Acoustic Guitar Lesson: Chording Made Simple

How to read chords on acoustic guitar - a free mini guitar lesson
"Learning to chord really sets you free!"

Welcome back, acoustic guitar enthusiasts!

Most people want to learn acoustic guitar so that they can accompany themselves or others when they sing. If that’s true for you, then chording is a very important skill to learn.

Let’s get started.

A “triad” is the most basic type of chord. If you number the notes of a major scale, then the triad is made up of numbers 1, 3, and 5, also called the “root,” “third,” and “fifth,” because they are the foundational note of the chord, and the 3rd and 5th notes along in that numbered scale. [Try that out on your guitar now.]

Sometimes the third of the triad is moved to an adjacent note. When that happens, we call it a “suspended chord,” and they will be listed, as follows: Asus4, Ebsus2, Fsus, etc. When you use scale notes 1, 4, and 5 instead of 1, 3, and 5, this is called “sus4” or just plain “sus” (the default sus triad). When you use scale notes 1, 2, and 5 instead of 1, 3, and 5, we call that “sus2.” [Try that out now.]

Any listed note name, used as a chord, automatically describes or calls for the Major triad based on that note (scale notes 1, 3, and 5). So, a chord symbol that shows “C” means that you would play C, E, and G, because those notes are scale tones 1, 3, and 5 when you start a major scale on C. A symbol showing “Gsus” means that you would play G, C, and D, because they are scale tones 1, 4, and 5 when you play a major scale starting from the note G.

Next, if you lower the third of a triad, you’ll play a “minor” triad, which outlines the scale tones 1, b3 (flat-three), and 5 of the major scale. Since the default when a note is listed as a chord is to play the major triad, we need a different notation to tell you to lower that third, which makes the triad (chord) minor. The standard is to put the root note name in lower case, and follow it with either “mi,” “m,” or a dash (“-“). When you see these things listed, play your major triad with its third lowered by the smallest amount you can slide it, which is called a “half-step.” So, “fmi” means F, Ab, C, “dm” means D, F, A, and “e-” means E, G, B. Sometimes the publishers don’t follow the protocol, and the root note name is given in upper case, i.e. “Dmi,” but you can still treat it as a normal minor triad.

Sometimes the chord chart will change the 5th by a half-step, up or down. When it’s up, it will always be with a major triad, and the resulting triad is very bright sounding but not resolved, and it actually doesn’t point at any particular key very strongly because all three notes in the triad are equally distant from each other. We call this chord or triad “Augmented,” and it will show as “Aug,” “aug,” or “+” in the chord chart. When you lower the 5th, it will usually be with a minor triad, so the 3rd is already lowered, and is so, we call it a “diminished” chord or triad. You’ll see this listed as “dim” or using a degree symbol after the root note name like this: “FÂș”.

You can lower the 5th on a major triad, but you would use the following syntax: “Fb5”. This tells you the triad is major, but the 5th is lowered one half-step.

Finally, any note that isn’t one of the cases described above is called an “extension.” They are mostly odd-numbered, starting with 7. The 7th degree, when included, is always automatically lowered by 1/2 step from what it would be in a major scale, unless you see the terms “Major,” “Maj,” or “Ma.” (We can do that because the term “major” is not needed otherwise, since the triad itself is always major unless changed by “mi,” “dim,” “or “Aug.”) Every listed extension includes all lower, odd-numbered extensions. For example, if you see “C9,” that means a C Major triad with the 9th scale note included and, because of the above rule, the 7th will be included, and it will automatically be lowered 1/2 step. This would give you the notes C (root), E (3rd), G (5th), Bb (lowered 7th), and D (9th). Confusing, I know, but if you re-read the above confusion, and try it out, it really will start to makes sense.

Last of all, if you want the 7th not included in the above scenario, then you use the word “add.” The result would be “Cadd9,” and would indicate the notes C, E, G, and D, but omitting any kind B. If you want the 7thincluded, but not lowered, you would write “CMa9,” which would indicate the notes C (root), E (3rd), G (5th), B (an un-lowered 7th), and D (9th). When you want the 13th included, but not all the other stuff, you can list it a “6.” With that, “C6” would mean C, E, G, and A (the 6th and 13th are the same note, just separated by an octave).

Remember that you can put the chord tones in any order that sounds good to you and falls under your fingers well. I hope that’s helpful as you try to read acoustic guitar chord charts and “lead sheets.”