In this lesson we present 50 great sounding chords, ranging from simple triads to 'expensive' sounding altered dominant variations, so whatever style you play, from folk to metal, there will be something to interest you here.
The emphasis is on producing strong, usable voicings that can be applied in real life situations, with flexibility and creativity, so you can rely on the fact that everything included in this lesson is valid in a real life playing scenario at some point.
Also check out: 50 guitar chord shapes you need to know
Scroll through the gallery above to see full-sized tab for each chord shape, or read on below for all 50 in one place!
Triads: Three-string chords can sound surprisingly big...
Example 1: Triadic Inversions
Triads (three-note chords) can be fingered using different inversions (ie different chord tones as the lowest note) to great effect on the top strings. Here is a I IV V progression in G (G C D), drawing on three different CAGED chord shapes.
Example 2: Movable Triad shapes
This example uses the guitar's strength of moving one shape along the neck to change key. In this case we are shifting a major triad shape laterally, following a I bIII IV harmony, this time in D (D F G). Here we have the added benefit of the D on the open fourth string acting as a low string 'drone'.
Example 3: Adding Diminished and Augmented Tonalities
The progression here outlines F, G, Am and C. The diminished triad is slotted in a semitone above each major chord, acting as a chromatic voice lead (eg F, F#dim, G, G#dim, Am). The G# augmented triad sounds quite tense with the low G# resolving to G to create C/G.
Example 4: Voice Leading With Inversions
By being selective in our choice of triad inversion, it is possible to create logical movement between chords. This idea follows the progression C, G, Am, F, C, but maintains smooth step-wise low note descent, by using root position (R 3 5), first inversion (3 5 R) and second inversion (5 R 3).
Example 5: Suspended 4th
Many of you will already use a sus4 as embellishment to an open D chord (Dsus4), whereby you add a G note on the first string with the fourth finger. Here's a movable C shape version that enables usage in other keys. Suspended; chords contain no 3rd (they're not specifically major or minor) so can be integrated relatively freely.
Example 6: Suspended 2nd
Whilst the sus4 chord sounds unresolved, its sus2 counterpart has an airy quality that can work well with crunchy or overdriven tones as well as clean. They make a great alternative to conventional power chords. Modern bands such as The Foo Fighters and Incubus make extensive use of these sounds, as did The Police.
Example 7: Octave Displacement
Eric Johnson often uses octave displaced triads - one of the chord tones is played an octave above, which creates chords that are open voiced. These octave-displaced inversions of I IV V in G (G C D) articulate a G major scale running from B to G (high notes on chords). Voice leading is common and revered in JS Bach's music.
Example 8: The Lydian Tonality
We can generate the sounds of the major scale modes by playing triads from the IV and V degrees of the parent scale against a lower note that outlines the mode required. Here the triads A and B (IV and V) from the parent key of E are played against the bass note of A (4th note of E major) to articulate an A Lydian sound.
Example 9: The Dorian Tonality
This time we are going to generate the A Dorian sound (second mode of G major), by playing the triads of C and D (IV and V of G) against an A bass note. Theory buffs among you my realise that the triad of C (C E G) with an A bass note creates an Am7 chord, which is perfect fit for the Dorian tonality.
Example 10: The Mixolydian Tonality
Now let's look at the fifth mode of the D major scale: A Mixolydian. Here we take triads from the IV and V degree of D (G and A), and play them against an A bass note. Once again theorists may know that the G triad played against A gives the notes of an A11 (or G/A) chord, which complements the Mixolydian sound perfectly.
Triad extensions: Adding an interesting note to a triad can create new colour...
Example 11: Add9
The 9th interval (an octave up from a 2nd) can be added to either a major or minor triad to form an Add9 chord (R 3 5 9). This is a great way to give standard chords some colour without sounding too 'jazzy', which is why you will find them frequently cropping up in country, folk, pop and rock based styles. Gsus2 has no 3rd in it.
