaxed and cool to be there. Listen closer...the guitar parts are playing some interesting notes - there's a B, I'm sure and that chiming G runs through this whole chord progression. What we have are a G in the bass, a B and G higher up, and it still has to have some part of the A minor chord. What I've come up with is A7add9/G, or possibly, G6add2. It's played 302000. A weird one, but it flows easily from the previous A minor chord and to my ears it sounds pretty close to the recording.

Next chord ! We need an F# somewhere, for sure, because it's part of the descending bass line that runs through this progression. The B from the previous chord has dropped to A....and that's about all I can pick up. I'll be lazy and guess that Peter left just two fingers on the guitar, so play F# in the bass and the A on the third string (200200). What the smeg is that ?! D6add9/F# ?!? The last chord is easy, just drop back to E minor. To summarize, we've got the opening section of this song ! Em Em2 Em Emsus4 Am A7add9/G (no third) D6add9/F# Em

It is also the verse, as far as I can tell, so that's half the song knocked on the head already. Even if it's not perfect, it's close enough to sing too, which is all I aim for.

Next, lets try the chorus. The "meat" of that enormously cool shift lies in the parallel fifths. B and F# move to C and G, then back. Try holding those notes by themselves and see what I mean. We have to keep that shift in the first chord....gee, looks like that's not going to work. The rest of the chord, being based on a B in the bass, seems to be a Bmsus4, played as a barre chord on the eighth fret. Notice how the chord sounds wrong with the minor 3rd ? The sus4 fixes that, because it replaces the minor third.

The second chord is a bit of cheat, for me :) Try playing an normal open E chord. Then move the fingers you've got on the fretboard up by one fret. How Spanish can you get ?! Well, I noticed that "feel" is the same as what happens between the Bm sus4 and whatever comes next. I hold the eighth fret barre and make the shape of the E, then slide my three fingers up one fret - bingo ! Now if I can just name that sucker.....G C E F# B and B in the bass.....any takers ? I'm not brave enough ! Ah...but wait , all this eighth fret business puts a bit of a crimp on things - can't we play it open ? Well, the G C and E make a chord of C, so can we play the B and F# in an open chord ? Yes ! Try playing 032002, that's a Cmaj7aug4 - and we can live without the B in the bass. Change the previous Bmsus4 to a B minor played as a barre on the second fret and it sounds OK., that minor third, the D, stands out. Listening to the recording I can't hear a clear definition of either minor or major (D or D#) so let's try and eliminate it from what we're playing here. Two solutions seem to occur, after some strumming. Either play B9 (224422) or alternate between B major (2224442) and Bsus4/C (23445X), which manages to sound more eastern, though is harder to play.

The third chord....the bass note has shifted to a G..try playing a G chord. Well, it's missing something, but it seems close enough. The last chord is a little trickier...need an F# on the highest string, the C# below it does the A below that....F#sus4 has just the right tension to it, I think, and seems to complete the progression.

Play it through a few times and see how it feels - seems pretty close to me, though it's difficult to shift between some of the chords quickly enough. Intro and Verse: Em Emadd2 Em Emsus4 Am Am7add9/G (no third) D6add9/F# Em
Chorus: B -> Bsus4/C -> B Cmaj7#4 G F#sus4

OK, that was possibly one of the most complicated songs I've ever done ! Bad choice, but I'm not throwing that work away :-) It can be simplified a lot - I think, for example, the first four E minor chords can all be played as just a straight E minor, but it sounds cooler with all the extra bits.

Transcription and article by Brian Smith
Music Theory by Pythagoras and various medieval persons.
Arabia by Peter Koppes, from his Water Rites album

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