May 30, 2024

About the Author: Cameron Hayes

Cameron Hayes is a guitar educator at the London Guitar Institute, teaching a wide range of styles such as rock, metal, blues, jazz, folk, RnB, acoustic, and many more! He teaches a large volume of students on a weekly basis and always looks to provide outstanding value in each and every lesson!

Exploring the world of guitar chords can be a fun journey when you realise that there is much more beyond open position cowboy chords and barre chords!

But where do you start when wanting to improve your guitar chord vocabulary?

Seventh chords, and beyond!

Chords – all (or most) guitarists love them!

In fact, if you’re a guitarist that doesn’t love chords, then you’ve probably gone wrong somewhere, or perhaps you just haven’t been using the right ones yet.

Yes chords can get quite boring if you’re just doing open position major and minor chords, and perhaps branching out into barre chords across the neck. But once you start adding in some extensions things start to get much more interesting.

The most logical place to start is with seventh chords, which involve adding in the 7th note of the major scale on top of the existing triad (1-3-5).

See the formulas for Major 7th, Dominant 7th and Minor 7th chords below.

More information on the theory of how these chords are created can be found in some of our other articles.

MAJOR 7: 1 – 3 – 5 – 7
DOMINANT 7: 1 – 3 – 5 – b7
MINOR 7: 1 – b3 – 5 – b7

Chord extensions

Once you have wrapped your head around the theory of how these chords are made, try learning these voicings. Also included are 9th chords (1 – 3 – 5 – 7 – 9), and altered chords (#/b 5th or 9th degree).

Don’t play all of the notes!

Moving on from these chord voicings with extensions, the next step in your chord vocabulary journey is to realise that we don’t need to always be playing all of the notes in our chords.

In fact, if you’re finding yourself playing in a larger ensemble it would probably be more appropriate if you play less notes in these chord voicings, as playing all of the notes can muddy up the sound and get in the way of the other musicians.

A logical place to start is to ditch the tonic or root note of the chord, as if there is a bass player or another instrument highlighting the bass register then these will already be covered.

Another note that can be obsolete is the 5th, as this does not contribute to the quality of the chord (major/minor). Other notes in the chord such as the 3rd and 7th will change the quality of the chord considerably, the 3rd determining whether the chord is major or minor and the 7th determining if it is a Major 7, Dominant 7 or Minor 7.

Although the 5th can reinforce what is already there, we won’t miss it too much if it is gone.

Try coming up with your own unique voicings that you like the sound of by adding/removing notes until you reach a desired sound.

Man playing piano

Transcribe piano players

Another great concept to explore when building your guitar chord vocabulary is to change your mindset out of being a guitarist, and into a piano player. Often we guitarists can fall into the trap of playing the same boxy chord shapes around the neck which always give us a similar sound, so a great way to think about this is to think more pianistic.

Often when piano players play chordal parts they will often invert chords, meaning the lowest note in their chord voicings isn’t always the root note. This not only gives the chord a different sound, but opens up the sonic space for the rest of the ensemble to dominate their frequency spectrum, meaning instruments such as the bass can live comfortably in the lower end of the spectrum without other instruments also stepping on their root notes.

Piano players will often also use a technique known as voice leading, meaning they will try to connect two chords together with the smallest interval gaps in a chord to create a smooth transition.

Often guitarist will do the opposite, as due to the nature of the guitar being tuned in fourths, swapping between a barre chord with the root note on the E string and a barre chord with the root note on the A string will give us big jumps in intervals in some cases.

Try starting off with smaller cluster chords, meaning just a few of the key notes (3rd, 7th ect), then see what the closest note to these exist in the chord that you are moving to.
Check out Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Hiromi to hear some expert keys playing.

Stacked 4ths

Continuing on from that, a great jazz piano chord technique is the ‘stacked 4ths technique’, which involves stacking notes in intervals of 4ths to create some unique sounds. This chord voicing can then be moved through the scale in order to create an entire set of chord voicings to use within the key either in your comping under another soloist, or even to throw into your own solo to create

Stacked 4ths

thicker sounds! A great example of where to hear this in action is in the main piano riff of ‘So What’ by Miles Davis.

Droning open strings

A unique characteristic of the guitar is that open strings have a slightly different tone to notes that are fretted, and by combining the two we can get many unique sounds. Many guitarists often like to add in open strings in their chords, droning against the fretted notes to create lush textures.

Due to the nature of how the guitar is tuned (in standard tuning), some keys will work better for us in terms of incorporating open strings, in that the strings that we wish to incorporate must be in the key.

The key of E major is a great key to add in open strings on the guitar, the B and high E strings making great droning notes against moving chord shapes. See below some chord voicings incorporating these strings.

Some songs where this technique can work well are “Love Story” by Taylor Swift (final chorus after the key change), “Throw Your Arms Around Me” by Hunters & Collectors, and “In The Summertime” by Thirsty Merc (in the chorus, F# major chord as well with the open B and high E!).

Also below are some bonus chord voicings using droning open strings!

Droning open strings

Tags: Guitar vocabulary

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Tags: Guitar vocabulary