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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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Progressions by root motion

The root of the chord is simply the note that names the chord. So the root of a C major chord is C, the root of an E minor chord is E, etc.

A lot of people think that the root is the same as the bass. It’s often found in the bass, but there are plenty of exceptions. The D/F# chord is a common example. D is the root of that chord; F# is in the bass.


Common root movement in chord progressions

Every standard chord progression uses root movement down a fifth. Here are the main examples of this type of movement:

  • I – IV (C – F)
  • V – I (G – C)
  • ii – V (Dmin – G)


Of course, this isn’t the only type of root movement in a standard progression, but it’s always there somewhere. If you’re trying to get away from standard sounding progressions, see if you can avoid it.

By the way, I – IV and V – I are the same thing if they’re used outside of an actual progression. In a larger progression, they become different things. Like, say…

I – IV – vi – ii – V – I (C – F – Amin – Dmin – G – C)


Every possible root movement

Here are all the possible root movements down:

  • minor 2nd (Amin – Bb)
  • major 2nd (C – Dmin – Emin)
  • minor 3rd (Amin – C; Emin – G)
  • major third (C – E)
  • perfect 4th (C – F)
  • augmented 4th (C – F#)
  • perfect 5th (F – C)
  • minor 6th (E – C)
  • major 6th (C – Amin; G – Emin)
  • minor 7th (Emin – Dmin – C)
  • major 7th (Bb – Amin)


You probably noticed that the last five moves (perfect 5th to major 7th) reverse the first five. And just to be clear: the bracketed chords are just examples; use whatever chords you want.



Experiment by inventing progressions that use a particular root movement. Try making something with only major second root movements. How long can you make it before you feel the need to introduce another type of root movement?

Or you could decide to make an entire progression using a combination of minor third and perfect fourth root movements.

Or maybe something like this:


Dmin     –           F         –       Eb       –       Cmin       –         B         –           D

Counting up the scale from one root to the next: Dmin to F is a min 3rd; F to Eb is a min 7th; Eb to Cmin is a maj 6th; Cmin to B is a maj 7th; and B to D is a min 3rd.


You might want it to sound more conventional. If you do, then add some root movements that go up or down a fifth.


Dmin       –         F         –       Eb          –           Abmin         –       C       –        Bb         –         F


The Eb to Abmin progression goes down a fifth, and the Bb to F progression goes up a fifth.


All of these examples use chords with the root in the bass. In the next post, I’ll talk about using other notes in the bass.

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Implied key areas

An implied key area is one where there’s no resolution to the I chord. Resolution to the I chord is standard in every pop or folk song, and takes a few different forms:


  • IV – V – I (F – G – C)
  • ii – V – I (Dmin – G – C)
  • IV – I (F – C)


My posts on chord patterns and cadential patterns talk about this in more detail.



You can avoid the obvious by going to the vi chord instead of I. Or you could try going to the iii chord. These are standard moves, but they can be effective.

Avoid the I chord by taking a chord pattern and adding new chords to that pattern.

Here are some techniques that work…


  • Go up a half step from a minor chord to a major chord (i.e. Amin – Bb)
  • Go up a third from major chord to major chord (B – D)
  • Go down a third from major chord to major chord (C – A)


…and here’s a standard chord pattern:


I – vi – ii – V – I (C – A minor – D minor – G – C)


A new progression made by applying the above techniques to the chord pattern could look like this:


I – vi – bVII – ii – V – III – I (C – Amin – Bb – Dmin – G – E – C)


Barre chords are helpful for playing this type of progression. Here are a couple of useful links if you’re not familiar with these.


Making changes

I wrote the above progression away from the guitar. When I played it, I noticed a couple of ways to make it better. The ii – V – III – I (Dmin – G – E – C) part of the progression seemed awkward.

I played it a few times, and realized the move from Dmin to G bothered me. I changed the G to Gmin and that seemed to work better. Then, instead of going to the I chord (C) after the E chord, I went to Amin.

The final progression became:


I – vi – bVII – ii – v – III – vi (C – Amin – Bb – Dmin – Gmin – E – Amin)


Of course, these are just personal preference. The original works. I just didn’t like it as much.


 Changing habits

The point of making chord progressions away from the guitar is to avoid having your habits and limitations at the guitar dictate what you write. Working this way gives you a greater chance of coming up with stuff you probably wouldn’t have discovered otherwise.


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