Acoustic Instrument

What Kind of Guitar
Should I Start On?

What Kind of Banjo
Do I Want?

Evaluating and
Buying Used

Setting Up
Fretted Instruments

Whatever Happened
to the Banjo?

Beginning Five-
String Banjo

6-String Banjos
Banjo Pickups
Axes in my Life
What is a
Bluegrass Banjo?

Dean "Backwoods
Six" Shootout

Music Theory

to Scales

to Chords

Circle of Fifths

Other Articles
About Music

How to Give
Guitar Lessons

Musician or

Did God Really
Give Rock &
Roll to You?

Are You a
"Brand Bigot"?

Who Owns Folk Songs?

Click to go to home page.Introduction to Chords

Written by Paul Race for Creek Don't Rise™
and School Of The Rock™

Editor's note: This article is under construction. Mostly we need to add little staffs with the musical examples. You CAN make sense out of the content without them, so we're posting it now. But we do hope to have the musical examples in place soon, so please check back. In the meantime, please contact us if you have any corrections, criticisms, or questions.

This article describes the various kind of chords you're most likely to encounter in most forms of Western music, including popular music of all kinds. It's possible to learn individual chords, and even the relationships among them without understanding how chords actually "work." That's one reason I often meet people who seem to be decent guitar players, but who get in "over their head" quickly if the song uses anything besides the chords and progressions they are used to using. Or wannabee songwriters who can't get out of the 3-chord "rut" or who use chord progressions that are so jarring, they interfere with the "message" of the song.

You won't probably absorb all the information in this article the first time you go through it - in fact, you don't need to. But bookmark it and come back every so often to use it as a "sanity check" against the chords and progressions you encounter in the songs you learn.

This information will be especially useful when you start writing your own songs, and you want the best possible harmonic setting for your lyrics.

What is a Triad?

For the purposes of this page, a triad is three notes of a chord played at the same time or in sequence, usually more than a whole step apart. Triads have been the building blocks of Western music harmony for about five centuries.

If you're near a piano, you can play a "major" triad by playing C, E, and G at the same time. This triad uses the first, third and fifth note of the C major scale. If you play G, B, and D at the same time, you're using the first (tonic), third, and fifth note of the G major scale.

Before triads were common in Western music, the third was almost never used. They might use a the fifth (play C and G to get the idea.) Or they might put the fifth below the tonic, creating a fourth (play G and C to get the idea). If you hold either position and go up and down the piano scale, it may sound a little jarring, or maybe "oriental" to our ears. But to medieval music lovers, this was a huge step forward from unison, as represented by earlier Gregorian chants.

What we call a "triad" was invented only after Europeans had spent a century or two getting used to fourths and fifths. Eventually, the "third" managed to sneak in between the root and fifth note and stay there, at least for a few beats. So C,G became C,E,G, and after another couple of centuries, musicians figured out how to use and transition among such chords.

Most modern triads are based on the triads you encounter if you start a triad on the first note of a major scale, then move that triad up the scale, being careful to stay in the same key signature.

A chart that shows these relationships, as well as the ways the chords are numbered in various numbering schemes, is shown below. (For more explanation of the numbering schemes, please see our article on the "Circle of Fifths.") To get the full effect, start at the BOTTOM of the chart and work your way up.

Chord NotesClassical
CC, E, GI11
B diminishedB, D, Fvii77dim
A minorA, C, Evi66minor
G MajorG, B, DV55
F MajorF, A, CIV44
E minorE, G, Biii33minor
D minorD, F, Aii22minor
CC, E, GI11

Major Triads - The most common triad in Western music is called a Major triad. C, E, G is an example of a major triad. If you were playing this on a keyboard it would be easy to tell that the distance (called an "interval") between C and E is two whole steps (called a "major third") while the interval between E and G is one and a half steps (called a "minor third").