Example 12: Add11
The 11th note (octave up from a 4th), can also be added to major and minor triads. Here a C chord form is moved up two frets to establish a D tonality; the open third string (G) gives the add11 sound. These chords lend themselves to picked arpeggios, and appear commonly in rock ballads by bands like Whitesnake and Def Leppard.
Example 13: Major 6
Our next offering is a major 6 (R 3 5 6), which can give an authentic sound for vintage jazz and soul styles. You can hear this sound frequently used by guitarist Steve Cropper on records from the Stax label including releases by Booker T, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and others.
Example 14: Minor 6
Anybody who's listened to gypsy jazz genius Django Reinhardt will be familiar with this chord, the m6 (R b3 5 6). The inversions shown here are omitting the 5th interval - in jazz playing this is often removed without compromising the tonal integrity of the chord, as it is essentially 'transparent'.
Example 15: Minor 7 to Minor 6 Move
Here is a great move that can be used in funk, where we take a stock minor 7 chord and lower the b7 interval by a semitone to create a minor 6 sound for a very authentic sounding 'Prince' vibe - the high guitar break in Kiss is a textbook example of b7 to 6 movement.
Example 16: Major 6/9
By adding a 9th to the major6 chord, we extend our colour without getting too jazzy. Rock and roll guitarists like Brian Setzer use this sound. Its construction (R 3 5 6 9) is the same as the major pentatonic scale (R 2 3 5 6), which you could see as a major 6/9 arpeggio (R 3 5 6 9) if the 2nd is positioned an octave higher (becoming a 9).
Example 17: Minor 6/9
Here is a versatile minor counterpart, which is great for applying in a minor blues/jazz scenario. This minor 6 chord (R b3 5 6) could also be applied to a funk setting too, due to its placement here on the high strings - perfect for rapid Nile Rodgers-style 16th note strumming!
Example 18: Open String Add9
This add9 idea is centred around open strings to provide colour. Open B and E add a 9th and 5th respectively to A major, and then the same strings create a 5th and root note for the E chord. This is a highly effective trick and a great way of layering parts without simply playing barre chords.
Example 19: D minor Add9/G
Okay, it's time to turn the heat up a little, so this time we are using a substitution trick to articulate the I to IV move in a blues (G7 to C7) by using the a D minor chord in place of the G7 - in this case is a Dmadd9 with a chromatic walk down. Jazz musicians refer to this type of substitution as 'minorising'.
Example 20: Polychords (G major 13)
Here we stack two triads together to form a bigger structure, in this case a Gmaj13 chord. This is known as a 'polychord'. The two triads are an open position G on the bottom three strings, and a D triad on the top three. These chords tend to work better when used to end cadences, as here, rather than being continuously strummed.
7th Chords: These chords can instantly transport you to jazz or blues land...
Example 21: Major 7
Here is a great inversion for a G major 7 chord (R 3 5 7), based on a parent C form from the CAGED system. In this example, the 5th of the chord (D) is played on the sixth string to allow for a descending figure to also be played.
Example 22: Minor 7
We borrowed this Em7 shape (R b3 5 b7) from Bireli Lagrene. The voicing is again built from a parent C CAGED form, but this time minor. In the musical example, we are articulating I VI II V in G (Gmaj7 Em7 Am7 D7). You can see how this voicing can also be used with an open sixth string E note to avoid the wide stretch.
Example 23: Dominant 7
Here's a nice four-string version of a B dominant 7th chord (R 3 5 b7). The cool thing about this fingering is that no notes are repeated, as is usually the case when using bigger five or six-string shapes. It is used here in a turnaround on an E blues - V IV I V (B7 A7 E7 B7).
Example 24: Minor 7 Flat 5
Here's a tasty m7b5 (half diminished) inversion. These chords are great as they can imply numerous colourful tonalities. Try this: navigate a minor II V I (Em7b5 A7 Dm7) by moving a m7b5 shape from E, up three frets to become A7b9#5, then up four frets to become Dm6, thus spelling out the progression.
