Chord Quality – Playing Guitar Out of the Box

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Are your chord progressions sounding a bit boring and uninspired lately? Are you looking to take your sound from basic and predictable to something that makes your ears perk up? While there’s certainly nothing wrong with simple chord progressions—some of the best songs are made of them (The Beatles’ “Let It Be” for one)—you can add a whole lot of interest to your sound by paying attention to the quality of the chords you choose.

Chord quality refers to that certain feel or character specific chords evoke. Every chord tone has its own unique sound. Its own unique color. When a chord is described in terms like major, minor, diminished, or augmented, what is being referred to is the quality of the chord, or how that chord sounds. Want a sad chord? Choose a minor. Something more energetic? Choose a ninth. Using chords to create mood will breathe life into your music.

The following are 11 relatively common chord qualities that you should be aware of. You are no doubt familiar with a few of these or more even, depending on your skill level, while some may be completely foreign to you as they are used less often than others. The chord qualities we’ll explore here are:

  • Major and minor
  • Major and minor seventh
  • Dominant seventh
  • Major and minor sixth
  • Suspended fourth
  • Ninth
  • Diminished
  • Augmented

 

Working with a C major chord as our jump-off point (whose scale notes are C D E F G A B C), let’s take a look at the above qualities individually and the mood each elicits. It’s important to note here that the feel of chords, as with anything in music, is a subjective matter. If something doesn’t sound suspenseful or dark to you, then it doesn’t sound suspenseful or dark to you. You can determine for yourself the qualities of the chords you play.

Major

Major chords sound happy, bright and confident and are the simplest to play.

To build a major chord simply use the 1st (root), 3rd, and 5th notes in whatever scale you’re playing in.

Example:

Minor (m)

Minor chords sound sad, serious or discordant.

To build a minor chord use the 1st, a minor (or lowered/flattened) 3rd and a 5th. The only distinction between the major and minor chord is that the 3rd is lowered one semi-tone or half-step. That being said, the difference in quality between the two chords is significant. Check it out by playing the C major chord above and the Cm chord directly below.

Example:

Major Seventh (maj7)

Major seventh chords are considered to be thoughtful, soft, dreamy, or ethereal. You’ll hear a lot of seventh chords in Jazz music.

The C major seventh chord (written as Cmaj7 or even sometimes as CM7) is an easy-to-play open chord shape with a little more color than a traditional major chord. To build a major seventh chord you simply add a seventh to the major triad. The chord would include the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 7th tones of the major scale.

Example:

Minor Seventh (m7)

Minor seventh chords sound moody or contemplative.

The minor seventh uses the 1st, a flat 3rd, 5th, and a flat 7th tone of the major scale. Like major and minor chords, the only distinction between major seventh and minor seventh chords is that both the 3rd and the 7th notes are lowered one semi-tone or half-step.

Example:

Dominant Seventh (7)

Dominant seventh chords sound strong, powerful, and adventurous.

Dominant seventh chords are built from the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and flat 7th tones of the major scale. The dominant seventh is very similar to the minor seventh except the 3rd note isn’t flattened. So instead of the C, Eb, G, Bb of the minor seventh chord, the dominant seventh would read C, E, G, Bb.

Example:

Major Sixth (6)

Major sixth chords are fun and playful.

A major sixth chord uses the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 6th degree of the major scale.

Example:

Minor Sixth (m6)

Minor sixths sound a lot darker and mysterious than major sixths do.

Minor sixth chords are almost identical to major sixths except that their 3rd is lowered a degree. A minor sixth chord is built from the 1st, flat 3rd, 5th, and 6th degrees of the major scale.

Example:

Suspended Fourth (sus4)

Suspended fourth chords are majestic in nature and sound almost proud.

Suspended fourths are a little different than the others as they don’t follow a major or minor pattern. To build a suspended fourth chord, use the 1st, 4th, and 5th notes of the major scale.

Example:

Ninth (9)

Ninth chords are very energetic and lively.

To build a ninth chord, use the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 9th tones of the major scale. (Note: a minor ninth is built in a similar way except the third is lowered by a half-step.)

Example:

Diminished (dim)

Diminished chords sound dark and edgy.

A diminished chord is built using the 1st, a flat 3rd, and flat 5th tones of the major scale.

Example:

               Cdim

Augmented (+ or “aug”)

Augmented chords sound suspenseful, unstable and tense.

To build an augmented chord, use the 1st, 3rd, and sharp 5th tones of the major scale. This is basically the same as a major chord, but with the 5th note moved up a fret.

Example:

              C+

 

 

Learning to hear the characteristics of chords will give you a broader sonic palette to work with and will help to develop your ear so that you can hear the differences between chords like C major and Cdim the way you see differences between colors like blue and red.

The above are just some of many chords at your disposal that will add color to your sound. Take the time to play around with chord quality and “watch” your music come alive.

 

Kathy Dickson writes for GuitarTricks.com, which offers guitar lessons for beginners

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