Category Archives: Music

A picture of a flying teapot, piloted by a Pothead Pixie

chord theory 6: would you like some tea?

interlude

What is the point of this knowledge, I’ve been playing over 25 years without it.  What is it going to do for me?

Nothing, unless I put some effort in to applying it.  

Here are some ideas.

improving my bass playing

Like most guitarists, I am not afraid of picking up a bass guitar.  First I thing I did when I started playing bass to accompany other guitarists was to watch for barre chords – when the guitarist plays a barre chord, I play the matching root note.  That’s easy enough, you just watch the index finger and match to the same string and the same fret.

Wait a minute, I just learned the notes that make a major chord, so instead of always playing the root and its octave for a little spice, I could play the third or the fifth note from the matching scale.  Once I can find the third and the fifth on the fretboard in relation to any root note, I am all set, even if I can’t remember the name of the note!

Here is an illustration of the A major chord, showing the root, third and fifth notes from the matching A major scale.

a picture of the A major notes on a bass fretboard

A major chord notes for the bass – A, C# and E

Can you see any repeating patterns of notes? The diagram is a bit busy, and if you are tired, maybe you won’t see them. If you were to draw this diagram, then draw a similar diagram for Bb, you would definitely see a pattern. Try it. Meanwhile, here is another diagram with some of the note patterns picked out for you. I have chosen patterns that should be achievable using the one finger per fret rule.  There is at least one pattern that I have not added.

Picture of the A major chord notes, with patterns illustrated

The A major chord notes, with patterns illustrated.

Look at the two middle strings. Lots of our target notes are very close together…instead of just playing the root note, try a three note run.

improving my guitar playing

Now I can start drawing all of the notes on the fretboard for any major chord, I can start to work out new fingerings.  Look at this diagram for C major again, and try to pick out three note fingerings in as many positions as you can, and practise them.  Bear in mind that any fretted shapes you favour can be slid up or down the neck to find other major chords.

A picture of the C major notes on a guitar fretboard

Pick out 3 note combinations for the C major chord – C, E and G

Remember that for any major chord, the root note is the lowest. Once you start using the third or the fifth note as the lowest, then are you in to chord inversion territory, and this is to be encouraged, and will be the subject of another article later in the series.  The learning so far is a great step in understanding chord inversions.

improving my teaching

You can’t teach this stuff if you don’t know it yourself.  Now you are armed with this knowledge, you could take three or more total beginners, pick a chord progression, and teach each student one note from each chord in the sequence.  By the end of the lesson, it is conceivable that you can have your students all contributing to a rudimentary song without learning any chords whatsoever.  To spell it out, one student plays the root note of 3 different chords, the second student plays the third note, and the last student plays the fifth.  I will try this technique with an impromptu diddly-bow orchestra – one string each, three notes each, should be achievable.

Helping with a band?  Try splitting major chord duty between bass and guitar players.  The guitar player frets just two notes, the bass player completes the chord by filling in the missing note.  This would be a great exercise for learning all three notes of the chord all over the fretboard.

further learning

Later articles in this series will use the same techniques over and over, but with less detail now they have been explained.  We can apply the analysis techniques we used earlier to derive minor, seventh and more exotic chords.  We can incorporate all this knowledge into exercises, such as those detailed above.  We can also move on to chord inversions. We can try to understand the different kinds of scales.  You can do all this for yourself, but I will publish here as I work through it all.  Keep stopping by, and please leave some feedback or any corrections you can advise on.


