How are Chords built?

By Jason Wilford


One of the first steps to understanding how to build chords is to know how to play at least a one- octave major scale on the guitar. This is going to be your reference point for everything, so make sure you know how to play this well, both ascending and descending. 


Here is the C major scale: 



The next thing we have to do is assign each of the notes a number. There are 7 notes in the scale, with the 8th note being the first note repeated an octave higher. We will number the notes starting on C, all the way up to the next octave. Keep in mind that 8 is technically the same as 1.



Now we can get into some chord building! Right now we will just focus on Triads, which are 3- note chords. 


The basics are simple. We construct a chord by using a note, skipping one, using one, skipping one, using one. The formula for this is 1 –3 –5. Using the formula, we get a C major chord. In the exam- ple below, the notes are played up and down separately to create a triad arpeggio. We can also play the same notes together to create the C major chord, which is on the right. This idea can be extended to the next octave to create a full C major chord on the guitar by adding in the next C and E notes. 



Since the major scale has 7 notes, we can actually build seven different chords. To build a chord starting on D, for example, we would now have to consider D to be number 1. Using the 1 3 5 formula, we get D F A. Included below are all seven chords you can build with the C major scale. For the rest of the examples, only notation is going to be used. 



As you can see, a lot of the notes have been moved around to above or below the original scale example I gave you - the important thing is that the note names are the same. Take some time and let this sink in. If you have the time, write out the notes of the C major scale from the lowest note possible (Low E string) all the way up to the 12th fret on your first string. You'll see that there are 3 octaves (or registers) to play every single note in -- and 4 places to play your E note. This leaves a lot of variations of each chord possible, which is why you may see many different ways to play each chord in songs and exercises you work through. Like I said, it's the note names that are important, not necessarily where they are played when it comes to chord building. Playing the notes in different places will affect the sound in big ways, but the name of the chord will still be the same. 


This is just the tip of the iceberg, so don't feel bad if this leads you to more questions. Find someone knowledgable in your area to answer these questions for you, such as a reputable guitar teacher. They will be able to help you out much more easily than trying to find answers by yourself. 



About the Author:

Jason Wilford makes music and teaches Guitar Lessons in Oakville (Ontario, Canada).