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Whenever I search on the internet for chords, google spits out things such as "guitar chords" or "best chords for piano".

But isn't it that such chords would be good for any instrument?

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    To me it seems that either Google favours articles in "N best X for Y" format or there are so much of those that some end up at top of the list. My favourite was article called "5 best Aeropress coffeemakers for 2023" that literally listed the same product 5 times.
    – ojs
    Aug 16, 2023 at 10:31
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    It’s probably just that piano and guitar are the two most popular instruments in the world and also the next most popular instruments can’t play chords. Accordion, harmonica, and pipe organ are much further down the list in popularity. So, chords are not good for “any instrument” - they are only good for instruments that can play chords. Aug 16, 2023 at 12:29
  • Related: music.stackexchange.com/q/130168/63781 Aug 16, 2023 at 14:44
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    I usually enjoy chords on drums.
    – Mentalist
    Aug 17, 2023 at 3:25
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    @kaya3 - I said to my cat that he ought to be able to sing at least a couple of notes, but he just replied 'Me - 'ow?'...
    – Tim
    Aug 17, 2023 at 14:59

8 Answers 8

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It's not so much the chords themselves as the voicing.

You can voice a chord open or closed on a piano - play all the notes close together or spread them as far as two hands can reach.

A guitar, on the other hand, is hard to voice very closely in some circumstances.

Imagine you want to play a simple 3-note C major chord.
This is easy on both piano and guitar. Guitar you could voice quite simply with 3rd fret on A, 2nd fret on D & open string G.

Now, what if you wanted to play C Maj add 2. That's a lovely sound on a piano.
On piano you can just press the D as well, it's right there between two of the notes you're already playing and you can reach easily.
On guitar, you will really struggle. You're already using the D string for your E, so where do you find another D? There's one on the E string, but it's right up at the 10th fret. You could try to re-shape the chord to start on the C on the 8th fret, meaning you could reach a D on the A string, but your E is miles away…

The only realistic way to play it on guitar is to add it an octave up - 3rd fret, B string.

But then it sounds more like a C maj add9. A perfectly valid chord, but it doesn't have the same feel as the simple add2 on piano.

To extend this concept [as mentioned elsewhere] if you wanted to use these voicings on any other instrument, especially instruments that are essentially monophonic, you would need multiple players. That doesn't make it impossible, just needs more coordination.
If you had a full string section, you could choose whether to voice close or spread, in effect removing the limitations of any one instrument. In those cases, then your choice of voicing comes down to which you think sounds best, because all voicings are possible.

BTW, if you are looking specifically for piano music, use "score" in your search term. For guitar use "tab". If you want a leadsheet only [melody plus just the names of chords without specific voicings], try "fake book".

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    Check 8-7-0-0-0-x or x-x-10-7-8-0 for Cadd2. But of course you have a point, many piano voicings are unplayable on guitar. Aug 16, 2023 at 15:56
  • @user1079505 - Ah, never thought of those. tbh, I was trying to not do an Eric Morecambe - I wanted all the right notes… in the right order;) I'd usually play a 'regular country C' but leave the D open - but that's not a 'straight' voicing either.
    – Tetsujin
    Aug 16, 2023 at 16:15
  • I'd remove the last sidenote. It does not help answering the question and could be misleading - "tab" usually refers to a representation of the guitar part using string and fret numbers, and not a list of chords or their fingering. Aug 19, 2023 at 14:07
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Problem is, there are not that many instruments which can actually play chords. Chords are variously described as two/three or more notes played simultaneously. Two note 'chords' called dyads, three notes triads, and on some instruments, many more notes can sound at the same time.

Piano, keyboard, organ and harp are obvious candidates for playing multiple notes. Guitar up to six, but instruments such as violins only two. On their own. Yes, there are those who argue more, but generally speaking two is it.

Wind instruments are designed to play single notes, although again, it could be argued that they could produce two simultaneously. There again, there's a strong camp which disagrees that a dyad is actually a chord in any case.

So, really, the question is being asked using false premises, as there are so few instruments which can actually play chords in any case. Those which are single note players (there's probably a word for that) are obviously capable of playing arpeggios - broken chords, where the chords are split into single notes played in quick succession can do just that, but are they playing chords per se? I'd say no.

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    This kind of skirts the issue. You can play complex chords on violin… it just needs more than one violin.
    – Tetsujin
    Aug 16, 2023 at 8:18
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    @the-baby-is-you - The OP's question doesn't ask why you only find chords for piano & guitar, it asks if the chords would work on anything.
    – Tetsujin
    Aug 16, 2023 at 9:28
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    Sure it's ambiguous, but the answer isn't "well you can't do that on most instruments".
    – Tetsujin
    Aug 16, 2023 at 10:28
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    @Tetsujin If the asker is looking for chords across a section then their problem is they’re using the entirely wrong search terms. The word “arrangement” or “orchestration” would be much better than “chord”. Plus the instruments in question. Anyone looking to voice a chord for an orchestra is going to be drowned out in search analytics by people who are trying to learn guitar or piano, so they’d do better to use specific terms and not just “chords”. Aug 16, 2023 at 12:33
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    I don't for a minute think the OP is looking for anything that complex.
    – Tetsujin
    Aug 16, 2023 at 13:31
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Many good answers already. There's the practicality that favours particular voicings for particular instrument (ranges).

However, the instrument also influences what sounds well. This has everything to do with (differences in) overtones.

For example, I find myself playing (way) less chord extensions on a Hammond organ than when playing a grand piano. All the overtones of the organ quickly create "jarring" friction in a way that the piano doesn't. Of course, this is the same reason why a simple dom6/9 (dom13) can be so crunchy on an organ.

