Want to Learn Chords without reading music?

By Rick E. Gustafson

I stress to my students the importance of knowing as many chords and their inversions as possible. I believe that knowing the harmonic layout of the fingerboard helps one learn and understand guitar music faster and more comprehensively.

Many of my university guitar students (I am the ad hoc instructor for the University of Wisconsin - Sheboygan) are rock guitarists who can't read music. Many are fine players who learned by ear. While they can play, they just don't know quite what it is they are playing.

For example, they may refer to chords as "grunge," "squash," or perhaps "the Hendrix chord" as the kinds of chords they play. When I explain that the "Hendrix" chord is really a "7 sharp 9" chord (ex. Purple Haze E7#9), they are somewhat astonished that there is a name associated with the chord.

For my students who want to learn to chords, but not learn to read notes, I have them do the following:


1. Learn the name of the pitch of the note on every fret. Thus, the first string ascending from the open position is: E, F, F#, G... and descending from the 12th fret, E, Eb, D, Db, C... etc. for all strings, all frets. Some notes have two pitches (F# and Gb, etc. and are termed enharmonics) So, if I ask the student to play an "A" on the second string, I expect him/her to immediately play the note on 10th fret.

2. Learn the many chords based on the barre F, Bb, and Db positions (all first fret chords). I think most of you know these positions but essentially they are the E, A and C chords moved up one fret to incorporate a barre position/form. Back in the 60s I had my students play the song "Proud Mary" using only one barre form: thus the opening sequence was C, A, C, A, C, A, G, F, D but all in the barre F position, etc.

3. Learn that every one of the barre position chords resulted in 12 different chords depending on the fret at which it was played. An F position chord on the 3rd fret is G, etc. (see #2)

4. Learn the derivitives of the barre position chords. Example, barre F minus the 2nd finger equals F minor, F minus the 2nd and 4th fingers equals Fm7 (minor seventh) etc.

5. Be able to recite the pitches of the notes in any chord played. Example, using the barre F from 6th string to 1st: F, C, F, A, C, F; or Fm7: F, C, Eb, Ab, C, F. If the student is still interested in going further, I next teach the major scale and the harmonic relationship of each of the pitches to the chord.

6. Using F again: F is the root, tonic or 1st (one) of the chord; C, the fifth; A, the third. Fm7: F, the root; C, the fifth, Eb the minor 7th; Ab the minor third, etc.

7. By now, the student can relate the pitches to the various inversions of the chords and understands why any chord can be played in so many different positions.

8. Next we are ready for more complex chords such as 9ths, 11ths and 13ths. I start with C7 in first position middle four strings (fingered 3,2,4,1 or C,E,Bb,C). By playing a C major scale 9 tones, the student lands on D (second string, 3rd fret). That is the 9th. Then I ask them, "Where do you think the sharp 9th is?" "Up one fret!" "Exactly." "What is that chord?" "C7#9" "You're right." The chord requires a new fingering pattern (2,1,3,4 or C,E,Bb,D#). Then I say, "slide that up to E7 based on 7th fret, and what do you get?" "E7#9" "Yup, oh isn't that the Jimi Hendrix chord?" (ha).

9. By this time, knowing what the chord is and WHY it is what it is starts getting clearer. Naturally, many of these chords have their own positions (I encourage the students learn at least two of these extended chord form positions) and while the full barre positions are not usually possible any longer, the basic structure is still found in the needed location. Huh? Take Bb7b5 for example. F barre position on the 6th fret equals Bb; take off the 4th finger and that equals Bb7. The fifth of the chord is the F on the second string (6th fret). But the fifth needs to be flatted, so the chord form needs rearranging to play the Fb (or E, enharmonically) on the 5th fret.

10. If students then learn the notes on the staff, it becomes easy for them to begin to play chord melody style. Example, given the staff note is A on the first leger line above the treble clef staff and the chord is F. By playing a Db barre position starting on the fifth fret, the result is an F chord with the A as the highest sounding (or melody) note. However, for variety, they can also play a Bb barre position starting on the 8th fret and the A note will be on the 10th fret second string. Remember the example from above?

11. How can this apply to classical guitar? While I am counting on my memory at this time, I think from the 20 Sor Studies (the Segovia edition), No. 13 (in Am) is basically a chord melody piece using mostly 3 and 4 note chords. Good note readers can play this piece without difficulty. But one can analyze the chords and melody and come up with the same result, or quite possible a whole new arrangement using the harmonic structure (the chords) and the top note (melody). By substituting jazz or extended chords (Am could be Am9 or Cmaj7 etc.) many harmonic variations are possible. And, this is why guitarists such as Joe Pass (deceased) or Johnny Smith, who, with a thorough understanding of the harmonic structure of the guitar fretboard and the musical compositon, arranged such beautiful chord melodies. With a little practice, you can too!

Additional Resources

Chords | Chords - Music Theory | The melodic minor scale and the dominant seventh flat9 (V7b9) chord

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