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All About Chords, part 3

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Darrin Koltow


Free Download - 17 Essential Strum Patterns PDF

All About Chords, part 3

by Darrin Koltow

Be sure and check out all of the lessons in the "All About Chords" series.

Part 1 - how harmony and chords work
Part 2 - the ii-V-I chord progression.
Part 3
- Arpeggios
Part 4
- The Blues Injection
Part 5 - CAGED - Form E
Part 6 - CAGED 2 - Form A
Part 7 - CAGED 2 - Form A - Arpeggios
Part 8 - CAGED 2 - Form A - Chord Melody
Part 9 - CAGED 2 - Blues Chord Melody

Before we get back into the nitty gritty chord ditties, we need to take a brief diversion to learn about an important right hand technique. You'll need to use this technique to play the chord melody tabs in this lesson. *Strumming will not work.*

Necessary diversion: The right hand

You can call this technique the "Pick fingerpick," because it combines both normal picking and fingerpicking. Here's how to do it: hold the pick as you probably already are doing: between the thumb and the first finger. Now, loosen up fingers 3, 4 and 5 -- you're gonna put 'em to work! No more Freddie Freeloader for those guys.

Now, look at this tab carefully:

|-0-- pinky
|-1-- finger 3
|-0-- finger 2
|-3-- pick

This tab shows you where to put each finger to play an open position C major chord using the Pick Fingerpick technique. Notice we have no more fingers left to cover the E note on the D string. This is one drawback to an otherwise cool technique. Possible solutions: just ignore that note. You won't need it in most situations. Or, nix the pick completely, and go totally fingerstyle. Or, neglect another string instead, like this:

|-0-- pinky
|-1-- finger 3
|-2-- finger 2
|-3-- pick

I know this technique might feel unusual and uncomfortable to you at first. That's okay. You'll grow into it -- and it's worth taking the time to grow into it, because the Pick Fingerpick lets you play arrangements, notes and chords in a way you can't with strumming. In other words, you're getting more music from your guitar with the Pick Fingerpick.

Now back to chords.

A quick review

In the last two installments of All About Chords we looked at -- and played, of course -- two important progressions: the 16451 and the 16251. We saw how the chords generally move from one to another with an ascending perfect 4 or a descending perfect 5.

We looked closely at the ii-V7-I progression, breaking it down into the V7-I and the ii-V7, and even the II7-V7, where the ii chord is a dominant 7 instead of minor.

We also addressed the question of why chords are built in thirds. One Guitar Study reader send me a letter about this, which I'd like to share with you.

Why chords are build in thirds, update

Darrin, I enjoy your articles! I just wanted to add a comment to the part where you explain why most chords are built with thirds.

I was always curious about this, so I started to search for some kind of mathematical connection between the frequencies of each chord. And there definitely is a connection! Major chords are built with root, 3rd and 5th notes of a major scale. If we look into the frequencies involved, we find that this translates into fundamental (root), 5th harmonic (3rd note) and 3rd harmonic (5th note).

These are the closest odd harmonics to the root note. So, rather than brainwashing being the reason for chords usually being built in thirds, what we have here is a physical reason. In other words, tertiary chords, those built in thirds, seem to be the easiest to hear, even for people not trained as musicians.

When we use distortion on an electric guitar and play a single note, what we actually hear is the note we played *and* all its odd harmonics. That's why it's very difficult to do chords with a distorted guitar. However, power fifths sound good with distortion. That's because the 5th is consonant with the 3rd harmonic of the root.

You can find more about this in an article I posted on Where did notes and scales come from? I hope this is useful to you. Regards, Eric Jacobs."

Thank you, Eric, for helping us understand why those tertiary chords are so much fun to play and hear.

Before we get back to our tertiary chords, you might want to have a look at comping with quartal chords, which are based on fourths instead of thirds. There's an excellent article on Guitar Noise called Comping with Fourths. Check it out here:

We're gonna continue with tertiary chords in this lesson.


"Hey!" you say. "I want my money back! This lesson is supposed to be about chords and you're talking about arpeggios, which are not chords!"

There's just no pleasing some people, even after you tell them that arpeggios *are* chords -- sort of. They're busted up chords, played one note at a time.

Why is it important to learn arpeggios? Not everyone wants to learn them. But, if you're used to strumming chords and singing along (which I hope you are doing), you may want to expand your skills with single-note soloing. Arpeggios are the *ideal* way to do this.

And since all this blabbing is getting in the way of the music, let's get some music in here to show you what I mean. This is the arpeggiated version of our 16251 song chunk:

*Set your font to Courier New to read this*

  H       H            H     H
  |       |            |     |
  /       /            /     /
  E E E E E E E E    E E E E E E E E
   C                  Dm

    H     H           H     H 
    |     |           |     |
    /     /           /     /

  E E E E E E E E   E E E E E E E E
   G7                C

Download the Power Tab file for this exercise.