Minor Triads - The next most common triad in Western music is called a Minor triad. A, C, E is an example. If you were playing this on a keyboard, it would be easy to tell that the interval between A and C is one and one-half steps (a "minor third"), and the interval between C and E is 2 whole steps (a "major third"). Note that the interval between the "outside" two notes remains the same (a "fifth").

Looking at the chart above, you can see that if you are using a keyboard, you start with a C triad, then, holding your fingers in the same relative position, move your hand up the keyboard, you'll encounter only minor and major triads until you get to the triad that starts with B. It's not hard to see why major and minor chords dominate our chord vocabulary.

Many Western Europeans and North Americans tend to think of major chords and songs written in major keys as "happier" than minor chords and songs written in minor keys. On the other hand, several kinds of Eastern European music are dominated by minor chords and keys. So just being in a minor key doesn't mean the song was necessarily written to be a sad song.

Inversions - Ordinarily I'd explain all of the other kinds of chords first, then explain inversions, but the little piano parts we use for the exercises further down will sound so much better if I introduce inversions now. Though chords are based on triads, they don't have to be played in "root" position (1, 3, 5, or - if you're in the key of C: C, E, G) every time. What if you put the C on top, so you're actually playing G, E, C? It's still a C chord. Now put the E on top and play G, C, E. This is a very popular way of playing the C chord on piano in popular music. In fact it's so popular that even people who don't think about music theory very often know its name: it's called a 6-4 inversion, because the top note is a sixth above the bottom note, and the middle note is a fourth above the bottom note. Inversions allow you to make transitions between chords much smoother.

Now we'll get back to our triads, we have two more to cover that are far less popular, but still useful.

Diminished Triads One other kind of triad occurs "naturally" in our scale progression, the diminished triad. In the case of B, D, F, you can see that the lower interval (B to D) is a minor third (one and a half steps), and so is the upper interval (D to F). You'll also notice that the outside interval (B to F) is not a full fifth - rather it's what is called a "flatted fifth" or a "minor fifth" depending on how the interval is being used. In sheet music and chord charts, the names of diminished chords are usually abbreviated by adding "dim" behind the name of the chord. So a diminished B chord is abbreviated Bdim.

Another occasionally used trick with diminished chords involves a diminished seventh chord. This is created by adding another note a minor third above the flatted fifth. For example B, D, F, Ab. You can see that it would be possible to "keep going" all the way up the keyboard without actually changing chords, by adding minor thirds as you go. On guitar, a diminished seventh chord is hard to play at first. But once you have it "down," you can go all the way up the fretboard, three frets at a time, to accomplish the same thing.

Arrangers occasionally use diminished or diminished seventh chords as a way to sneak in a key change. For instance, if you're starting in C then go to a Bdim7 chord, you can go up to a Ddim chord (D, F, Ab), and start the next section in Eb (in this case the Ddim chord - D, F, Ab substitutes for a Bb7 "dominant seventh" chord - Bb, D, F, Ab). Or go up all the way to an Ab dim (Ab, B, D) chord and start the next section in A. (In this case you've used the Ab dim or G# dim - G#, B, D - as a substitute for E7 - E, G#, B, D, the "dominant seventh" in the key of A.)

If this section on diminished chords is confusing, don't worry about it, you won't need it often in popular music, and pretty much never in country music. Just remember where it is and come back later if you see diminished chords used in a song and you wonder why they were used.

Augmented Triads The fourth most common triad type doesn't appear naturally anywhere in a major scale. Unlike the diminished triad, which stacks two "minor thirds" on top of each other, the augmented triad stacks two "major thirds" on top of each other. It does that by raising the top note of a major triad (the "fifth") by half a step. So a C triad (C, E, G) is turned to a C augmented chord (abbreviated Caug) by changing the top note to G#.

This chord isn't used in country, rock or folk-inspired music much, but it's occasionally used in other forms, often as a transition between one chord and its fourth. While you might "flesh out" a C to F progression by playing C - C7 - F, a jazz or Tin-Pan-Alley song, might use a C - CAug - F progression to accomplish the same thing. In the C7, F case, the Bb in the C7 chord (C, E, G, Bb) "resolves" downward to the A note in the F chord (F, A, C) In the CAug case, the G# note resolves upward to the A note in the F chord. Both versions emphasize the "motion" more than a simple C - F chord change.

The augmented triad shares one feature with the diminished triad - you can keep going by "up" the keyboard or fretboard without really changing chords by moving up a major third each time. So you can go from C, E, G# to E, G#, C to G#, C, E, and so on. This use is far less common than the use of diminished sevenths to accomplish the same thing, though.

Variations on Standard Triads

In addition to "inversions," introduced above, there are "chords" that add notes, subtract notes, and move notes (especially the third) into other positions.

"Seventh" or "Flatted Seventh" Chords - Though this is a bit out of scope for right now, you should know that there are a few kinds of popular four-note chords, of which the most common is often called a seventh by pop musicians, or a flatted seventh or dominant seventh by classical musicians. An example would be a chord using G, B, D, and F. This chord isn't used all that often in songs in the key of G (except for blues), but it's used all the time in songs set in the key of C, as a way of adding tension before the song resolves to the tonic chord. To see what I mean, play C, E, G, then G, B, D, then G, B, D, F. Can you feel that the music "wants" to go back to C? This chord is called a G7 in popular music. In most pop songs in the key of C it is the next to the last chord in the song. There is more information about the "dominant seventh" in our article on the Circle of Fifths. (Note: in example progressions like the one above, some of the chords may be shown in positions other than the "root position." This makes the transition between chords less harsh. We explain more about this in the section on "inversions" below.)

"Dominant Seventh" chords like G7 (G, B, D, F) actually contain a diminished chord. This relationship makes it possible in some cases to substitute a diminished chord for a dominant seventh chord. Play C, G7, C, Bdim, C to see what I mean.

Other Triads

Pop music uses two other kinds of triads, one of which has a funny name that goes back to classical music, and one of which is fairly recent and doesn't have a single, consistently-used name.

Suspended Fourth - If you raise the third of a major triad by a half-step you get something called a "suspended 4th." If you started with a A cord (A, C#, E) and raised the C# to D (A, D, E), you can see that you have raised the third (F#) to a fourth (D). So it's not hard to tell where the "4th" part of the name comes from. The "suspended" part of the name is a leftover from classical nomenclature - back a couple centuries ago, they assumed that the chord was a dominant (fifth) and that the 4th note was a "holdover" from a 1 - 5 chord change. An progression illustrating this "holdover" effect might be D (D, F#, A) - Asus4 (A, D, E) - A (A, C#, E) - D. In pop music, however, this chord might be used just to substitute for a brief jump up a fourth. Try D - G - D - D - Dsus4 - D to get some idea. For some reason, this use was very popular in folk-rock; probably because D - Dsus4 - D is an easier transition on guitar than D - G - D.

The suspended 4th chord is also used in songs where the composer wants to avoid introducing a third so you don't really have a feel for whether the song is major or minor. In such applications, the name "suspended" seems even sillier - nothing is suspended at all. So why don't we just call this chord D4 or whatever? Many beginning songwriters do. But technically a D4 would include the third as well as the fourth (D, F#, G, A), and that's not what we're talking about. So calling it Dsus4 (believe it or not) actually removes confusion.

Suspended fourth chords can also add sevenths. They're not always labeled consistently in piano scores, but they exist. A D7sus4, Dsus4+7, or Dsus4,7 chord would be D, G, A, C. The combination of a suspended fourth and seventh in one chord makes it very flexible and adaptable for a wide range of uses. Pay attention to these when you see them.

Second/no third (or "2nd" or "ninth" or "ninth no third") - This sort of chord lowers the third down a step, so an A chord (A, C#, E) would be changed to A, B, E. Like a suspended 4th chord, this kind of chord removes the third, allowing you to avoid signalling whether the song is major or minor.

In our A, B, C# example, you can see that B would be both the second and the ninth note of the chord, so some folks label this chord A9 and assume they're done. What you might not know unless you had classical training is that, technically, a ninth chord includes the third, the seventh (possibly flatted) and the ninth. So a true A9 chord would be A, C#, E, G#, B, or maybe A, C#, E, G, B. Both were favorite chords of impressionist composers like Eric Satie, but they are not so popular today except in certain kinds of jazz. So that leaves us with a popular kind of chord that has no single good label. "2nd no 3rd" is the closest thing to an accurate label I've seen. But you'll occasionally see it called A9 or whatever. If you encounter an "A9" or A2 chord listed in sheet music, look at the notes in the score, or on the little chord graphic if there is one, to make certain you're playing the kind of chord the composer actually wanted.

"No Third" Chords - Occasionally you'll see a chord labeled "D no third" or some such, indicating that you can play D, A, D, A as much as you want, but don't you dare sneak in an F or F#. Technically this is not a triad, of course, but I figured I'd describe it here because it is really defined by what it lacks. Like a suspended 4th or 2nd no third chord, a "no third" chord allows the composer to keep the major or minor nature of the song ambiguous. This is especially helpful for some archaic melodies that go from major to minor or for simply achieving an archaic sound.. A no-third accompaniment can also make some contemporary melodies seem more compelling by "thinning out" the "background noise" so to speak.

About Chord Inversions

Once you've got the triad thing figured out, we're going to throw another complication your way - chords sound different depending on which note you select to be at the bottom. Play C, G, E, then E, G, C, then G, C, E. Chords with a note other than the tonic on the bottom are called "inversions." The most popular inversion is the 6/4 inversion, the kind represented by G, C, E. This kind of inversion gets his name by the fact that, the outside interval of G - E is a sixth, and the inside interval of G - C is a fourth.

Guitar players don't have to worry about these quite as much as piano players - many guitar chords are already inversions by default. But if you see a chord labeled D/F#, and you don't have a bass player to hit that low F#, you can thumb the low E string at the second fret to get the effect the composer wanted.

One advantage of the 6/4 inversion is that it can ease transitions among chords. C, E, G - C, F, A - D, G, B - E, G, C is much less jarring than C, E, G - F, A, C - G, D, B - C, E, G. As an example, play the opening bars of "Lean on Me" starting with C, E, G and going up the keyboard. Then play the same part starting with G, C, E. Which version sounds like an urban Gospel chord progression and which version sounds like you're trying to jump-start an Edsel by pushing it up a hill? Similarly, a C - C/E - F progression "smooths out the C - F transition on times when you don't want emphasize it too much. We have more information about chord progressions in our article on (you guessed it) Chord Progressions.

About Pedal Tones and Passing Bass Notes

Sometimes the lowest note of a chord isn't even in the chord. So you'll see a C/F indicating that you're going to play a C chord with an F in the bass. Often there is an F chord on one side or another of this one, and the F in the bass is just a "carryover" from the previous chord. Try this progression to see what I mean: D, Em/D, F#m/D, D, G/D, A/D, D. (On piano, I would play the first three chords in a 6/4 inversion with a D in the bass to smooth out the transition).In such an arrangement, the D represents a sort of "drone" sound, like the low note on a bagpipe. The name pedal tone comes from the era of J.S. Bach when an organist could hold down a bass note with his foot and do all sorts of fancy stuff on the keyboard, as long as he came back around to the tonic eventually.

In pop music, you'll occasionally see bass notes indicated for chords with which they have no relationship and which aren't, technically, pedal tones. Em/F# is an example. Usually this occurs when the bass is playing a "passing tone." So the progression might be Em - Em/F# - Em/G - A or some such.

Don't lose sleep trying to figure all of these out. Frankly, in sheet music of popular songs, some of these combinations occur because the guy they paid to transpose the piano part really had no idea what he was doing. If you're a pianist, just play the sheet music, or play the chord with your right hand and the bass note with your left. Unless those sound wrong; then figure out something you like for that measure. If you're a bass player, just play the bass note. If you're a guitar player, just play the chord and ignore the bass note, unless you have a good way to sneak it in.

