This is a simplified version of the chapter on chord names in my book,” Take Control: for guitar”, if you want to be a true chordmaster check that out. Until then, this should tide you over.
A chord’s name is basically a formula that tells you how to make that chord. If you understand this you can take a relatively small number of basic forms and modify them to get whatever chord you need. If you don’t understand this you are looking at a chord book/app with 1000’s of chords (good luck!). While that is beyond the scope of this post, I can show you how to better read and understand a chord’s name. Below is a chart showing how chords are built, from the simplest (triads) to the complex (tensions). Below that I will explain the various elements.
4 TRIADS——————7th CHORDS——————TENSIONS
1. Major———————–major 7 ——————–maj. 7, maj. 9, 13
(Major)——————-dominant 7 —————dom. 9, dom. 11, 13
2. minor——————–minor 7 —————-min. 9, min. 11,13
3. diminished—————diminished 7
TRIADS- The left column lists 4 triads; major, minor, diminished, & augmented. These are the simplest chords and almost* any chord, no matter how complex, can be simplified down to one of these 4 chords. Notice I’ve listed the first triad, Major, twice. This is because Major harmony splits in 2 directions when we get to 7th chords.
7th CHORDS- These chords add one note ( the 7th note of the scale) to a triad. If necessary, (you don’t know how to play the chord), all of the 7th chords can be simplified to their basic triad. You may not sound perfect, but you won’t be wrong. Even if you’re not sure ( am I playing a 7th or major 7? ), just play the basic triad. A 7th and a major 7th sound nothing alike, but a major triad works for both. Notice the Major triad splits into 2 seventh chords. This is because the 1st group, Major 7, uses a plain 7th scale note while the 2nd group, dominant 7, uses a flat 7th scale note. The name, dominant 7 tells you this if you understand intervals. If you don’t, trust me. Also notice there is no augmented 7th chord. Because of its’ symmetrical construction, it is impossible to make an augmented 7th chord only augmented triads are possible*.
TENSIONS- These chords pile even more notes onto a 7th, (9’s, 11’s, 13’s). The numbers all refer to scale notes and the more you add, the more complex sounding the chord becomes. You find these chords mostly in jazz or jazzy R&B. Again, you can simplify, change that minor 9 to a minor 7 or even a minor triad. Again, you may not sound perfect but you won’t be wrong. Also notice that diminished chords stop after the diminished 7th (that symmetrical thing again), so no diminished 9ths, etc.
To sum up, most chords no matter how complex boil down to a basic triad plus some extra stuff. While these extra notes can add a whole new dimension of sound, strictly speaking you don’t have to play them. You can get the main sound with the basic triad (and you can get into trouble if you guess). The next post will explain how to read the chord abbreviations you find in most charts, as well as altered tensions (those #5’s,b9’s, etc.)
*suspended chords (sus2, sus4) are in a class of their own, as are “power chords” which aren’t even full chords. All of this is explained in my book, “Take Control: for guitar”, available on Amazon.