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Incomplete 7th chords

This idea makes 7th chords easier to play, and creates new possibilities. Instead of making them four-note chords, make them three-note chords.


Eliminate a note, of course, but which one? We can’t really get rid of the root or the 7th because they define the sound of the chord. The 3rd also plays an important role in defining a 7th chord’s sound.

But the 5th? We can lose that.


Here’s what you do. Just take any 7th chord, say a G major 7, and build the chord: G, B, D, F#. Now get rid of the 5th, and you’re left with G, B, and F#.

Now the fun part. Find those notes on the neck of the guitar, and build some chords.


Root in the bass

Keep the root in the bass for now. Put the G of the G major 7 chord on the 3rd fret of the low E string. Now find a place for the B and the F#.

You have three practical choices for the B:

  • 2nd fret, A string
  • 4th fret, G string
  • open B string


There are two practical choices for the F#:

  • 4th fret, D string,
  • 2nd fret, high E string.


If you put the B on the A string, the F# can go in any of its two locations. Try both. Which is easier to play? Which sounds better?

Put the B on the G string and, again, the F# can go in any of its two locations. Again, try both. Always ask which is easiest to play and which sounds better.

And finally, the open B. Again, the F# can go in either location.


The root on other strings

Now go through this process with the root on the A string. As before, identify where you can play the other two notes (put them on higher strings than the A), and figure out how many chords you can make.

Then place the root on the D string, and find the other notes. Finally, put the root on the G string.

Remember that, in all these cases, the root is the lowest sounding note.

And make sure that you’re writing down all the chords that you like. The ones you don’t use now, you’ll use later. You keep ideas fresh by making sure that you have materials you like, and by making sure that those materials aren’t all the same.

Some people never use anything but standard, open string chords…


The 3rd in the bass

If you feel like making more chords, put the 3rd in the bass, and then find the root and the 7th on the other strings. So the B (if you’re using the G major 7th chord) goes on the 7th fret of the low E string. Then find the other notes (G and F#) on the other strings. Same process as before.


Other things to try

I know. It never ends.


  • Use the 7th (F#) in the bass, and put the root (G) and the third (B) on the other strings.


  • Do the entire process from the beginning of the post, but get rid of the 3rd instead of the 5th.




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Changing 7th chords

Let’s take the C major 7th chord I talked about in the last post.

Cmaj7 chord

As in my post on ambiguous triads…

…start moving the notes around.


Lots of chords

In some cases when you do this, you get other functional chords (rather than ambiguous ones).

For example, move the 7th of the chord (the note on the E string) down a semitone and you get a C dominant 7 chord.



Move it another semitone down and you get an A minor 7 chord. Suddenly, we’ve changed roots from C to A.



Now, using the A minor 7 chord, move the note on the G string up a semi-tone and you get an A dominant 7.



Move that same note up another semitone and you get an Asus4 chord.

So the work is to simply move your fingers one or two frets up or down on each string, just like you did with triads. The difference is that with 7th chords, you get more material.


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Building 7th chords

The guitar is all about patterns; chords are the most obvious example of this.

Triads are three-note patterns; 7th chords are four-note patterns. If you’re into permutation, you’ll know that there are a lot more four-note patterns.

A quick bit of theory (you may already know this, from me or from some other source):

Triads are built on every other note in a scale. Take the C major scale…


C   D   E   F   G   A   B

1   2   3   4   5   6   7


…and take the first, the third, and the fifth note (C, E, and G ) of the scale to form a C major chord. Add the seventh (B) and you have a C major7 chord.


Knowing the neck

Here’s where knowing the names of the notes on the neck of the guitar helps. If you don’t know them, what I’m about to talk about will hopefully motivate you to learn them. Knowledge equals power.

Here’s a diagram.




Take the notes of the C major7 chord: C E G B. Now let’s see how many shapes those notes make on the neck of the guitar.

I’m going to randomly choose the high E string to place my first note. And I’m going to randomly choose the 7th of the chord (B) to place on that string. The most obvious placement is on the 7th fret. The only other location for that note on the E string is the 19th fret…don’t bother.



It’s kind of like a puzzle. You have one note. You need to find the others. We’’ll make it simple(r) and use adjacent strings – E, B, G, and D. We have the B on the E string; we need the C, E, or G on the B string. Once we have the note for the B string, we’ll move on to the other strings.

What’s possible? The C on the B string is on fret 1 or fret 13. Can you reach either of them while holding down the B? For most people it’s not practical unless you have hands the size of a gorilla’s.

How about the G? No problem. It’s on fret 8 of the B string. And the E is on the 5th fret, so two choices. I’m going to randomly choose the E.

So now you’re holding down the B and the E. You need a C or a G to place on the G string.

You get the idea. Go to the next string (the G) and find a C or a G, and then on to the D string for whatever’s left. Here’s what I wound up with (the numbers below the chart indicate which fingers to use):


Cmaj7 chord


Universe of chords shapes

Then go back and use this process to build a new chord by keeping the B on the E string, and choosing the G (fret 8) on the B string. Then put the C and the E on the remaining strings.

Continue to build new chords. Instead of using the B on the E string, use the C, the E, or the G. Then find the remaining notes on the other strings. Use only adjacent strings like we’ve been doing.


Using non-adjacent strings

Then use non-adjacent strings, say the E, G, D, and A strings. Or B, G, A, and low E strings. You get the picture…

As it turns out, the chord I built above is a common major 7th chord that you could find on any chord chart.

