Chord symbols with extra numbers and foreign symbols can be intimidating. Although it may be tempting to either ignore them or look for another song to learn, you can easily learn what those symbols mean and how to play the chords they describe. I’ll even give you a rule to learn so that if you’re in a live situation and don’t have the time to do your chord spelling on the fretboard you can get through the situation without losing your cool or your gig!
Know your basics
Before working with extended and altered chords, be sure you are well versed in basic chord theory. This foundation work is covered in my guitar instructional video, Comprehensive Guitar Instruction by Charlotte Adams. You can also learn chord construction in either A Guitar Player’s Guide to Music Theory or in A Guitar Player’s Guide to Ear Training, where you will learn to recognize the sounds, as well. By becoming comfortable with triad construction, you will be able to understand the extended and altered chords more easily.
Learn the seventh chords
First, learn two versions of each seventh chord: one with the root on the fifth string and one with the root on the sixth. I’ve given you my favorites on the enclosure of the instructional video Comprehensive Guitar Instruction. I’ve titled them “moveable chords” and they include major7, minor7 and dominant7. Really learn these. (If you don’t have the guitar instructional video, choose two of each chord quality that work for you.) Be able to spell the chords as well as play them, so you are comfortable with naming the 5th of the chord or the 7th and so forth. Use the advice on the video regarding chord spelling to speed up this learning process.
Making sense of extensions
The following simple rules clarify extensions:
If the first extension is 7 or greater, the chord is dominant. For example, a G9 would be a dominant chord, because the first extension is 9, which is greater than 7. This gives you two pieces of useful information: the chord is a V chord and, in a pinch, you could play a G7. But let’s see what note you add to get the 9th that is called for. Simply count to 9, using “G” as 1 and you will end up with “A” as 9. To speed up the process, remember that 8 is an octave, so 9 is the same as 2, in this case the note “A”. The chord is spelled G B D F A (a dominant7 chord with a 9th added). Maybe you don’t want to play that many notes (or maybe you can’t!). The least important notes in the chord are the 5th and the root, so you can leave them out. The 3rd and the 7th define the quality of the chord. Keep them, and use the 9th, since it is called for.
If the first extension is 6 or less or the word “major”, the chord is major in quality. Using a similar example, a G Maj9 chord would be a major chord, since the first extension is the word “major”. A G6/9 would also be major (functioning as a I or IV in a major key), because the first extension is 6 or less. There is a big difference between G9 (a dominant chord) and GMaj9 (a major chord). If you try to substitute a dominant chord (G7) for a major chord (GMaj9), you’ll be playing in the wrong key! If you’re in a tight spot and need an easy substitute, stick with the triad (G major chord).
How to play them
Go back to the moveable chords which you know so well and . . . well, alter them! To find a 9th, you may sacrifice a root and play the note two frets higher. (Remember, 9 is the same as 2.) Or, if you’ve got an extra 3rd, you could move it back to the 2nd (9th). Play around with different options. Of course, if you’re dealing with a chord as common as a 9th chord, it’s a good idea to memorize a couple of shapes for 9th chords and add them to your vocabulary. But when you encounter something less common you’ll have the tools to spell the chord the way it suits you on your fretboard. The great thing about this is that while you’re doing it, you’re getting more familiar with your fretboard as well as your chord spelling. The first time you try this, it may be slow, as most things are at first, but you’ll quickly improve your speed and comprehension and your playing will reflect your new found sophistication.
Chords for practice
Spell the following extended and altered chords and determine whether they are major or dominant. Answers will follow.
1. This is a major chord (first extension 6 or less) that is spelled C E G A
2. A dominant chord spelled D F# A (C) Eb (Eb is the
3. Another dominant chord: G B Db (F) Ab E
4. A major chord: A C# E G#
5. Another major chord, spelled F A C D G
To further your understanding of music theory and chord construction, check out this essential guide:
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