Post your playing posers and technical teasers to: Theory Godmother, Guitar Techniques, 30 Monmouth Street, Bath, BA1 2BW; or email me at email@example.com - every wish is your Godmother’s command!
The Unmusical Box? Dear Theory Godmother
I’ve decided that it’s high time I knuckled down and started to learn about chords on the guitar properly, rather than relying on the box shapes I learned from diagrams when I began playing. At present, if someone wants me to play a D major chord I’ll play the little triangular shape on the top three strings or a barre chord at the 5th fret. But the problem is that I don’t really know what I’m doing, I’m just responding to a prompt with a shape I’ve memorised.
I want my choice of chord to be founded on a more musical basis, rather than just an automatic response. Could you tell me a good way of kickstarting this, bearing in mind I’m going to be a complete novice at it to begin with?
Gordon One of the main barriers between guitarists and understanding harmony is the way chords are taught. Pianists don’t learn from diagrams, they programme the information musically, which is why they’re the smart-asses in a band when it comes to theory.
The first things to look for are the triads at the heart of every chord. Triads are formed from the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of a Major or Minor scale and give us the names of the notes contained in the chord boxes with which we’re all familiar. You mentioned D Major: Ex 1 shows the D scale with the 1st, 3rd and 5th piled up to form the chord. The notes are D, F# and A. If you already know the names of the notes on the fretboard – and if not, write yourself out a neck chart to refer to – then try to relate this info to the chord shapes for D that you already know (Ex 2).
Minor chords are dealt with in the same manner. Look at the D Minor scale in Ex 3: once again, we merely extract the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the scale and that gives us D, F and A. Check it against the shape down at the nut (Ex 4) and you can see that this is correct.
The same rule applies to every chord in the book. Take the 1st, 3rd and 5th from any scale, and you’ll end up with the basic triad.
Verify all this by exploring scales, extracting the triads and matching them to the shapes you’ve learned. Get a good scale book and another on harmony, but don’t be disheartened that this is a lot of work, because you’re quickly going to begin seeing patterns emerging, and notice that virtually all the chord shapes we learn emanate from the CAGED system, which we’ve covered often in GT in the past.
Nearly all other chords are built from basic triads and so getting this information ingrained will help immeasurably and provide you with a strong grounding in guitar harmony.
Count On Us Dear Theory Godmother
I’m sending you a bar of music from a solo I’m working on. The trouble is, I can hear what’s going on when I play the CD, and come up with an approximation based on what I’m hearing, but I can’t completely nail it because I can’t count my way through the bar! How would you count it? If I can play it through slowly with a proper way of counting it, I will be able to bring it up to speed quicker than the hit-or-miss method I’m currently using. Thanks...
Ian Technically you’re correct, but it’s just a short hand way to reference the chords. The rule-breaking antics of the blues are well known among musicians and so just saying, “Let’s play a blues in A” is all that’s necessary! But you’re right: a straightforward I-IV-V sequence in, say, A major would comprise the chords of A major (the I), D major (the IV) and E7 (the V) and would sound less bluesy than you might be expecting. Whereas a ‘proper’ blues in A (all chords are made dominant 7ths or similar) would be A7 for the I chord, D7 for the IV and E7 for the V. So if you had to write the chords down, then I7, IV7, V7 in such-and-such a key would indeed convey the text book correct information.