chord theory 4: understanding the C major chord

Earlier articles chord theory 1, 2 & 3 laid down the foundations for this piece on the C major chord.  If you don’t have a clear understanding of tones, semi-tones, intervals or major scales, these articles should set you straight.

Now, we could just use a search engine and find out what notes make a major chord, and apply that theory to form a C chord, but its more fun to work out the notes from knowledge we already have, as guitarists, and then try to derive the rule for ourselves.

C major diagram

the C major chord

In the diagram, I have left the original string tuning, unfretted, as a reference at the top of the chord. The x represents a string you do not play for this chord, and the circles at the top of the strings are strings that are played open or unfretted, and circles on the strings are notes that are played fretted.  So, in this chord  we are playing all the strings except the heavy E.

To really break this down, and apply our learning from the earlier articles, let’s do this in stages.  You can refer to the chromatic scale below, to help work this out.













  • First note on the A string is three semi-tones – three frets – higher than the A.  Using the table and counting 3 semi tones, that gives us a C
  • Second note is two semi-tones higher than the D, which is E
  • Third note is the G, played open.
  • Fourth note is one semi-tone higher than the B, which is C. 
  • Fifth note, the  last string played is the high E, played open.

So, on the guitar, with this fingering for a C major chord we are making C, E, G, C, E notes.  First thing I spot is that there are duplicates in there.  We are playing two Cs and two Es – don’t let this bug or confuse you…playing a duplicate note on another string helps to fill out the sound of a chord on a guitar.

Now let’s pull out our C major scale from earlier articles…

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

…condense the diagram to get rid of the notes we don’t have in the scale, add some numbers…

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

…mark out the notes we identified above…

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

By working through these stages, I can see that our C Major chord comprises of the first, third and fifth note of the C Major scale. Let’s see if another version of the C major chord tells us the same story.

cMajorBarreExamining this chord diagram, we have C, G, C, E, G from left to right.  Hmmm, the notes are the same, but in a different order.  Is the order important?  Well, at this level of learning, the answer is no, but note order does become important later, when we start to learn about chord voicings and chord inversions, but put that from your mind for now. Just remember that the lowest note is the root note, and is C for this chord.  If you had massive hands, you could add another C note in there on the unused string.

Wow, I wonder if other major chords work the same for their major scales?  Let’s find out in the next article, about the G Major chord.  In the meantime, here is a diagram of all the Cs, Es and Gs on a fret board.   You can use it work out different fingerings for this major chord, see if you can spot the open C, the third fret barre and the tenth fret barre fingerings for this chord.



In this article we learned

  • a C major chord is made up of three distinct notes – C, E and G
  • all three of these notes are in the C major scale
  • these notes are the first, third and fifth of the C major scale
  • furthermore, we propose the pattern that a major chord comprises of the first, third and fifth of the major scale
  • that the lowest note is called the root note, so the root of C major is C, and must be the lowest note in any C major chord – for now!
  • We can have as many C, E and G notes as we can fit our fingers on, the chord is still a C major so long as the lowest note is a C

All fret and chord diagrams have been produced by me.  Feel free to help yourself.  The stave at the top of the article was shamelessly taken from an image search.

1 thought on “chord theory 4: understanding the C major chord

  1. Pingback: chord theory 5: 12 major chords for 12 major scales | thoughtsfornaught

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