Article images produced by me, help yourself.  Feature image is from Gong’s Flying Teapot, shamelessly taken from an image search. This image from Hassners is great.  Stare at it long enough and let your eyes go out of focus, you may see a flying teapot.  Beautiful!

chord theory 5: 12 major chords for 12 major scales

Earlier articles chord theory 1, 2 , 3 & 4 laid down the foundations deriving and proving the pattern of notes expressed by a major chord.  In the previous article, we proposed that the pattern of notes for two C major chord fingerings boiled down to this: the C major chord is made from the root, third and fifth notes of the C major scale:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
C D E F G A B C

Performing the same exercise again, this time with a G major chord and the G major scale:

picture of G major

a G major chord

Reading from left to right of the chord diagram, the notes we are playing are G, B, D, G, B, G.  In this arrangement, there are 3 Gs, 2 Bs and only one D.  There is a lot of G in this chord, and not much D.  Regardless, lets compare the notes played against the G major scale, which I have lifted from chord theory 3: 12 major scales, and condensed to get rid of the notes from the chromatic scale that are not found in the G major scale.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
G A B C D E F# G

Once again, we can see that this chord – G major – is made from the root, third and fifth notes of the G major scale.  As an exercise, you test other G major fingerings against the same table of notes, and you will find the same result.  If you are still unsure that we can derive a rule from 2 examples, simply go through the same exercise for all of the 12 major chords.

12 chords for 12 scales

Applying the pattern of 1 – 3 – 5 to a chart of major scales gives us the following definitions for the major chords for all 12 notes.  Why?  Just because we can, and it may come in useful later.  There is a plain version at the bottom of the page, in case you want one.

Major chord 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
A A B C# D E F# G# A
Bb Bb C D D# F G A Bb
B B C# D# E F# G# Bb B
C C D E F G A B C
C# C# D# F F# G# Bb C C#
D D E F# G A B C# D
D# D# F G G# Bb C D D#
E E F# G# A B C# D# E
F F G A Bb C D E F
F# F# G# Bb B C# D# F F#
G G A B C D E F# G
G# G# Bb C C# D# F G G#

new fingerings

By using the chart above, and the following diagram, you can start to work out new shapes for your tired old major chords.  Want a G major with a bit more D in it?  Now you can work it out.

guitar fretboard

table of major scales and scale definition

scale tone tone semi-tone tone tone tone semi-tone
root 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
A A B C# D E F# G# A
Bb Bb C D D# F G A Bb
B B C# D# E F# G# Bb B
C C D E F G A B C
C# C# D# F F# G# Bb C C#
D D E F# G A B C# D
D# D# F G G# Bb C D D#
E E F# G# A B C# D# E
F F G A Bb C D E F
F# F# G# Bb B C# D# F F#
G G A B C D E F# G
G# G# Bb C C# D# F G G#

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.

A

  Bb

B

C

C#

D

D#

E

F

F#

G

G#

  • 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
C D E F G A B C

…mark out the notes we identified above…

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
C D E F G A B C

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.

cMajorPossibilities

summary

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.

chord theory 3: the 12 major scales

This article assumes you have a reasonable understanding of  the terms interval, semi-tone, tone and the twelve notes of the chromatic scale.  If you are not sure about any of these pre-requisites, have a look at chord theory 1: 12 notes

In chord theory 2: the C major scale, I state that the defining feature of the major scale is that it is eight notes long, with the following interval pattern.

tone tone semi-tone tone tone tone semi-tone

If we draw a large table of all of the notes, we can apply this scale pattern, and derive the major scale for each of the twelve notes in the chromatic scale.  This is a good exercise, and at the end of the article, there is a plain version of this table for you to print and fill in.

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

In the next article, I will take look at the CMajor chord, played on the guitar, and see how it relates to C major scale, to see if we can derive a rule for what makes a major chord.

exercise

Unformatted table of notes – fill in the major scale for the note on the leftmost column

tone tone semi-tone tone tone tone semi-tone
Root A Bb B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A Bb B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A
A A Bb B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A Bb B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A
Bb A Bb B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A Bb B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A
B A Bb B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A Bb B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A
C A Bb B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A Bb B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A
C# A Bb B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A Bb B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A
D A Bb B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A Bb B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A
D# A Bb B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A Bb B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A
E A Bb B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A Bb B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A
F A Bb B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A Bb B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A
F# A Bb B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A Bb B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A
G A Bb B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A Bb B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A
G# A Bb B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A Bb B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A
A A Bb B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A Bb B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A

chord theory 2: the C major scale

This whole series is a bid to consolidate my knowledge and serve as a resource for learning about chords, how they are built and named, and how you can share the notes of a chord across many musicians.  If you are new to music theory, don’t be daunted – I played the guitar for 25 years before even attempting to learn this stuff – my point being, you can enjoy playing instruments with little or no knowledge.  When you hit a wall though, it can be useful to further your understanding.