Example 25: Diminished 7
In this example we are using dim7 chord shapes (R b3 5 bb7) to imply E7b9 and Am6 voicings and create a II V I sequence along the neck. This creates a sophisticated set of ascending and descending shapes that can be used against an A minor tonality. Legendary guitarist Wes Montgomery was particularly fond of this approach.
Example 26: Minor 7 #5
The unusual m7#5 (R b3 #5 b7) works in a variety of fusion, funk and soul settings. Here it bridges a set of descending maj7 chords to maintain a chromatic voice lead. Steely Dan see it as an add9 in first inversion, nicknaming it the 'Dan chord'.
Example 27: Dominant 7 Flat 5
We're into Latin territory now, with a chord derived from the fourth mode of the melodic minor scale, the 7b5 (R 3 b5 b7). Although the fingering is relatively safe, it works well in the right context with the B7b5 providing embellishment via a bridging note to the Bm7 chord that follows.
Example 28: Major 7 #11
And now for a spot of Lydian tonality with this Fmaj7#11 chord (R 3 5 7 #11). This painfully simple fingering is essentially a stock E shape F barre chord, with the second and first strings ringing open, providing the #11 and maj7 intervals. A popular chord with '80s ballad rockers!
Example 29: Minor-Major 7
The minor major7 chord (R b3 5 7) is great for suggesting a moving chromatic line in the bass. The fingering here is a departure from the often used 'Stairway To Heaven' shape, instead utilising the C parent form once more.
Example 30: 7 Sus 4
Here is an interesting version of an E7sus4 (R 4 5 b7) chord. It utilises the open second string (B) to articulate the 5th of the chord, whilst placing the 4th (A) on to the 5th fret position of the first string. You can find hundreds of chords like this, just by doing a bit of experimenting.
7th Extensions (9,11,13) Extend 7th chords for sweet jazzy sounds...
Example 31: Major 9
We kick this section off with an E major 9 (R 3 5 7 9) in the open position. This fingering incorporates all four fingers plus open strings, so is not moveable without a capo - or another digit! It can be a tricky stretch so keep your thumb in the middle of the back of the neck.
Example 32: Minor 9
This version of an Am9 chord (R b3 5 b7 9) has no root note (A), if you don't play the included 12th fret, fifth string. Although usually a crucial note, it is okay to discard, as it would be played by the bass or keyboard player. And this is essentially a five-note chord and we only have four fingers available.
Example 33: Dominant 9
The beauty of this D dominant 9 chord (R 3 5 b7 9) is that we can choose to play the root note (D) on either the sixth or the first strings, giving us a great deal of flexibility with the shape and giving the listener the impression that the chord inversion has been changed.
Example 34: Minor 11
We turning things up to 11 now, with a versatile way of playing an E minor 11 (R b3 5 b7 9 11). You will already have seen that it is common on guitar to omit nonessential intervals in order to improve the tonal quality or ease the fingering of a chord. In this case we are using just (R b3 b7 11).
Example 35: Dominant 9 #11
This ear catching dom9#11 (R 3 5 7 9 #11) works well as a substitute for a regular dominant 7, as seen here. What happens is that a I VI II V in G (Gmaj7, E7, Am7, D7) is resolved to G9#11, slid up a semitone and back. Very expensive!
Example 36: Dominant 13
We are going rootless again, this time creating a useful G dominant 13 (R 3 5 7 9 11 13) by omitting the root (G), 5 (D) and 11 (C). Chords like this on the middle four strings work great when playing in a trio context with bass and drums and still sound fulfilling (don't think only five- or six-string chords are valid for trio playing!)
Example 37: Major 13
This is an impressive looking wide stretch moveable shape articulating an A major 13 chord (R 3 5 7 9 11 13). This is definitely one for the front cover of an instructional DVD! Even better, it sounds great and works well when arpeggiated. You could expect this in a Joe Satriani or Eric Johnson ballad.
