What are chords for?
Chords are groups of notes played in a simultaneous manner to define areas of harmonic tension. We commonly use chords to play rhythm on the guitar. Unfortunately, we can easily fall into the trap of considering a chord a shape that we must strum, and not a group of notes that can be played in any order we wish, with the sole purpose of defining the desired harmonic tension of the passage. Chords are generally used to define rhythm, but chords can help us define, if needed the melody of a song.
To strum is an option
Most instruments do not play chords as guitarists do. On the guitar we fall into the habit of playing all the notes of the chord at once, we strum, because it is hard to play a chord, as a piano player, or as a bass player or as Bach would.
It is easy to strum a chord but this can produce little musicality and generally creates a wall of sound that can obscure the beauty of the melody and the accompaniment.
It is extremely unfortunate for youtube to be flooded with guitarists that have created a school of thinking, that makes us believe that the role of the guitar is only about playing chords and when we play a song, all we have to do is play a group of chords without worrying about the melody.
This simplistic approach will produce great frustration in your learning and destroy any possibility of creativity in your performance.
Learn chords properly
Students must learn to understand the why and when to use a chord. Please avoid the process of learning a song where you start playing the chords directly. First learn the melody of the song, sing it and then learn the chords to accompany your singing.
You must sing and able to produce the melody because only then, will you be able to understand what it means to play a chord and when to change.
You must learn to hear, sing a melody and also to be able to play it on the guitar in the most simple manner. Once you have this sorted out, and of course played it all in tempo, you will be ready to understand what it means to accompany a melody, and how to do so with chords.
At my Creative Guitar School I apply these concepts to all guitar lessons, courses and levels.
What chords to learn first?
I suggest to learn basic chords in the one position to start off with, but in a manner that makes more sense. That is, in a musical context where there is a starting point, an ending, a tempo and a melody.
Please follow these links for a video transcript of my beginners course, where you can read about how to learn the C and Am chords, the Em and G chords, and the Dm and F chords.
I teach in all my guitar courses how to play the chords in a song context and always giving melodic values to all chordal notes. As a consequence, they sound nicer, feel better and make much more musical sense.
This is especially relevant in the recording process of any song to deliver a more professional music production to your listener.
Play chords melodically
I believe that guitarists deserve more than just the option of strumming chords. We should enjoy the art of creating melodies with chords in the same manner as a piano player does. However, due to the way the guitar is constructed, this can be a daunting process to master and that is why we always fall back onto regular shapes and end up sounding like everyone else.
The Pivoting Techniques
I have created an online course called the pivoting techniques, where you learn to create melodies with triads in closed position by adding tension to the top voice, passing tones to inner voices and 7ths to triads in root position.
Now, it takes around 50 hours of study to be able to grasp the concept in one position of the guitar, but the musical outcome is extremely rewarding as you will soon be in a position where you will create melodies on the go, creating extremely rich accompaniments and in the process, have enormous fun.
Most guitarists are not aware of the purpose of accompaniment and why we need to play with rich musical clarity to make sure the lead line is reinforced. We must define the groove with chords and also create a flow of tension and release to sustain the melody, the vocal line, all the way through a song.
You cannot do this with standard shapes nor bar chords. They simply sound muddy. You need to play with shapes that are a reflection of what occurs naturally. Chords shapes that copy the order of harmonics of the harmonic series. Triads in closed position do this and will work very nicely.
You will need to play with more tension in certain styles of music. The 7th chords create another degree of harmonic flow. When we play triads we can add the 7ths as a passing tone, to alter temporarily the degree of tension of the chord.
However, when we play 7th chords, the 7th will always be present , and we will add more tension to the chord by adding upper tensions as the 9th, 11th and 13th.
In order to play seventh chords, you must, again, use shapes that are derived from the balanced sounds of closed positions. It is very hard to play 7th chords in closed positions on the guitar, so we need to alter them by opening them up, by bringing down one of the internal notes an octave.
These are the shapes we refer to as drop 2, drop 3 and drop 2 and 4. They all produce balanced sounds and you must master them to understand the beauty of 7th harmony and what it means to sound balance and unbalanced.
When you play anything on the guitar, no matter if you are playing lead or rhythm you must sound good on your own. It will not make sense if your musical phrase is not logical. Also, your chords must sound full, complete on their own, that is why you need to learn the drop 2 – 4 , drop 3 or drop 2 shapes, and master them to create bass lines, and melodic phrases whenever you need the density of the 7th chords in your playing.
It is not the objective of my article to teach you how to learn chords but to be aware of what they are for, what sounds good, what will sound out of context and types of chords you need to master.
Chords should not be learnt on their own but in the context of a tonal center to understand the relationship of the scale and the chord at all times throughout a song. This is what we refer to as chord scale relationship.
In order to have a good grasp of chords and scales you will need to dedicate a constant practice. If you are in a rush, and have the stamina to complete the task it will take you around 2 years of 8 hours a daily study to be acquainted with them in a professional manner.