Chord Formulas for Building Guitar Chords | Hub Guitar

Chord Formulas for Building Guitar Chords

Interpreting Chord Symbols

What do these symbols mean to you? For a non-musician, maybe they mean nothing. For a beginning pianist, they might mean “places to put fingers.” To a developing guitarist, they might be “formulas containing certain notes.” To a master musician they might be “suggested harmonies.”

A chordA harmonic structure (that is, the combination of several notes) which ideally produces a pleasing sound. Chords are normally created by stacking notes in groups of thirds. is a formula. It is a shorthand way of describing multiple notes that to be played at once. A chord symbolA symbol representing multiple notes to be played as a chord, such as Cmaj7, D7, or simply “F”. will always translate to the exact same notes; a “C” major played by a guitarist in Brazil contains the same notes as a “C” major played by a pianist in Canada: C, E, G.

Start with the root note

To figure out what notes a chord contains, the first hint is the letter name of the chord. This is called the root noteFor a chord or scale, this is often both the lowest note in the chord, and also the note to which all other notes in the structure are compared. For a scale, this term is essentially synonymous with the tonal center.. For instance, the root note of Cmaj is the note “C”. This note is definitely a part of the chord. It also tells us that, to create the chord we will draw from a particular series of pitches: a major scale created from that root:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7

From these pitches, we can create many different chords, all of which can be described with chord symbols. The Cmaj chord will contain the pitches 1, 3 and 5. Memorizing the formulas for the chords lets you build any chord, in any key—anywhere on the guitar!

“C Major” Chords

Chords with a root of “C” that can be created using the C major scale.

Chord Symbol Formula Pitches Audio
Cmaj 1 3 5 C E G
Csus4 1 4 5 C F G
Csus2 1 2 5 C D G
C5 1 5 C G
Cmaj7 1 3 5 7 C E G B
C6 1 3 5 6 C E G A

These are just a few possibilities. What if we want to construct some kind of “C” chord that uses notes not in the C major scale? Would we still use the C major scale as a point of reference? Yes, absolutely. We will describe the notes in relation to how a C major scale would have been. Consider the C minor chord: 1, ♭3, 5. The “3” is the tone “E” from C major; the flat sign indicates it has been dropped a half step to E♭. The possibility of altering pitches creates many more chords types.

“C Anything” Chords

Chords with a root note of C, created from any combination of notes.

Note that chords with a major third and minor seventh are called “dominant 7th” chords, and are abbreviated with just 7. For example C7 can also be called Cdom7 or C dominant 7.

Chord Symbol Formula Pitches Example
Cmin 1 ♭3 5 C E♭ G
Caug 1 3 ♯5 C E G♯
Cdim 1 ♭3 ♭5 C E♭ G♭
C-7 1 ♭3 5 ♭7 C E♭ G B♭
C-7♭5 1 ♭3 ♭5 ♭7 C E♭ G♭ B♭
Cdim7 1 ♭3 ♭5 ♭♭7 C E♭ G♭ B♭♭*
C7 1 3 5 ♭7 C E G B♭
C-7♯5 1 ♭3 ♯5 ♭7 C E♭ G♯ B♭
Cmaj7♯5 1 3 ♯5 7 C E G♯ B
Cmaj7♭5 1 3 ♭5 7 C E G♭ B
C7♯5 1 3 ♯5 ♭7 C E G♯ B♭
C7♭5 1 3 ♭5 ♭7 C E G♭ B♭

* a B♭♭ is also called an A note.

Any configuration of notes can be considered a chord if it sounds good in certain situations. Any chord can be described using these formulas.

Until now, we’ve mostly used chords with a root, third, fifth and seventh; we haven’t talked about possibilities for other pitches. We’ll discuss this in another lesson on chord tensions.

Key Tasks

  1. Memorize all 18 chord formulas presented here: major, sus2, sus4, 5, maj7, maj6, minor, augmented, diminished, minor7, minor7♭5, dim7, dom7, minor7#5, maj7#5, maj7♭5, dom7#5, dom7♭5.
  2. Be sure to understand that some chord symbols can be written in different ways. For instance, “Amin7”, “Am7”, “A-7” and “A minor 7th” all refer to the same chord.

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