It doesn’t matter how many years you’ve been playing guitar. There will always be something new to learn about chords: new types, new shapes, new fingerings, new inversions, new applications! This never-ending learning process is, in my opinion, one of the best things about guitar.
A question that I often asked by my students is which chords they should know. The answer is not simple as it depends on many factors. Therefore, today I’ll go through The Different Types Of Chords You Should Know depending on your level.
But, in fact, we all really need to learn most of them sooner, rather than later, so let’s get started with…
How to tell if you need to know a chord
Chords can be divided into two categories: the ones that you need to know and the ones that you don’t.
How can you tell the difference?
It all comes down to what you are playing and what your preferences are.
There are basic chords that everybody should know and practice. Those are mainly open chords and a few barre chords without any extension other than the seventh. If you’re still a beginner and you don’t know anything about chords theory, keep reading. I will explain the basics and why and when you should invest a bit more time learning about it.
Beyond these fundamental chords, everything else is optional. There are fantastic musicians that use the same few chords throughout their whole career. The key point to remember is that you should learn and practice a new type of chord only if you need it and if you’re going to use it.
Are you a huge fan of Bob Dylan, and your goal is to learn all his songs?
In this case, don’t waste your time learning and practicing power chords or crazy extensions like a b9b13 (b signifies a flat, while # stands for a sharp).
On the other hand, if you want to play punk rock, power chords will be your bread and butter, and anything beyond that will be worth learning only when and if you ever need it.
How not to learn a new shape
The biggest mistake when learning chords is to rely on memorizing hundreds of shapes without understanding the theory behind them. I’m obviously not talking about the very first beginner stage, where the main focus is to train your fingers, start playing, and generally have fun.
But if you always rely on chord charts, your knowledge will be limited and always dependent on your memory. Let’s imagine that you want to learn an A9 chord, and you look it up on the internet. You find a shape, you practice it for five minutes, but the next day, you have already forgotten it.
Where did I have to put my ring finger?
If you know how to build a ninth chord instead, you can come up with dozens of different fingerings and choose the one that you feel more comfortable with, and that fits better in the song that you’re playing. As soon as you start to introduce some theory in your practice and you get the hang of what a major scale is, you should go a bit deeper into chord theory.
The good news? It’s really simple, and the best part is that you can immediately put into practice what you learn.
Let’s see how it works…
And how to learn it
Everybody knows what a C major scale is, right? C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and back to the C an octave higher. Without going into much detail, you can build a chord starting from any note or degree of any scale.
All the chords that we’ll talk about today are built in thirds, which means that you always skip one degree. If you want to build a C chord, you start with the C note, you skip one degree, then you use the E, you skip one more degree, and then you use a G.
As long as you know the name of the notes on your fretboard, you can combine the C, E, and G in any position, and you will always have a C chord. If you add the 7th degree (B in this case), you have a Cmaj7, etc., etc.
Majors and Minors
Whether the chord is minor or major depends on the distance between the first and the third degree. How many frets do you have between them on your guitar? If you have three frets, the chord is minor; if you have four, it will be major.
To fully understand chord theory and how to apply it on the guitar, I strongly recommend investing in a good book. Understanding How to Build Guitar Chords & Arpeggios helped me immensely when I finally decided that I needed to learn chord theory.
8 levels of chords
It’s now time to take a look at The Different Types Of Chords You Should Know.
I’ve decided to divide them into eight groups. The majority of the players normally learn them following this order, but keep in mind that this is not a strict rule. You might want to learn a diminished chord well before sus chords if you need it for a song.
As you progress in your journey, you’ll be able to decide by yourself whether you need all of them or just a few. As a general idea, everybody should know and be able to play any chord from the first five levels.
Level 1 – Open Chords
Open chords, which are sometimes referred to as cowboy chords, are the building blocks of any guitar player. Everyone should start from here and shouldn’t rush into more advanced material until they are mastered.
As time passes, you might decide that you don’t want to use them anymore. A jazz player will rarely find himself playing in the open position, but this doesn’t mean you don’t need them if you want to play jazz.
Open cords are challenging to learn at first, but not only will they allow you to play songs after a few days of practice, but also they will train your fingers to become more flexible and to move quickly. They also provide the theoretical background to lots of the more advanced chords, so everyone, regardless of the style they want to play, really has to get them down.
