JJ Rocks Article # 16:
From St. Croix Music Magazine, Issue # 3, December, 2006
I guess many of you have looked at a guitar chord book and said to yourselves “I don’t have time to learn all those chords, so I’ll just learn what I need”. I know at one time I have. But as I said in our first issue, there is a simple math to all music. Sometimes it’s just played so fast that it fools you into thinking that only virtuosos can perform it. But when you slow it down it becomes quite simple. So what does that have to do with chords? Well, you have to slow down and “simplify” the way you think of them.
The great Joe Pass once said that he thought of chords in three families. They are the major, minor, and dominant chords. That is extremely helpful when it comes to soloing through a song or choosing chord substitutions. But in this article I would like to talk about a simple way to tell what the origin of a guitar chord is by tracing it back it its parent chord. This process will help you organize chords into families for easier recall and give you a stronger way to communicate chord structures and designs to your students. Even if you are still a beginner and you are showing someone there first barre chord, you will find this very helpful.
First let’s take a look at the chords that I call “the parent chords”. It is from these five shapes and voicings that all other guitar chords are born. Below you will see what many of us used to call ‘cowboy chords”. None of them are more important than the other but I had to give them numbers so I did by just thinking (at least in my experience) which ones were moved up the neck and made into barre chords first. Usually the first barre chord that students use is an “E” shape followed by its sister barre chord the “A” shape. Then the ‘C” shape would be barred, but only by the guitarist who didn’t go and buy a capo because they thought that using that shape as a barre chord was too challenging. Then there is the shape which I consider as a teacher to be almost the rarest chord to be barred, and that’s the “D” shape. Now, the students who already attempted the “C” shape usually went for the “D” shape and accomplished it. So that leaves us with the rarest chord to be barred, the dreaded “G” shape! Even my good students seem to avoid that one. And I don’t know why because I see them every week attempting licks that require enormous stretching capabilities, but they still avoid barring that chord. Oh well, that’s another story so let’s get back to these original parent shapes.
So here are shapes (forms) with numbers
Form # 1 = “E” shape (most commonly barred)
Form # 2 = “A” shape (sister barre chord of form #1)
Form # 3 = “C” shape (this one separates the capo users from the non- capo users)
Form # 4 = “D” shape (almost the rarest of barred shapes and only serious students use it)
Form # 5 = “G” shape (if you see someone using this as a barre chord buy them a drink!)
Now the first thing that you have to do before you can trace a chord back to its origin is to learn how the parent chords are voiced. In other words you have to know what scale steps make up the chords. So you have to know at least one form of a major scale. I say this because all you have to do is play each string in the chord one at a time and match the sound with a step in your scale. Don’t forget that every note in your scale is a step and if you can play a two octave scale, just go to the key that matches the root of the chord that you playing. And if you don’t know where the root of the chord is, just look for the note that has the same name as the chord. It’s as easy as knowing who is buried in Grants tomb. To save you a little time I’m going to tell you how these parent chords are voiced and an easy way to remember them. I’ll start by voicing the “E” chord from its lowest scale step to the highest.
The “E” chord is voiced: Root (1 – open sixth string), 5, Root (an octave higher than the other root) 3, 5 (open second string an octave higher than the other fifth), and Root (open first string two octaves higher the first root)
So, as you can see in this chord, there are some doubled notes. Remember, just because a step is in a different octave it’s not counted as a different scale step. That means this chord only contains three different steps. In fact, a chord that’s doesn’t have an extension attached to it like “E7” or “A maj.7”, and only has one letter for it’s name like the examples above, only contains three different scale steps. So that barre chord that you have been trying so hard to push down like “A” at the fifth fret only contains three different scale steps. So with that in mind, we are only going to use the four lowest strings (from the root going up) to trace all of our chords.
So first let’s clear all the smoke and realize that there are basically only to different types of voicings that we need to trace our chords back home. The chords “E” (form #1), “A” form #2) and “D” form # 4 are all voiced the same from the root up on their lowest four strings. Just look back at the example of the “E’ chord voicing that I just gave you and think of the first four notes that make up the chord starting from the bottom. 1(root) 5, root, (an octave higher than the other root) and on top we have the 3 (third step in the major scale above the previous root). That’s three chord shapes with the same voicings starting from the lowest root. Now for the other two shapes, “C” and “G”, they are voiced in order like 1(root), 3, 5, root, (an octave higher than the other root). Once you remember those two basic arrangements of the parent chords, all you have to do is remember what string their lowest root starts on and count their steps up. So here we go!
Form # 1(E) starts on the sixth string (the lowest root)
Form # 2 (A) starts on the fifth string
Form # 3 (C) starts on the fifth string
Form # 4 (D) starts on the fourth string
Form # 5 (G) starts on the sixth string
Now when there is an extension like a “seventh” or a major7th, the root that is higher is usually changed to a different step to create a voicing with four different notes. In this example I’m using form #2 chords that are derived from our original (A) parent chord and barred on the first fret. I’m not going to use examples of three note voicings (triads) right now because any students that’s been playing a few months knows these most basic barre chords. Don’t forget the order of the steps in form # 2 chords.
So you can see the changes that happen with each chord as some of the steps are lowered (flatted). But the new notes still remain related to the original steps in the parent chords. Notice that the third note from the bottom in each chord has changed from its original step (a root that’s an octave higher) and moved down either a half or a whole step creating a “Maj.7chord” or a “seventh” chord. And you’ll notice that the highest note (originally a third) is moved down a half step to make a minor chord. So if you keep “chord construction 101” in mind, and you remember the order of the scale steps in each form, you can trace any chord back to its parent.
Here’s one more tip that you should remember. First find the lowest root in the chord that you are trying to trace. Don’t forget, all chords do not always start on the root so you might have to go inside the chord to find its lowest root. Then see what step is on the next higher string in that chord. If its root starts on the sixth string and is followed by a fifth (scale step), then it’s a form #1 (E). If it is followed by a third (scale step), then it’s a form #5 (G). Now let’s go to the fifth string. If the root starts there and is followed by a fifth (scale step), then it’s a form #2 (A). If it is followed by a third (scale step), then you have a form # 3 (C). Now the only form that has its root on the fourth string is form #4 and that is followed by a fifth (scale step). If you have a chord that has a root on the fourth string and is followed by a different step (like a third) then it’s just a half barre version of a form #1. There are a few exceptions like suspended chords in which the third (scale step) is raised. Other altered chords usually let you know in their title like flat five chords (including diminished) and augmented chords (raised five) so you can still trace them back to the parents.
If this seems confusing then just read it again, but in sections. Do it while holding your guitar and just learn it a little at a time. Before you know it you will be able to track down the origin of any guitar chord to its parent shape. This knowledge is indispensable when it’s comes to explaining a chord to your students. Later we will discuss scale patterns that go with each chord shape. Merry Christmas!
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Coming home to the Parents
JJ Rocks Article # 16: