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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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