Example 38: Minor 9
Here is a great way to play an E minor 9 voicing in a less jazz-funk vein. By using the open strings where available we can further embellish the chord with a pull-off on the first string from the 9 (F#) to the root (E). Notice how the shape can also be maintained to articulate other chords from the key.
Example 39: Dominant 13 to 13B9
Two ideas for the price of one this time! First up, a nice sounding dom 13 (R 3 5 b7 9 11 13) which can easily be manipulated to form a 'jazz-tastic' 13b9 voicing which increases the amount of tension felt as the V chord (C13) resolves to the I (Fmaj9). Nice!
Example 40: A9
Last up a quirky version of an A dominant 9, this time using some open-string colour in place of the notes that would normally be played at the 12th fret, resulting in a less typical sound. You should experiment with the same approach with any chord that incorporates notes at the 12th fret area.
Further Applications: Other ideas to aid your ongoing creativity...
Example 41: Quartal Harmony
Quartal harmony is a concept whereby a chord tonality (in this case Am7) is articulated by stacking intervals of a related scale (in this case A Dorian) in diatonic 4ths. These shapes can then be played freely along the neck to provide a melodic contour as opposed to a simple static chord.
Example 42: Minor-major 7 Quartal Harmony
The approach explained in example 1, can also be used with chord tonalities that exist outside of the major scale, as seen here. The A min/maj7 can be articulated by stacking the parent scale of A melodic minor in 4th intervals. This is a very common approach in jazz-funk.
Example 43: A minor 7 using 2nd and 3rd Principle
Here again we articulate a moveable sound of Am7, by using a parent A Dorian skeleton. This time it's a three-note structure constituting a root, then a note played a diatonic 2nd up, then another a diatonic 3rd up from that. Essentially we're exploiting the major 3rd interval between the third and second strings.
Example 44: A minor 7 as a Chord Scale
This example uses Am7 and A Aeolian in parallel to create a chord scale. By playing intervals from the scale on the top four strings to create a chord voicing, we can move each note of this voicing diatonically up or down the neck to generate a synthetic harmonised scale that can be used for colour against a static Am7 tonality.
Example 45: Dominant 7#5#9
Here is a great example of an altered dominant chord, in this case G7#5#9 (R 3 b5 b7 #9). In this instance it's used as a means to bridge the II and I chords in a major II V I (Dm7 G7 Cmaj7) as the alterations (#5 #9) work to create a moving chromatic line through the chords.
Example 46: Dominant 7#9
This is another altered dominant chord, a 7#9 (R 3 5 b7 #9) which works in exactly the same manner. The fingering is a cool variation on the common 'Hendrix' voicing. This one, in the key of G is played with no root note, but rather a doubled b7 interval (F).
Example 47: D flat/G
This example is a really cool sounding slash chord variation on the altered tonality. The chord here can be seen two ways, either as Db triad over a G bass note, or as G7b5b9. Regardless of how you wish to term it, doesn't this voicing sound great?
Example 48: E flat/C
Another slash chord, this time to articulate a Phrygian sound. The Eb triad is played over a C bass note to sound C Phrygian. We are swapping from the sound of C Phrygian (3rd mode of major scale) to C Phrygian dominant (5th mode of harmonic minor) by incorporating Cm7 (Phrygian) or Cmaj (Phrygian dom) accordingly.
Example 49: Major 7#11 Harp Harmonic Shape
We've saved the hardest shapes for last, as we're assuming your hands are nicely warmed up by now! This fingering for Cmaj7#11 lends itself to the harp harmonic technique popularised by Lenny Breau, whereby fretted notes are played with artificial harmonics, performed by touching the strings 12 frets above.
Example 50: D minor 11 Harp Harmonic Shape
This Dm11 shape utilises the same technique as in Ex 9, although the pattern is different. This time we are starting with a harmonic before plucking the fretted note two strings higher, resulting in the same type of cascading effect.
We hope you have enjoyed this article and learned a few new chords that you'll use in your own music!