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Understanding Basic Chord Theory On Guitar

How To Build Basic Chords

As an instructor, I don't want my students to feel the same way I did when I was first learning guitar. I was not confident in my guitar playing abilities, even after learning a few things and being able to play songs.

What was holding me back was my lack of understanding of music theory, and now I'm paying it forward and showing my students an easy way to understand guitar theory, so you can benefit in your guitar learning journey.

Functional music theory doesn't have to be complicated. And it's actually not. We are going to make our brains work a little and learn a little music theory.

But we're going to learn it in a practical and useful way. If you're new to music theory there's really nothing to be intimidated about! In fact, once you're done reading this article you'll probably want to know more. 

Here's what we're going to do. We're going to learn a simple scale, and we're going to learn how to build chords from that scale.

It sounds simple, but it's going to unlock the fretboard a little bit. You'll be able to see the fretboard in a different way. And you'll build confidence in what you're playing.

Building A Chord From The Major Scale

The C Major scale is often used because it doesn't have any sharps or flats, so we'll use that today. The notes are C-D-E-F-G-A-B. Pretty easy right? If you're not sure how to play this, jump to 2:15 in the video.

You can build a Major scale on any note with a series of whole steps (W) and half steps (H). Here's the pattern:


Each one of these notes are called a scale degree. And each one of these notes also represents a chord. So a C Major scale has a C chord, D chord, E chord, and so on.

Some are Major, some are minor, and one is diminished. What chord is Major and minor depends on where you start in the scale. But the formula is the same.

To build a chord, start on a note, and play every other note. Take a look at the C Major scale again:


If you want to build a chord starting on C, you'd play C, skip a note to play E, skip another note to play G.

C-E-G makes a C Major chord. The first note you start on is the root note, and will tell you what chord it is.

Now, you have to play the notes together for them to be a chord. And that's what an open C chord is. Just C, E, and G (with another C and E added). 

Let's try another chord. Starting on D (which will be our root note) you'll skip a note to play the F, and skip another note to play an A. D-F-A. This makes a D minor chord. 

If you built a chord on the E note, what would the notes be?

If you counted correctly it would be E-G-B. That makes an E minor chord.

If you continued doing this you would build all of the chords in a C Major scale. 

C Major

D minor

E minor

F Major

G Major

A minor

B diminished

Diminished chords are another topic, but they're built the same way. 

How To Practice Building Chords

Now you know chords are just a pattern of 3 (or more) notes. In the video I played the C Major scale all on one string.

This is a good way to visualize the whole notes and half notes, but it's not a practical way to play it. In fact, the scale itself doesn't really matter in this exercise. I used C Major because it's the easiest to visualize. But you can pick any scale.

Here's how you should practice this. Take a scale, like the first position C Major scale, and build chords off the notes. Not on paper like above. Actually build the chords on guitar.

Since you have to play the three notes at the same time you'll have to play them on different strings. And that's where the beauty of this exercise comes in. It makes you have to find the other notes on the fretboard.

Try to build them from the fret you start on. So when you get to D, instead of playing an open D chord try to play the chord starting on the 5th fret of the 5th string.

Then find the F on the 4th string, and the A on the 3rd string. 

This is a fantastic way to memorize the notes on the fretboard. And the hidden value is how you view the fretboard after you do this for a while.

You'll stop seeing random frets and start seeing patterns. Over time your fingers will instinctively find the note you're looking for. And that's a pretty awesome thing.

Final Thoughts

So what do you think, not bad right? Take this in small chunks, stick to just one scale every day or two. If this was something you enjoyed you should consider taking my Real Guitar Success Course. I go deeper into the fundamentals of music theory and also have fun exercises and play along tracks to practice them.

Let me know in the comments if you found this lesson helpful. This really helps me to make sure you're getting lessons that help you grow as a guitar player.

>> Check Out Day #23 :  Easy Fingerpicking Lesson For Guitar… Beautiful Song!

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