Similar effects happen with other instrument (families). There's a reason that close harmony voicing work so well with sax sections, and strings often play very wide voicings with octaves doubled on top etc.

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    This is the correct answer. A major triad on a classical guitar sounds lovely. The same three notes on an electric guitar can sound terrible the two instruments have very different timbres.
    – Sean
    Aug 18, 2023 at 21:49
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But isn't it that such chords would be good for any instrument?

Piano (rather, keyboard instruments generally) and guitar are the most popular readily accessible instruments allowing a single person to play chords. They are also the primary instruments used for realizing harmonic accompaniments from lead sheets.

Furthermore, a lead sheet gives minimal information about voicing (mentioned in another answer) and is usable by any instrument.

Any chordal instrument can use a set of chords regardless of whether they're called "guitar" chords or "piano" chords. The only thing that is specific to a particular instrument is the fingering symbols that sometimes accompany guitar chords; these will be different for differently tuned instruments (including guitars tuned otherwise than in standard tuning).

So people offering chords on the internet use these labels because most people looking to find chords for a song are probably going to be playing it on piano or guitar, and if they're going to be using another instrument instead they know that it doesn't matter.

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    Banjo, mandolin, accordion, ukulele... Not quite as popular as guitars, but hardly inaccessible.
    – Divizna
    Aug 16, 2023 at 12:24
  • @Divizna From the point of view of a search engine algorithm, it’s unlikely enough that the search is for other instruments that those results might be on page 23 at best. Plus, anyone can just search for “mandolin chords” and they’ll find them just fine. Aug 16, 2023 at 12:35
  • @Divizna right, I should have said "most" rather than "only."
    – phoog
    Aug 16, 2023 at 16:46
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Just a little insight from a Bass Guitar player:

While I agree that all chords should be suitable to any instrument, sometimes it's not the case due to the way they are built or the role of instruments in an ensemble.

For a Bass, if any 2 notes chords will sound fine, and can be used as highlights in a line, most 3+ notes chords will just sound awfully, even when there is twice the same note at an octave difference. This is due to the nature of the instrument, there is a lot of sympathy on a Bass due to the lower tone (other strings with the same note or closely related harmonics that you are not playing will start to vibrate along), because there is more physical energy in the string vibration. In a chord, vibrations will start interacting with each other strongly, causing messy noises. The instrument is just not really designed for this.

Also, there is the role of the instrument in an ensemble, the role of the Bass is to be the "glue" between the others, between the drums and the melody. In many musical genres, it is "hidden" behind, mainly here to be felt as a groove more than heard. To achieve this, the part is usually simpler, if you add too many notes, it often only add noise to the whole thing, it makes it messy. So you don't usually play chords because it can easily ruin the balance of the ensemble. One 2 note chord at a specific timing can enhance things, but usually not more than that.

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No. Chords do not only sound good on specific instruments. Chords can sound good by any instrument capable of making a chord or a combination of instruments that are capable of playing only single notes. By definition a chord is two or more harmonic notes being played simultaneously.

A search online for chords will result in a tremendous amount of sources for guitar and piano (keyboard) chord shapes. The same notes for those chords can be played by other instruments or a group of instruments and sound good.

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    Is 1-3-5 on a heavily distorted electric guitar a counter-example to "chords can sound good on any instrument?" My understanding is that the harmonics that distortion adds to the 3rd can clash pretty badly with the 1st and 5th. Not an electric guitar player; this is just something I've read. Aug 16, 2023 at 21:26
  • @WayneConrad At that point, it's probably not really accurate to call that a (triad) chord - more like a chord plus a whole bunch of other stuff on top of it.
    – JLRishe
    Aug 17, 2023 at 4:53
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    @WayneConrad it's more about just intonation vs equal temperament. Even major 1-3 clashes pretty badly on distorted guitar but if you bend the 3rd up a bit so that it becomes just it sounds good. I've been told that Eddie Van Halen used this trick to play some unique riffs but I don't remember which exact songs.
    – ojs
    Aug 17, 2023 at 7:33
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    No this is not entirely true. Most Major chord progression sounds almost comical on overdriven guitar. Watch those videos where Metallica songs gets transposed to Major keys. It is interesting how bad the Major key sounds on overdriven electric guitar. Instruments do have an effect.
    – Neil Meyer
    Aug 17, 2023 at 11:47
  • A triad chord can sound very good through an overdriven amp with or without various effects devices. The power chord is commonly the top 2 or 3 strings played most often with overdrive/distortion. It will be of the listener's opinion of how good or bad this sounds.
    – ejbpesca
    Aug 17, 2023 at 16:18
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There is at least some precedent to this idea.

The band Incubus may be of some interest to you. It's guitarist Mike Einziger went on a search to find chords that are especially suited to the electric guitar. You may find his sound interesting. This coupled with tasteful use of a volume pedal was what the bands sound. It is interesting in how he used chords you would typically associate with Jazz in a rock band.

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There is the very edge case of instrument not tuned in equal temperament. On these instruments you may find chords that sound very good in one temperament that will not work at all on another instrument tuned to a different temperament.

As I understand it, the equal temperament was invented to make chords sound equally (bad some say) regardless of which base key was used. In many older temperaments you could not play in equally well ;-) in all keys.

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  • On the other hand, precisely because of the overtone issue, chords in other temperaments may sound quite different... to the point where you have to distinguish between sharps and flats which in an equal-tempered system would be considered the same note.
    – keshlam
    Aug 18, 2023 at 20:35
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    There could be a thick book written about this. I know of one organ with two split sharps per octave in Örgryte in Gothenburg: gothic-catalog.com/…
    – ghellquist
    Aug 18, 2023 at 20:52
  • There have been thick books written about this... <smile/>
    – keshlam
    Aug 18, 2023 at 21:11

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