In order to understand what I’ll be talking about it’s vital that you have a decent knowledge of basic music theory. That is, knowing what a Major Diatonic scale is and how to play one. It’s also required that you know the basics of how the two most import chord families are constructed, Major and minor. Here’s how those two elements go if you don’t know already.
A Major Diatonic scale, that most of us know as the do-re-mi type of scale is constructed as follows:
Root note (the starting point), followed by the next note a whole step away, next note a whole step away, next note a half-step away, next note a whole step away, next note a whole step away, next note a whole step away, last note to Root (an octave higher from where you started), a half step away. This is a one-octave (eight notes, from root to root) Major Diatonic scale.
Every time you move from one fret to the next on the guitar you are moving one-half step.
Without going into the huge subject of constructing different types of scales on the guitar, know that you can develop a 1-octave Major Diatonic scale beginning anywhere on the neck, either moving up the neck on one string or across the strings.
Those two chord families, Major and minor, each have three notes in a chord. Wait a minute, you say. When I play something like a G Major chord in 1st position I’m playing six strings, i.e., six notes. This is true! But if you were to look at the names of each note in that G Major you would find that there are only three named notes: G (three of those in a traditionally fingered G Major), B (two of those), and D (just one, the fourth string open). So, all the essential notes of G Major are there: G, B, and D.
You would discover the same thing (three note names only) in any minor family chord you play.
The difference between a Major and a minor chord is the “space” or interval between the notes. Both are constructed of a Root (the “first name” of the chord), the third note up from the root, and the note five notes away from the root. These are known as the Root, the 3rd, and the 5th. Collectively they are known as a triad.
In a Major chord, the distance or interval between the root and the third is two whole steps. In the case of that G Major, the 3rd, which is two steps away, is B. The 5th is three and half steps away from the root, which is D. So a G Major chord is “spelled” G, B and D.
In a minor chord, those intervals are as follows. From Root to the 3rd is one-and-a-half steps, and the root to the 5th is 3 ½ steps, just like in a Major chord. As you can see, it’s all about the interval between the root and the third that defines a chord as being from the Major family or the minor family.
Martin Taylor describes the triad as something like a frame around a picture. It’s then all about the “colors” you add inside that frame to make more interesting sounding chords. Some notes sound “dark” as they relate to the triad; some sound “bright.” And this is where we get back to the diatonic scale.
Adding notes inside or outside the scale to an existing chord are your colors. But which colors to use? (I am making an assumption here – that you know that every song is written in a Key, which defines the notes used in the appropriate diatonic scale.) I will use the key of G Major for my examples because it is very common in songs played on the guitar, plus the notes in the key are all “natural” (no sharps or flats) except for the 7th tone. Refer back to the explanation of Major diatonic scale construction above if you’re unclear about this. So the notes are:
G A B C D E F# G
If we use only those notes to construct triads (root, 3rd, 5th) beginning on each note in the scale it would look like this:
G/B/D A/C/E B/D/F# C/E/G D/F#/A E/G/B F#/A/C
(remember that the notes in a scale are “circular” and keep repeating after you reach the next root)
In music theory those chords are given Roman numerals: I , II , III , IV , V , VI , VII
So…. In the key of G Major, based on the G Major Diatonic scale it goes like this:
I chord = G Major
II chord = A minor
III chord = B minor
IV chord = C Major
V chord = D Major
VI chord = E minor
VII chord = F#diminished (yikes! Don’t worry about this one, we are going to do something to it later!)
Again, if you are unclear how we come up with those chords, refer back to the list of notes in each chord above and the intervals between the notes in those chords, this will confirm what they are.
Now here’s good part. I’m sure you’ve noticed that many if not all the songs you know that begin with G Major (the use if the I chord to begin a piece of music is extremely common in American popular music) use some or all of the chords listed. This is no accident. We are so programmed mentally to the use of the do-re-mi Major diatonic scale for hundreds of years that those chords all sound “good” to us, for lack of better explanation! This is simply because all those chords use ONLY the notes in the scale. Any time a note that is NOT in the scale is inserted into a chord it certainly gets our attention – for better or worse. Musicians refer to the additional notes in chords as “outside” or “inside” depending upon whether or not those notes are in the scale/key.
If you want to add some interesting colors to your chords, add some notes. If you use notes that are in the key, they will sound pretty benign but can be very pretty and interesting. I like to add the 6th tone above the root to Major and minor chords and adding the 2nd tone (which is technically called the 9th in music theory) is a very common in many songs these days, both in Major and minor chords.
In part two of this post I will go into the differences between darker and brighter tones inside chords, where to put them, the concept of tension and release in chords, and a few other things.
Peace & good music,