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Chord Basics

We made it!

We can start building chords. Yes, Sir, we know something about scales and intervals.

When I started with chord theory I often ran into the question: WHY? Why do they do it this way? Why is nobody able to explain the concepts behind? Do they hide the real secrets?

No, they dont. A lot of this has to be taken as it is. Did you ever ask yourself for what reason the sun shines or why so many people love their Fender Jazz Bass? Dont try to find reasons for the following rules. This is MUSIC, and this is the way music works in our western harmony and understanding.

What is a chord?

Definition: A chord is a combination of three or more different notes. They may be played at the same time or sequentially. CHORD is just the relation between notes, played more or less at the same time. FULL STOP.

So we have to learn the rules. Once we know the rules we can use them, or we can break them, which is a very interesting experience.

As the definition says there may be three, four, five or even six notes in a chord. But we are bass players, so we dont need these weired experiments invented by skinny, glasseyed keyboard freaks. We will concentrate on some basic chords.

The 4 basic chords every bass player has to know

There are several ways to explain chord theory. From my point of view the concept of stacked triads is the most convenient and helpful way, so I will take this path.

A triad is the combination of two notes in a 3rd interval, major or minor 3rd. The lower note is the root of the triad and the second note is three or four half steps higher. As we said, a chord consists of at least three notes. So if we need three notes we need two triads. To keep it simple we will use our good old C for our first homebrew chords. Of course, the rules are valid for every note.

So the scheme for our four basic chords is: We build a chord by taking a root note (C), putting a triad on top of it. As a second step we take a second triad on top of the first one, using the second note of the first as the first note of the second triad (so much for confusing you). As we have two triads, major and minor, we can get the following combinations:

chord 1st triad 2nd triad
1:

root

major 3rd major 3rd
2::

root

minor 3rd minor 3rd
3:

root

major 3rd minor 3rd
4:

root

minor 3rd major 3rd

Now we will compile these four chords for the C root (where 'HS' = half steps). Please remember: the second triad has the note of the first triad as base note. A minor 3rd is three HS, a major 3rd is four HS:

1st triad 2nd triad Chord notes
1: root => C C + 4HS =>  E, E + 4HS => G#
C E G#
2: root => C C + 3HS =>  D#, D + 3HS =>  F# C D# F#
3: root => C C + 4HS =>  E, E + 3HS => G C E G
4: root => C C + 3HS => D#, D# + 4HS => G C D# G

Well, these are the four most basic chords possible. And we can try to play them to get the taste. To get them sounding right we use an unusal voicing, not very easy but here we can hear the difference:

1. G --13------
D --14------
A --15------
E ----------  
2. G --11------
D --13------
A --15------
E ----------
3. G --12------
D --14------
A --15------
E ----------
4. G --12------
D --13------
A --15------
E ----------

You remember? Yes, '3' and '4' are very easy: the major and the minor chord, well known, alltime darlings. But what the hell are '1' and '2'? Let's analyse the chords in detail and take the interval symbols now.

We constructed these chords stacking two triads. Now let us see what interval relationship we get if we take all intervals relative for the root note (so b3 + b3 = 3HS + 3HS = 6HS, why must we use (n - 1)HS?):

'triad relative' 'root relative' chord interval structure chord name
note #1 note #2 note #3 note #1 note #2 note #3
1.

1

3

#2 + 3

1

3

1 + 7HS => #5

1  3  #5

augmented
2.

1

b3

#2 + b3

1

b3

1 + 5HS => b5

1  b3  b5

diminished
3.

1

3

#2 + b3

1

3

1 + 6HS => 5

1  3  5

major
4.

1

b3

#2 + 3

1

b3

1 + 6HS => 5

1  b3  5

minor

Now we know these two 'different chords': They are the augmented and diminished chords and they dont have the perfect 5th but the diminished and augmented 5th. This is also the reason why this is not the minor 6th. And we see that the chords have a certain structure when all intervals are relative to the root note. And, ALL major, minor, diminished and augmented chords have this interval structure, independent from any scale.

The sequence of the single notes dont has to be 1 - x3 - x5. It is only important that there are all and only these three notes in the chord. So playing the chords as 5 - 1 - 3 or 3 - 1 - 5 is still a major chord. We will later discuss the difference (changing the note sequence means 'inverting chords'). The notes can even be in different octaves, this doesn't matter at all. If a chord has the notes C, E and G this is the only thing that is important.

Even building chords by stacked triads chord formations are written down in root-relative formats which means: every note of the chord is defined as an interval to the root note. Please have a look at the exercices. It is very important to get this chapter well done. If you have got this all the rest of chord theory is much easier.

This was a lot, but now we know how the four basic chords are build.

Chord Notation

To make this intro to chords complete a last view on notation of chords.

Chord names

Chord names have two parts: The root note and a token for the structure. So 'Amin' says: the root is 'A' and this chord has the minor structure = 1 - b3 - 5.

One exception: when the token is missing and only the root note is written, this is the major chord (the 'default', so to speak)

Chord structure

The structure of a chord lists the root-relative intervals which build this chord. The intervals are listed in ascending order. Again: when played the notes dont have to be played in this order.

Root note

Of course the root note can be anywhere in the range of any instrument.

Structure tokens

Here is a (very short) list of tokens and what interval structure is behind. Dont care that you dont know most of these chords now, it's just to show the principles.
Token Full name Structure
maj (or none) major 1 3 5
m, min minor 1 b3 5
dim, o diminished 1 b3 b5
augm, + augmented 1 3 #5
7, dom7 dominant 7 1 3 5 b7
6 sixth 1 3 5 6
sus47, 7sus4 suspended fourth with seventh 1 4 5 b7

Summary

Yes, it's time for a summary:

Even it may seem strange I think it's a good idea now the continue with scale harmonisation (because we are still bass players :-).

Exercises

1.) Repeat building the four basic chords stacking triads. Use G and Bb as root notes. Find proper voicings for this chords on the fretboard. Repeat converting triad-relative to root-relative interval notation.
2.) Find voicings for the chords with note sequences 1 - 5 - 3 and 5 - 3 - 1.
3.) The augmented and diminished chords can also be expressed by comparing them to the major and minor chords. Why?
4.) If there are chord with the interval structure 1 - 2 - 5 and 1 - 4 - 5: Find the chord notes for root A and E and find at least two voicings on your bass.