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I'm a beginner guitar player. I was reading that you can play the same chords down the neck of the guitar, and I figured it might help me to know where the notes are, as it helps when tuning a guitar (e.g. holding the E on fifth fret gives an A, like the string below).

However, I noticed the chords make no sense, from that perspective. For instance, apparently the chord C I was playing, is made up of C, E, and C, while A is made up of C sharp, A, and E notes.

Can someone please explain to me how to make sense of this? Thank you.

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    Do you know what notes make up a C major chord and an A major chord? If not that's the place to start. – Dom Feb 28 '16 at 2:24
  • I don't understand. Did I not mention them in my question in the second paragraph, or are you saying what I mentioned are not the right notes? – Ray Sina Feb 28 '16 at 3:17
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    Oh I see. My question was how does a chord relate to the notes. Cause I read people saying once you know the notes, you can make your own chords. But C, for instance, is not made up of three C notes, nor is A chord made up of A notes. So then how would it help me make a chord if I know the notes? Is it made by ear or is there a formula? – Ray Sina Feb 28 '16 at 4:06
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    @Dom I get the impression that Ray Sina doesn't even know what they don't know. The disconnect is that they don't even know the right words to ask their question in a way that is completely clear to those of us who take the fundamentals for granted. – Todd Wilcox Feb 28 '16 at 4:22
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    Did you mean C, E and G rather than the C, E and C that's written? – Tim Feb 28 '16 at 8:05
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Note: The following applies to any instrument or group of instruments playing together. There's nothing about how chords work that is specific to guitar.

There's more than one way to use the word chord. One broad definition would be "two or more notes played at the same time". This question is really about a specific type of chord that we can call a diatonic triad. The word "triad" tells us that these chords are composed of three (distinct) notes, and "diatonic" tells us something about which three notes we will use.

Every triad has a note that it is based on, called the root. The root note of a chord is always part of the chord and it is also used for the name of the chord. So in your two examples, notice how the "A chord" includes the note A and the "C chord" includes the note C. The root of a chord is the "first" note of the chord and we usually think of it as being linked with the number 1. Sometimes you might hear or read someone referring to "the 1 of the chord", which is is just another word for root.

To find the other two notes of a triad once we have been given a root, we count up to "the 3" and "the 5". What that means is starting with 1 on the root, we count up note letters until we get to 3, which is the second note of the triad, and then we keep counting up to 5 until we get the third note. Using C as an example, C-1 D-2 E-3 F-4 G-5. Counting up from C, we see that a C triad uses the notes C, E, and G. If you look at your C chord on the guitar again I expect you'll find that you are also playing the open G string. We can form a D triad the same way, by counting up starting with D. That gives us D, F, and A.

By now you probably have at least two questions. The first is probably, "Why does my C chord on guitar have some notes twice? It goes C E G C E." When you build a C triad, it's important to have at least one each of C, E, and G. If you have extras of any of those notes, that's ok, it's still a C triad. One reason why you almost always play extra duplicates on guitar when you play a triad is that it makes the chord sound fuller and louder, and it makes the fingering easier, while still keeping it the same triad.

The second question might be, "Ok, so you're saying C is C-E-G and I know that A is A-C-E, so how does it make sense that C and E are in both chords but they are two different chords?" Well, it turns out changing just one note of a chord changes the entire name of the chord and the new chord has a different sound that we can clearly hear. So just changing the G to an A changes a C triad to an A triad. You can't really tell what kind of triad you have until you have all three notes, because any one note can totally change what triad you have.

And maybe by now you have one more question, which is a big one: "Wait a second, this A chord has a C#, not a C. And what's with all this 'major', 'minor', 'diminished', 'seventh' and all these other words people add to the ends of chord names?"

When you spell a chord (spelling a triad means to figure out the other two notes when someone gives you the root) as I've outlined above, using just note letters, the chord naturally has a certain "flavor". If we spell the chords based on the letters for the roots of the notes without accidentals from A to G, we get the following flavors:

  • A-C-E is A Minor
  • B-D-F is B Diminished
  • C-E-G is C Major
  • D-F-A is D Minor
  • E-G-B is E Minor
  • F-A-C is F Major
  • G-B-D is G-Major

Notice we have three major, three minor, and one diminished chord. As to why they form that pattern, that's a topic that I don't think I can fit into a reasonable length answer here. For now just know that A) These notes are all the white keys on a piano keyboard and B) This is the pattern that was chosen hundreds of years ago for how the notes without accidentals work and there hasn't been a good reason to change it since then.

