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Have you ever wondered why chords are labeled with certain names, such as sus2, or maj7 and what this names tell you about the notes inside the chords?

Did you know that you can build such chords easily yourself, once you've understood the principle behind it? - Well after reading this article you will know how to do it!

The names of chords are derived from intervals, so let's take a look at them first, in order to understand what they are about. 

An interval describes the distance from one note to another

If you move your finger from one fret to the next fret on your fretboard, you've just played a note which is a half step away from your first note. There are 12 notes that exist in western music, which are:

A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G#

Notes with a “#” symbol are called “sharp” notes. The distance from one note to the next note of these 12 is called a “half step”.

The intervals which determine the name of chords are build up by certain amounts of this half steps. For example from the note A to the note C you have 3 half steps, because note C is 3 notes “away” from note A as you can see in the 12 note scheme above. 

Since we have 12 notes we can build 12 different intervals, from 1 half step up to 12 half steps. In order to distinquich them from each other, they've all been given unique names, as you can see in the table below:

Here are the intervals that determine the name of a chord:

Basic minor and major chords:

As you can see in the table, the first interval is called the “root note”, since this is the note that you are starting with and is determining which chord you are playing. You can also see the interval of a perfect 5th, which is 7 half steps away from the root note, it is contained in both major and minor chords.

The interval which is determining whether you play a minor or a major chord is the 3rd. If you want to play a minor chord, you add the minor 3rd to the 5th and the root note. If you want to play a major chord, you add the major 3rd to the 5th and the root note.

That being said, minor and major chords both consist of 3 different notes: the root, the 3rd and the 5th. 

How to build more complex chords:

Now that we've covered major and minor chords we can move on to more advanced chords. You can add other intervals to your major and minor chords, I give you an example of this below, with a maj7 chord:

In this example I want to build a Emaj7 chord. Because it is a major chord, we need the root, the major 3rd and the 5th. On top of that we are adding the major 7 interval, which is 11 half steps from the root note.

It is easier for you to build a chord when you are starting the 12 note scheme we've had before with your root note:

A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G#

To do so, you simply move all the notes that are before the E note, in the same order as they are to the end:

E F F# G G# A A# B C C# D D#

To build the Emaj7 chord, you simply have to count the half steps to the major 3rd, 5th, and major 7th. If you need to review how many half steps they have, you can do so in the table I've given you.

Here are the notes contained in the Emaj7 chord, marked in blue:

E F F# G G# A A# B C C# D D#

As you can see, the Emaj7 chord contains the notes E, G#, B and  D#. You can build your own chords with the same method. The only exception are the sus2 and sus4 chords, for those you replace the major 3rd or minor 3rd interval with the sus2 or sus4.


This article is written by Marco von Baumbach. He is teaching guitar in Wuppertal, Germany. Feel free to check out his website about Gitarrenunterricht in Wuppertal

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