What’s Inside A Chord? 

What’s Inside A Chord? 

This piece is a lesson aimed at intermediate-advanced level students. In it, we are going to look at how chords are constructed, primarily through the use of simple arpeggios. Preliminary knowledge of music theory is not necessarily required to understand this lesson, but will likely help.


Chords are defined as any combination of three or more notes. Basic major/minor chords meet these minimal requirements of three notes, but do not have any more unique pitches. This may feel confusing, as many, if not all, of the major and minor chords you likely know include more than three notes. This is because many major/minor chord shapes on guitar repeat certain notes, meaning that while you are playing more than three notes when you strum them, you are in fact only playing three unique pitches. 

For example, play your open-G chord using the classic voicing that starts on the 3rd fret of the 6th string (likely one of the very first chords you ever learned). The notes you are playing when you strum that chord are (in order, starting from the 6th string) G, B, D, G, B, G. So, as you can see, the D is the only note that is not repeated at all, the B happens twice, and the G happens a total of three times. This means that if you strip the G chord down only to the essential, unique notes, you would be left with just one G, one B, and one D. You can play this by playing only the bottom half of the chord, and then stopping. 




Figure 1: G-major Triad

 

What you’ve now done is taken the G-chord that you know and love, and stripped it away to the bare minimum amount of notes needed for it to still qualify as a G-chord. These minimal, three-note chords are called triads, and they are the foundation of all major and minor chords. 

Now let’s try rearranging the notes in that G-major triad to make the shape a little more visual. Let’s leave the 3rd fret on the 6th string and the 2nd fret on the 5th string where they are, but instead of letting the 4th string ring out open, try playing that note on the 5th fret of the 5th string. Play those three notes one at a time (the current fingering makes them impossible to play as a chord). 

Figure 2: G-major Arpeggio

When you chop up the notes in a chord and play them one at a time like we just did, that is called an arpeggio. Arpeggios are widely used in soloing, but are also super helpful when it comes to understanding how chords work. 

What we just played is a G-major arpeggio. It’s all of the notes essential to a G-major chord deconstructed and played in a single line. However, just like barre chords, arpeggios are movable shapes. This means that you can start this pattern anywhere along your 6th string, and you’ll still get a major arpeggio, although which major arpeggio it is will change based on where you place it. You can know which major arpeggio you are playing by finding the name of whatever note you are starting on. That note is the root note, which is the note that gives it its name. 

So for the arpeggio we were just playing, that note we are starting on (the 3rd fret of the 6th string) is a G, so we know that we are playing a G-major arpeggio. So now let’s take that major arpeggio shape, and slide it up so now that it starts in the 8th fret of the 6th string. The next two notes would then be the 7th fret on the 5th string and the 10th fret on the 5th string. 

Figure 3: C-major Arpeggio

We are now starting the arpeggio on the 8th fret of the 6th string. That note is a C, so we are now playing a C-major arpeggio. You can start this pattern anywhere along your 6th string, as well as anywhere along your 5th and 4th strings. However, you will run into some issues if you start it along your 3rd string. This is because you will then be playing the second two notes along your 2nd string, which is tuned a little differently than the other five strings and will cause this pattern to no longer hold up. 

 Try putting that major arpeggio pattern on different spots on your guitar and see if you can figure out what arpeggio you are playing.

Now let’s go back to that G-major arpeggio we were playing earlier (figure 1) and play it again to make sure that it’s fresh in your mind. In order to make that major arpeggio into a minor arpeggio, all we need to do is to lower the second (confusingly enough, called a third) by one fret. When we lower the third by one fret, that is called a minor third or sometimes a flat third. That makes the notes we are currently playing the 3rd fret on the 6th string, the 1st fret on the 5th string and the 5th fret on the 5th string. 


Figure 4: G-minor Arpeggio

 

Our root is still unchanged, so we are still playing a G arpeggio. But since we lowered the third by a fret, we are now playing a minor arpeggio. Combine those two variables, and you’ll see that we are now playing a G-minor arpeggio. Minor arpeggios work just like major ones do, and can be moved around in the same way. 

The various kinds of 7th chords out there can be deconstructed more or less that same way that we just constructed those major and minor chords. The main difference is that 7th chords have a fourth unique pitch, which is placed on top of the three unique pitches we have in major and minor chords. This fourth pitch is called the seventh, and it’s what gives 7th chords their name. 

Let’s now return to our G-major arpeggio from earlier (Figure 1). Play that arpeggio as we previously have been, but then add the 4th fret of the 4th string to the end. 


Figure 5: G-major 7 Arpeggio

That new note we just added was the seventh. When you add the seventh the any of those major arpeggios that we learned, you get a major seventh arpeggio. Since we added the major seventh to a G-major arpeggio, we are now playing a G-major 7 arpeggio. 

Now let’s go back to our G-minor arpeggio (Figure 4). In order to make a minor 7th arpeggio, we are going to play our minor arpeggio and add the seventh to the of it, much like the process involved in making a major 7th arpeggio. However, similarly to how we make a minor arpeggio by lowering the third by one fret, in order to make a minor seventh arpeggio we need to lower the seventh by one fret as when compared to the major. A seventh that is a fret lower is called a minor seven or sometimes a flat seven. That means that the notes we are currently playing are the 3rd fret on the 6th string, the 1st fret on the 5th string, the fifth fret on the 5th string and the 3rd fret on the 4th string. 


Figure 6: G-minor 7 Arpeggio

There is one more kind of common 7th chord that we left to look at, called a dominant 7th, and often simply referred to as just a 7th chord. The dominant 7th chord is built upon a major triad, but has a minor 7th instead of a major 7th. This makes it neither really major nor minor. In order to make a dominant 7th arpeggio, play the G-major 7th arpeggio we played earlier (Figure 5) but lower the seventh by only one fret. This means that the notes you’ll playing are the 3rd fret on the 6th string, the 2nd fret on the 5th string, the 5th fret on the 5th string, and the 3rd fret on the 4th string. 

 

 

Figure 7: G-dominant 7 Arpeggio

 

And there you have it! Those are the inner workings of major chords, minor chords, major 7th chords, minor 7th chords, and dominant 7th chords, which make for probably the five most common kinds of chords in music. The uses of these arpeggio shapes are endless, but common applications can include throwing them into a solo, using you them a roadmap to help you during songwriting, and using them to construct your own chord voicings. 


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Ben Fitts is a musician, writer, and instructor at New York City Guitar School. He is the guitarist of the indie rock band War Honey, the author of numerous works including the short story collection My Birth And Other Regrets, and a former NYC Guitar School student himself.

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