This article assumes you have a reasonable understanding of  the terms interval, semi-tone, tone and the twelve notes of the chromatic scale.  If you are not sure about any of these pre-requisites, have a look at chord theory 1: 12 notes

In chord theory 1: 12 notes, I state that the defining feature of the chromatic scale is that it is twelve notes long, and the interval between each adjacent note is a semi-tone:

A

A# or  Bb

B

C

C# or Db

D

D# or Eb

E

F

F# or Gb

G

G# or Ab

By definition, the major scale is eight notes long, with the following interval pattern.

tone tone semi-tone tone tone tone semi-tone

Where are the notes?  I have realised that by defining the scale in terms of its intervals, instead of learning notes by rote, I find I can work out a scale in any key, by simply applying the pattern to the twelve basic notes.

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

Applying the pattern to find the C major scale, we start at C.  We move up a a tone (two semi-tones) to D.  We move another tone to reach E.  Now our pattern tells us to move a semi-tone – F.  Another tone – G, another tone – A, another tone – B, the final semi-tone – C.  

In this scale, the starting and ending notes are the same, but the end note is one octave higher than the starting note.  In this case, I have marked them both in red.  The first note may also be called the root note, meaning the lowest note in the scale, and later, the lowest note in the chord.

Why did I pick the C major scale to start with?  Firstly, there are none of the in-between notes – the sharps or flats.  Secondly, by no coincidence at all, the C major scale can be played on the piano by finding any C key, and playing only the white keys until you hit the next C along.

keyboard perfect

In the next article in the series, we can use an expanded table of our twelve notes, and the defining features of the major scale to work out all twelve major scales.

chord theory 1: 12 notes

When I started learning music theory, I found it hard work.  Our music system didn’t make much sense to me.  Let’s start with some facts, and maybe the cause of my confusion will reveal itself.  I start with this stuff because if it didn’t make much sense to me, then maybe it isn’t making sense to you or your students.

the 12 notes – with sharps

Note# is the notation for the word sharp, meaning higher in pitch.

A

A#

B

C

C#

D

D#

E

F

F#

G

G#

This is called the chromatic scale.  It has all 12 notes.  The notes get higher from left to right.  A# is a slightly higher note that A, but not as high as B.  Each sharp is higher than the note before it, but not as high as the next note along.  Some notes don’t have an in-between note.  You can see that B and C have no note in between them, and neither do E and F.  This can puzzle people…why do only some notes have in-betweeners?  Its not a question I can answer yet, but it is something you will need to accept to progress in this series, even if I can’t explain why.

the 12 notes – with flats

Note: b is the closest character I can find for the notation for the word flat, meaning lower in pitch.

A

Bb

B

C

Db

D

Eb

E

F

Gb

G

Ab

This is also the chromatic scale.  It has all 12 notes.  Crucially, it is the same scale. Even though some of the notes look different, it is exactly the same.  Where we had sharps – A# is higher than an A, we now have flats – Bb is lower than a B.  A# and Bb are the same note.

sharps and flats

In the sections above, I have given the impression that there are two chromatic scales, that is, it looks like there are two scales of 12 notes.  However, its just one scale, but presented in two different ways, once listing the notes we think of as sharps, and once showing the same notes as flats.

A

A#

B

C

C#

D

D#

E

F

F#

G

G#

A

Bb

B

C

Db

D

Eb

E

F

Gb

G

Ab

A# is the same note as Bb.  C# is the same note as Db, F# is the same note as Gb.

Having made that point, we can now redraw the scale.