Putting it Together

As complicated as this all may seem the first time you run past it, there is a 90/10 rule with chords in popular music. 90% of the chords you'll encounter will be the same few kinds of chords, mostly major and minor with a few sevenths added for fun.

By learning to recognize, not only chords, but "kinds of chords," you can start to see how songs "go together" harmonically. You'll be able to play along better, and you'll begin to see why the songwriters made the choices they did - a critical step toward eventually writing original songs that people actually want to listen to.

Pop Quiz

For a little fun, write the answers to these questions on a piece of scrap paper.
  1. What three kinds of chords occur on the white keys of the piano?
  2. Which kind of chord occurs only once on the white keys of the piano?
  3. What kind of triad has the fifth at the bottom instead of the tonic?
  4. When might a chord have an unrelated note in the bass?
  5. What kind of triad stacks two major intervals - for instance C, E, G#?
  6. How many notes are in a triad?
  7. What note of a major triad is changed to make a suspended 4th chord?
  8. What chord does a G7 chord "want" to resolve to?


  1. Major, minor, and diminished
  2. diminished
  3. a 6/4 inversion
  4. pedal tones (bass notes sustained between chords) or chords with passing tones in the bass
  5. augmented
  6. Three
  7. The third is raised to a fourth
  8. C

All material, illustrations, and content of this web site is copyrighted © 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006,
2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 by Paul D. Race. All rights reserved.
Creek Dont' Rise(tm) is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising
program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to

Note: Creek Don't Rise (tm) is Paul Race's name for his resources supporting the history and
music of the North American Heartland as well as additional kinds of acoustic and traditional music.

For questions, comments, suggestions, trouble reports, etc. about this play or about this web page, please contact us.

Visit related pages and affiliated sites:
- Music -
Heartland-inspired music, history, and acoustic instrument tips.
Best-loved railroad songs and the stories behind them.
Visit musings about music on our sister site, School of the Rock With a few tools and an hour or two of work, you can make your guitar, banjo, or mandolin much more responsive.  Instruments with movable bridges can have better-than-new intonation as well. New, used, or vintage - tips for whatever your needs and preferences. Check out our article on finding good used guitars.
Carols of many countries, including music, lyrics, and the story behind the songs. X and Y-generation Christians take Contemporary Christian music, including worship, for granted, but the first generation of Contemporary Christian musicians faced strong, and often bitter resistance. Wax recordings from the early 1900s, mostly collected by George Nelson.  Download them all for a 'period' album. Folks with Bb or Eb instruments can contribute to worship services, but the WAY they do depends on the way the worship leader approaches the music. Different kinds of music call for different kinds of banjos.  Just trying to steer you in the right direction. A page devoted to some of Paul's own music endeavors.
- Trains and Hobbies -
Free building projects for your vintage railroad or Christmas village.
Visit Lionel Trains. Click to see Thomas Kinkaded-inspired Holiday Trains and Villages. Big Christmas Train Primer: Choosing and using model trains with holiday themes Building temporary and permanent railroads with big model trains Click to see HO scale trains with your favorite team's colors.
- Christmas Memories and Collectibles -
Visit the FamilyChristmasOnline site. Visit Howard Lamey's glitterhouse gallery, with free project plans, graphics, and instructions. Click to return to the Old Christmas Tree Lights Table of Contents Page Click to sign up for Maria Cudequest's craft and collectibles blog.
Click to visit Fred's Noel-Kat store.
Visit Papa Ted Althof's extensive history and collection of putz houses, the largest and most complete such resource on the Internet..
- Family Activities and Crafts -
Click to see reviews of our favorite family-friendly Christmas movies. Free, Family-Friendly Christmas Stories Decorate your tree the old-fashioned way with these kid-friendly projects. Free plans and instructions for starting a hobby building vintage-style cardboard Christmas houses. Click to find free, family-friendly Christmas poems and - in some cases - their stories. Traditional Home-Made Ornaments