But you wouldn’t find this one built on the E, B, G, and low E strings (the 0 below the chart indicates an open string):


C major7 chord2

Probably because it’s ridiculously hard to grab in the middle of a progression, and only sounds good in particular situations. The point here is to use your knowledge of the neck of the guitar to build stuff you wouldn’t be able to otherwise.


Exploration is good

Some of the things you find will be gold. Some things will need to be explored in different ways (strumming, arpeggiating, etc.) before you figure out how they can be useful. Some things will never be useful.

Now build chords starting on the second note of the scale. That’ll give you D, F, A, and C: a D minor 7 chord.

If it seems like there’s an overwhelming amount to do, that’s because there is. Just keep your eye on what you’re doing in the moment and after awhile, you’ll have a ton of material you can use to make stuff you never would have been able to.

You don’t have to know every possible chord…

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Ambiguous triads

Ambiguous triads sound interesting because their quality (major, minor, etc.) isn’t obvious. Open chords, which I talked about in earlier posts, fall into this category.


Major and minor triads

The main thing that determines chord quality is the nature of the third above the root. It can be either major or minor. The C major triad (for example) has these notes:


  • C E G


The C minor triad has these notes:


  • C Eb G


In these cases C/E is a major third and C/Eb is a minor third (In case you’re not familiar with intervals: count from the first note (C) to the second note (E) – C, D, E – and the number of notes names the interval).


In ambiguous triads there’s no major or minor third above the root. This can lead to interesting sounds.


Scale-tone triads

A good way to work with this idea is to use scale-tone triads. Here are my posts on that.


So take the major shape…


gmaj 3 note in chord box


…and find the third. For this triad, it’s on the G string. Remember, this is the note you need to change for another.

To do that, all you have to do is move the third either higher or lower. Try moving the note as far up or down the string as you can.

Do the same with the minor shape. The third is on the G string in this chord, too.


scale-tone min chord


As you work with this, you’ll notice that the new chord shapes are the same for both major and minor triads. This speaks to the ambiguous nature of these chords. When you get rid of the third of a chord, the chord could be either major or minor. Or neither.

If you want different chord shapes, you can move the other two notes in the triad around, too. This is a nice way of exploring new sounds.


Triads on all string sets

Here’s a link to major and minor triads on all string sets. Diminished, augmented, and suspended triads are on this chart, too, if you want to play around with those.


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This can turn into a huge topic. I’ll try to keep it as simple and clear as possible.

Typical song form involves verses, choruses, sometimes (but not always) a bridge. You know how this goes:


  • Verse – chorus – verse – bridge – chorus – verse – chorus
  • Verse – verse – chorus – verse – chorus


There are variations (sometimes there’s a solo), but this is pretty much it. It’s no wonder song-writers feel like they repeat themselves from time to time.



Trying to change this paradigm can create confusion and/or claims of pretension. A lot of people don’t want anything other than what they’re used to, and that makes it difficult to offer something new.

But you don’t have to go crazy and add two solo sections and three interludes. All you have to do is make subtle changes in the existing structure.

For example, verse 1 might have a progression that ends on a C chord. If that’s the case, end the second verse on an Amin chord (or something else that works for you). Sing one of the choruses a cappella (not that subtle, but effective).

Other things you can do to vary things from verse to verse, or chorus to chorus;

  • change strumming patterns
  • make small changes to the melody
  • add/drop harmony vocals in the chorus
  • drop the bass in one of the verses


There are often things you can do that relate to the particular song that you’re working on. Stay open to changing things from verse to verse, and these things will present themselves.

An example

Here’s an example of a sightly less conventional form than the ones above:


Intro – A1 – A2 – B – solo – C – A1 – A3 – outro


A1, A2, and A3 represent verses; B represents the chorus; C represents an interlude or a bridge or a completely new section (a section is longer than an interlude or a bridge). The numbers after the A’s indicate that a different musical idea has been added to the verse.



Notice that the chorus happens only once. This subverts expectation; listeners will be waiting for another chorus since 99% of the time they get one. This could be a strength or a weakness depending on how you write the rest of the piece.

Something needs to repeat. There’s only one B section, and one C section. The A sections repeat but are different every time. Can the intro and the outro be the same?

This issue of repetition needs to be considered any time you write a song, but especially when repetition isn’t built in. Thinking deeply about these things is one of the things makes song-writing so cool.


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Root movement 2

You can use any note in the chord as a bass note.

For instance, a D major chord is made of three notes: D, F#, and A. So you can make three different D major chords – D (root in the bass), D/F# (3rd in the bass), and D/A (5th in the bass). The name of the chord is always on the left side of the slash; the bass note is always on the right.

In order to identify the notes in a chord, you need to know your key signatures. Here’s a couple of links to  posts that will help with that.


Progression variety

This idea gives you more possibilities for different root movement in conventional progressions.


So for the following progression…


G – C – Amin – Emin – D – G


…you could have G – C/G – Amin – E/B – D/A – G


The root movement for the first version is simply the roots: G – C – A – E – D – G. Nothing wrong with that. But the next time through the progression you could use the second version, whose root movement is: G – G – A – B – A – G.

The second one is more like a scale. This isn’t necessarily more interesting than one that jumps around more. It just expresses something different (more grounded, relaxed, solid, directed; choose your adjective).

This might be closer to what your lyrics are expressing. This technique gives you a resource for supporting those lyrics more effectively, and for creating variety.





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