A

A# or  Bb

B

C

C# or Db

D

D# or Eb

E

F

F# or Gb

G

G# or Ab

Why do we have two names for A#, and when do I call that note A# or Bb?  Some people may be able to give  you a complicated answer, but for me, if I know the next note is higher than this note, I say I am getting sharper, and if I know the next note that I am playing is lower in pitch, I will say its flatter.

my personal convention

A

  Bb

B

C

C#

D

D#

E

F

F# 

G

G# 

As a self taught guitar player learning from books (before we had the internet), A# was always referred to as Bb.  Don’t ask me why.  For the rest of the series of articles, I will use this convention.  Just remember, sharps and flats are the same thing – its the same note on a keyboard or a fretboard.

intervals, semi-tones and tones

The gap between any two notes is called the interval.   Intervals are measured in semi-tones and tones.  A semi-tone is the next note along, a tone is two notes along.  There is no magic here.

A

semi

Bb

semi

B#

semi

C

semi

C#

semi

D

semi

D#

semi

E

semi

F

semi

F#

semi

G

semi

G#

A

tone

B

tone

C#

tone

D#

tone

F

tone

G

Bb

tone

C

tone

D

tone

E

tone

F#

tone

G#


In this table, which was tremendously difficult to draw, I have shown every semi-tone interval, and every tone interval.  We can use this table to see that the interval from:

  • A to Bb is one semi-tone
  • Bb to B is one semi-tone
  • A to B is a tone (two semi-tones)
  • B to C# is a tone (two semi-tones)
  • D to F# is three semi-tones (or one and  half tones)

12 notes? erm….there are 88 keys on my piano!

circle of notes2

Yup, and on my guitar, there are more than 12 frets.  As students and teachers, we should not take it for granted that a student understands that once you travel from A to G# the notes repeat again, starting from A.   On the keyboard, you can see the notes repeating.  The black keys are the in-betweeners.

88-key-piano-keyboard-layout
Pick any string on this guitar, count 12 semi-tones, and the notes repeat.

guitar fretboard

summary

Whilst this may seem obvious, and this article rather large, we have covered a surprising amount, and there is plenty for a person to be confused about.

  1. there are 12 notes
  2. the notes don’t appear to be named consistently – there are some that are in-between notes, known as sharps or flats
  3. these in-betweeners each have 2 names, but they are the same note
  4. A# is also called Bb, C# is also Db, F# is also Gb, and G# is also Ab (remember the circle)
  5. there is no note between B and C
  6. the interval between B and C is only a semi-tone
  7. there is no note between E and F
  8. the interval between E and F is only a semi-tone
  9. there are two semi-tones in a tone
  10. the chromatic scale is 12 notes long, and the interval between each adjacent note is a semi-tone.  This is the defining feature of the chromatic scale.

Addendum

Since posting this article and moving on to chord theory 2: the C major scale, I have found this lovely diagram which complements my the table above, showing the tones and semi-tones.

keyboard perfect

Picture of Piezo pickup made from an empty mint tin

wanson one string wonder!

I finally did it.  I made my first electric diddlybow.  I have been very inspired by this lady, BEMUZIC (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BqgTNNrsHFo), who has been making her own instruments.  Not only that, she has been recording and producing music on them, and seems be an enviably accomplished player.

The Wanson has been great fun, and there are many more instruments to come.  Ingredients are pretty simple: a Piezo transducer stuck to the inside of an empty mint tin, and soldered to a 1/4 inch jack making a very effective pickup system.  Its so good in fact that I can also use the rig as a low-fi microphone.  For  the body of the Wonder, I picked up some beach-rotted pallet wood from Wanson beach, the nut is a stone from the same beach, and I spent £0.45 on an eye-bolt from the local corner ironmonger.  Even my rubbish DIY skills managed to produce a usable instrument, which you can see and hear on Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCefT0x618ik26ZkJdo2NBXw  If I can improve my ear and slide skills to be as good as Bemuzic’s, I will be delighted.

Following in Be’s footsteps, I shall soon make a 3 string cigar box guitar, followed by numerous bed-warmer slide banjos (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n-Ogm05QF5Q).  I have already purchased three such beasties from a well known auction site, and in my head, the gin bottle slate harp is already taking shape.  If only I didn’t have to waste eight hours a day at work…