Many times, when the "flavor" of a chord is major, the word for the "flavor" is left out. So when someone says a "C chord" or an "A chord", they mean "C major triad" and "A major triad". Notice that if we just spell A-C-E, that is an A minor triad. You can turn a minor triad into a major triad by sharpening the middle note, called the third. So we spell A-C-E, realize that is minor the way it is, and we sharpen the third to C# to get the A major triad A-C#-E.

We can also turn a major chord into a minor one by flattening the third. So if you want to spell an F minor chord, you first spell F-A-C and then realize that's normally major, so you flatten the A to A♭ and get F-A♭-C for an F minor triad.

It gets a lot more complicated from there, and I didn't touch on diminished or seventh chords, but being able to understand the most common triads should get you started on understanding chords in general. One more note: If you want to spell a triad with a root with an accidental, start off with the same accidental on all the notes and then change the flavor as necessary based on the note without an accidental. Examples:

  • E♭ major: E♭-G♭-B♭ is our base triad, but it's minor so we sharpen the G and get E♭-G-B♭.
  • F# minor: F#-A#-C# is our base triad, but it's major so we flatten the A and get F#-A-C#.
  • Thank you very much for this detailed and helpful response, that's exactly what I needed to know. Thanks Todd! – Ray Sina Feb 28 '16 at 4:51
  • @RaySina If my answer was helpful, it's common practice to upvote it by clicking the up arrow at the top left of the answer. If this answer completely solved your problem or answered your question, it's encouraged that you accept it by clicking the check mark right near the up and down arrows. Many times people wait a day or two before accepting an answer in case there is a better one posted, but you can upvote as many answers as you want. – Todd Wilcox Feb 28 '16 at 4:57
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    I put a check mark there just now. I had tried to upvote but I'm a guest poster and this is my first post so I was not allowed. That's why instead I made a post to thank you, as I did, seeing how I could not upvote. – Ray Sina Feb 28 '16 at 5:08
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    Your answers are starting to get as long as some of mine. You covered it well and quite thoroughly - I can't really think of anything to add. – Rockin Cowboy Feb 28 '16 at 8:15
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You seem to want to make your own chords. A great idea, although most likely you'll be re-inventing the wheel. However, it's a good way to start to understand the theory that goes with chords. As succinctly stated by Todd, each chord starts life as a triad - 3 notes which go together well, and are usually made up from a 1, a 3 and a 5. Taking a couple of examples from Todd: the C major chord is spelled C-E-G. It actually doesn't necessarily matter which order they go, but mostly, on guitar, the lowest note is thought of as the root. It just sounds more stable to many that way. It's called the root position - the other two ways , E-G-C being the 1st inversion, and G-C-E being the second inversion. With C on the bottom, it's root. Sometimes the order has to be C-G-E. And - on guitar, with 6 notes available to be played, doubling or trebling of some of the notes is normal.

This is where it gets a little awkward on guitar, as you'll see. Taking that C major: you need to find either a C an E or a G for each string. Starting with the fat string (6th) there's already an E, so it COULD be left as is. The 5th string - well, on 3rd fret, it makes a C. On to the 4th string, which can conveniently be fretted on 2nd fret, producing an E. 3rd string now. It's a G open, so let's leave it as just an open string. The B string (2nd) can make a C on its 1st fret, leaving the top string open 'cos it's an E. Press the 3 fretted strings down, leaving 3 and 1 open, and, voila, you made a C major chord. This can, however, be changed in a couple of ways, making it sound subtly different, but still being a C chord. The bottom string could be left out altogether, making it a 5 string chord, with root at the bottom. Or - press 6th string 3rd fret, making a 2nd inversion of C. Or - make the top string play a G on its 3rd fret, using an extra finger, which till now has been waving about doing nothing. So, we have 3 or 4 different sounding C chords, all very close, and playable.

That's why C can be, and is, played in those ways at the(usually) worn-out end of the fretboard. Every chord in existence can be made using this idea, even something like F#7b5#9, or any other complicated sounding chord. Trouble is, on guitar, sometimes there isn't a note that's needed that's convenient to fret once you've found the rest of the component notes. So - sometimes a note just HAS to be left out, or maybe there's a string in the middle somewhere that can't find the appropriate note, so it HAS to be muted. That's one of the vagaries of guitars!

So, in conclusion, when you want to play a certain chord on guitar, work out the appropriate notes, and find them, usually within a fret or three of each other, press them down, and, hey presto, you've made a chord shape. Remember that as you go up the fretboard towards the dusty end, the open strings may well still be playable as part of your chord - not every note in a chord needs to be a fretted note. Now, go and sit down with your guitar, and make up, say, an A major chord. It's using an A. a C# and an E...

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