Are you over complicating the guitar?
I’m certainly guilty of this at times. In this lesson, we’re going to cut through the distractions and build each the seven chords in a major key. It’s easier than you think but it helps if you know the names of each note on the fretboard.
The Mother Scale
Before we build chords in a key, we need to establish the notes in the key. To do this, we’ll build the major scale and we’ll do it on one string. Let’s use the Key of E as an example. To build the major scale, we need a sequence of notes in this pattern of whole steps (W) and half steps (H).
W W H W W W H
Note: A whole step is two frets distance on the guitar and a half step is one fret.
If we start with our E note on the 4th string, 2nd fret we can play the major scale this way:
The notes are: E F# G# A B C# D#
If you haven’t focused on a scale using one string, I highly recommend it. In fact, I wish I learned all my scales this way. There’s quite a lot that you can learn about the scale and its intervals when you’ve just got one string to produce a melody with.
But our goal for this lesson is to build chords….
Constructing Diatonic Chords
Chords that are built from the major scale and therefore fit together in that key are said to be diatonic. To find the seven diatonic chords in the key of E, we’ll start with each tone of the scale and add two layers of harmony, a major third and a perfect fifth. These three note chords are called triads.
All we need to do to find the three notes of our triad is start with your root and then skip a note along the scale to find the 3rd and then again to find the 5th.
E F# G# A B C# D#
From the scale, select the root, E followed by the 3rd note, G# and finally the 5th note B. These notes make up our first diatonic chord, E major.
To find the other six chords, start with the next note of the scale and select note three notes up and five notes up. Here are the notes of each chord along with the quality of either chord (whether sounding major, minor or diminished).
E major: E G# B
F# minor: F# A C#
G# minor: G# B D#
A major: A C# E
B major: B D# F#
C# minor: C# E G#
D# diminished: D# F# A
These chords sound good together because of their diatonic relationship. They were derived from the major scale. We stacked thirds and constructed these three-note chords, triads just by skipping a note along the scale and adding that to the stack.
Finding the Chords on the Neck
This is where it is helpful to know the names of each note on the fretboard but finding a fingering that is comfortable to play and contains each pitch from the chord in order can be a bit of a puzzle. It’s worth the effort to figure these fingerings out on your own, but to get you started, here is the diatonic set of triads in E along the 4th, 3rd and 2nd string set:
This seems like quite a lot of information and it is really. But if you practice these fundamentals, over time you’ll instinctively know the chords belonging to a particular key. So how should you practice?
This lesson builds the chords in the Key of E. Download the Diatonic Chord Worksheet and use it as a tool to help you construct the triads in other keys. Start with C for example and follow these steps:
- Write the C Major Scale starting from the root and using the pattern of whole and half steps (WWHWWWH)
- Write the scale, in order, above that but starting with the 3rd note of the sequence.
- Write the scale again above the 3rd, but this time start with the 5th note.