Don’t be discouraged if you are struggling with open chords! Everyone has been there, even Eric Clapton (which by the way, has been using open chords (along with some other more advanced chords throughout his whole career).
Level 2 – Barre Chords
When you try your first barre chord, you will feel like it’s not humanly possible to make it sound good. Nevertheless, they are crucial, and with a bit of consistency and daily practice, you’ll get there sooner than you think.
Barre chords are essential since they allow you to play different chords all over the neck using the same shape. Once you’ve learned an F major, you’ll be instantly able to play any major chord using that same fingering. Pretty useful, isn’t it?
Level 3 – Seventh Chords
So far, we’ve seen chords with only three notes. It’s now time to step up the game by adding a fourth note, the seventh. Regardless of whether a chord is major or minor, you can always add the seventh degree from the scale that it is built on.
You can build four types of seventh chords from a major scale: major7, minor7, dominant 7, and minor7b5. The first three of them are chords that anybody should know. They add color to your sound, and they have different functions in a progression.
The m7b5 is something you might want to skip at this stage.
Level 4 – Power Chords
With power chords, you will start to have some real fun, especially if you’re into rock, punk, or grunge music. A power chord is a chord with no quality, which means it is neither minor nor major. It is built with only two different notes (plus the octave), it’s very easy to play, and it will allow you to work on your rhythm, your strumming speed, and various techniques such as palm muting.
If your goal is to play in a Sex Pistols or Green Day cover band, power chords are what you will end playing most of the time. They are also extremely useful when you encounter a chord that you don’t know. If you don’t have any idea of what that C 6/9 is, you can substitute it with a C power chord.
The standard notation for a power chord is 5, for example, C5, because the two notes it contains are the root ‘C’ plus the fifth note of a C major scale ‘G,’ then just add the octave of the root C for some hardcore musical fun!.
Level 5 – Sus Chords
Sus chords are a handy little tool to have in your arsenal. Like power chords, they are neither major nor minor, but the difference is that sus chords still have three notes.
The second or the fourth degree are used in place of the third, and this results in a chord that is strongly unstable on its own. It clearly wants to move somewhere else!
The most common use of sus2 or sus4 chords is to add a bit of variety to a progression that could sound otherwise boring. A good example of this is “Crazy little thing called love” by Queen, where the first chord, which is a D, moves constantly to a Dsus4. This creates movement in a progression that would stay otherwise on the same chord for too long.
Level 6 – Ninth Chords
Ninth chords are the first type of chords that should be studied only when needed. If you take the seventh chord, I discussed in level 3, and you add the ninth degree of the scale, you get the ninth chord. They are commonly used in blues and jazz, a lot less in other genres. However, this doesn’t mean that they never appear in rock music.
If you’re a Jimi Hendrix fan, you probably heard of the Hendrix chord, which is a 7#9 (dominant seventh sharp nine). When you start learning to play Jimi Hendrix songs or songs by the many guitar players who have been influenced by him, you’ll find it quite often, and it will make sense to learn it and practice it at that point.
Level 7 – Dominant Chords
I have just discussed what a dominant 7 chord is. When we talk more in general about dominant chords, we refer to any chord that is built on the 5th degree of a major scale. If we take the C major scale, it will be a G.
Regardless of how many extensions you add to the basic chord (7, 9, 11, 13), you can refer to it as dominant. The main function of a dominant chord is to bring the progression back home, which is to the first note (or tonic) of the key you’re playing in.
While every musician should know the dominant 7 chords, any other extension is useless if you never use it other than during your practice time. Again, learn them when you need them!
Level 8 – Augmented, Diminished, and Altered Chords
With this last group of chords, we’re diving deeply into the world of jazz.
I’m not saying that you’ll never encounter any of them in other genres, but they will be way less common. All of them are typically used to add color to a chord progression or to temporarily create tension before resolving to a more stable chord.
Once you get to this point, you will know whether you need to learn them or not and in which situation they would come in handy.
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The Different Types Of Chords You Should Know – Final Thoughts
There are thousands of different chord shapes on a guitar. While it is useful to know as many as possible, you’ll probably find yourself playing only a fraction of them (unless you’re a legend like Joe Pass). Therefore, it’s a complete waste of time learning shapes that you don’t know how and when to use.
The Different Types Of Chords You Should Know are the ones that you need to express yourself with the music that you play. With a bit of experience, you’ll know exactly when and if to stop learning new chords, or at least only learn them when the need arises.