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.
As the creator of Hub Guitar, Grey has compiled hundreds of guitar lessons, written several books, and filmed hundreds of video lessons. He teaches private lessons in his Boston studio, as well as via video chat through TakeLessons.

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