Developing A Chord Vocabulary

Once you learn the basic open chords, don't stop there! As I say to every student, the lost of guitar playing is learning to play in the open position -the chords that use open strings. This is especially true if you are the type of player that writes original tunes and creates unique arrangements of existing songs. If that's you you need to learned substitutions for the chords you are already playing. I have explained and illustrated the basic theory behind chords construction and naming chords in the sections of the web site dealing with JAZZ CHORDS and ARPEGGIOS as well as in my industry standard text Guitar Chord Guru. So on this page we will just deal with the rules of chord substitution, which are quite simple. Simple once you have committed yourself to the daily work and process of memorizing chords. The more chord forms you have trained you eyes to instantly recognize and your hands to automatically pounce on, the better your guitar playing will be.

There are three basic chord sounds in the world of music:

  1. Major Chords
  2. Minor Chords
  3. Dominant 7 chords
Ear Training - Use the sound files to memorize the sound of major chords, minor chords and dominant 7 chords. Before playing the chords on your guitar or keyboard make sure you simply engage in the process of listening to and thinking about the chord sounds you are hearing. As the sound files play associate the chord sounds you are hearing to their respective terms major, minor, or dominant.

Major Chords

Major chords sound strong and powerful. They can also sound happy, joyous or triumphant. Surprisingly a major chord can have a hard rockin or "bad ass" sound when used in a hard rock or heavy metal setting. When training your ear, be ready for a constant supply of surprises and fresh discoveries.

Minor Chords

Minor chords are best described as sad sounding chords. they can also sound gloom, mysterious or even jazzy in a cool sort of way. No one characteristic can describe the minor sound, or any chord sound for that matter, so as you educate your ear to identify chord sound, keep an open mind and always be ready for surprises and fresh sounds.

Dominant 7 Chords

Dominant 7th chords are most often associated with a blues sound, but are also great for funky applications. Once again, dominant 7th chords can not be described by any one sound quality. Dominant 7th chords, also called 7th chords or dominant chords can be found in virtually any style of music. Use imaginative terms for each sound and relate them to the chords in your favorite songs.

How To Substitute Chords

All of the chords in any of the three categories (major chords, minor chords and dominant 7 chords) produce the same overall or general sound, they are often used to substitute for each other.  This is how to create fresh sounding arrangements of favorite songs.  Below is a table of chord substitution. The generally overall sound of a chord is called its quality.

Major Chords

If you're substituting for a C Major chord, any chord in the C Major family can be used as its sub. Any chord with "C Ma" in its name, such as C Ma 7 or C Ma 9 are candidates, depending on the sound you are seeking.  (Note: C 6 & C 6/9 are also considered Major chords but are seldom referred to as C Major 6 or C Major 6/9 )

Major Chord Substitutes

C6, CMa7, CMa9, C add9, C 6/9, C Ma13, CMa7#11

Minor Chords

If you're substituting for a C minor chord, any chord in the C minor family can be used as its sub. Any chord with "C mi" in its name, such as C mi 7 or C mi 9 are candidates, depending on the sound you are seeking.  

Minor Chord Substitutes

Cmi6, Cmi7, Cmi7 (b5), Cmi (Ma7), Cmi9, Cmi11

Minor Chords

If you're substituting for a C 7 chord, any chord in the C 7 will share the qualities of basic. Any chord with "C 7" in its name, such as C7 #9 or C7 b5 are possible subs depending on the sound you are seeking. Chords with names like C9 & C 13 are considered Dominant chords. The rule of thumb is this: if the name of the chord does not contain the words major or minor, they are considered Dominant chords. (Exception: C 6 & C 6/9 are considered Major chords)

Dominant Chord Substitutes

C9, C11, C13, C7(b5), C7(#5), C7 (b9), C7 (#9), C7(b5b9), C7(#5 #9), C7 (#5 b9), C7 (b5#9), C7 (#5b9) etc...

Resources -Use your copy of THE ULTIMATE GUITAR POSTER or the JAZZ CHORDS section of my industry standard text Guitar Chord Guru to quickly gain a professional chord vocabulary.

Musical Examples

In the following musical examples plain sounding or ordinary chord progressions are transformed into something special using chord substitutions. By developing a large vocabulary of rich and interesting chords you can learn to write beautiful songs or create great guitar parts.

Example 1

In the style of the great song Freebird. The first point of interest is the descending bass line formed by D/F# chord which smoothly connects the G to E minor.

Example 2

This is reminiscent of the song Tuesdays Gone also by the classic rock band Lynrd Skynrd. Who knew that adding an E string to a basic D chord would be such a knockout?!

Example 3

Our third example is in the style of Something In The Way She Moves by the late George Harrison of the Beatles. The Beatles are rightly considered among the greatest rock songwriters to have ever lived.

Example 4

Example 4 is reminiscent of the latin rock sound favored by Carlos Santana and Gloria Estafan among countless others. Play the example finger style for best results.

Example 5

Example 5 is reworking of the basic E minor sound with 2 versions of the beautiful and haunting minor 9 sound. This would be great in any rock ballad.

Before picking the part out, make sure you are completely comfortable pouncing on the chord shapes.

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