This is music for two guitars. The first guitar plays the melody, which is notated in the tablature. The second guitar plays the chords written under the tab -- the C, Dm, G7, and C.

If you only happen to have two arms, and don't have a buddy around to play the second guitar part, play along with the Power Tab file.

If you don't have Power Tab yet, I highly recommend getting it. It's free, and it's an excellent tool for writing your own music and for learning music. Here's where you can get it:

Instead of playing along with Power Tab, you can also tape the accompaniment chords on a tape recorder, MP3 or wav file. Then, play back the recording while playing the melody.

How arpeggios help you solo

How does this exercise help you solo? What is soloing, anyway? To simplify things, it's playing a melody other than the song's original one. Yeah, soloing is a lot more than that, but it's a good definition to work from and practice with.

So if a solo is just another cool sounding melody, how do you make such a melody, and how can the preceding tab help you make one?

It all comes down to chords. In general, a melody will sound good if it uses the same notes that the accompanying chords have -- especially on the strong beats.

All you need for a decent, usable melody line, including a solo, is to use arpeggio notes from the chords that you're playing the melody over. Is that simple or what? In the preceding tab, this means that if the melody uses notes C, E, and G over the C chord in the first and last measure, it will sound like a real melody.

If you want to get a jazzier, more mellow sound for a melody, you'll choose notes that don't belong to the basic chord, but do belong to the chord with *extension notes*. For C major, these extension notes are the D, F, A, and B. And watch out when playing that F note over a C chord: the dissonance can ruin that fine China that grandma gave you, especially if you play it on a cranked up electric.

Quick recap

Let's recap the how and why questions: why are we studying arpeggios, and how does the tab in this lesson help you understand arpeggios and soloing.

We're studying arpeggios because we want to understand harmony on the guitar. Arpeggios are chord tones, so they're included in the topic of harmony.

We study arpeggios because they help us understand melodies better. They help us figure out what melody notes will sound good over particular chords. And understanding melodies better makes us better soloists -- including improvising soloists.

Where to play arpeggios

The arpeggios we played in the above tab were near our open position chords on the fretboard. I want you to clearly see how these arpeggio patterns are connected to the chord patterns. Why? Because if you miss seeing the connection between chords and arpeggios, when you need to change from playing one to the other, you'll have to *think* about it. We're not thinkers here: we're guitarists. We play, man.

So, here's a tab to show you the connection between the patterns for open position chords and the patterns for their arpeggios. This is a simple *chord melody* arrangement. It's for one guitar, which plays both the arpeggio melody and chords. Take this one slowly if you've never played a chord melody arrangement before.

Get the Power Tab file for this tab.


  E E E E E E E E    E E E E E E E E

  E E E E E E E E   E E E E E E E E

The Q=40 means set the metronome to 40 beats per minute (BPM). The Es atop the tab are the lyrics. I was inspired by watching some monkeys at a local zoo. Actually, the E means eighth note.

That extra note

Take a look back at the tablature in this lesson. And remember what I said about arpeggios being chord tones. In fact, focus on the first bar in the tab just shown. The chord you play is C major, right? So, if we're playing just arpeggio notes of good 'ol C major, we should be playing only notes C, E, and G, correct?

But, we're playing more than that. Did you notice the A note in there, G string, fret 2? That's not part of the C chord. Or, is it?

Okay, okay, enough with the mystery shtick. The note A is not part of the chord called "C major." But it is a part of the chord called C major 6. A C major 6 has notes C, E, G, and A.

"How come we're throwing in an extra note, Dar?" you ask. "I thought we were just playing regular 3 note chords. You know, triads."

We could have chosen that. We could do a progression with 3 note chords -- triads -- and it would sound...okay. I chose four-note chords instead because I like the sound of 'em. They give more color to the chord. Take a look now at the other chords in the progression to check these "colors" out. There's an extra note in the Dm: a C. There's no extra note with the G7; it already has 4 notes: G, B, D and F.

These extra notes in the C and Dm tell you that we're not playing a strict C, Dm, G7, C progression. We're playing a C6, Dm7, G7, C6. Again, it's just a preference thing: I dig four note chords, and I hope you learn to dig 'em too. They'll enrich your playing, expand your sonic palette, and get the world's richest, most eligible people of the gender you prefer to ask you for dates.

A Dm7 is a kind of Dm

One more point on four note chords. It's kind of an important point. When you see "C6," "C major 6," "C major 7," or "C 6/9," on sheet music for a song, you can substitute a plain old, 3-note C major chord for that chord. As long as the notes in the chord come from the C major scale, and the basic C, E, G triad is there, you can simplify the chord to C major.

This substitution is a big help when you're reading the chord diagrams on a new song, and see a "C6/9" for the first time in your life. Now, instead of saying "What the heck is a C 6/9?" you'll say, "Oh, yeah. I learned in the Guitar Study newsletter that I can play a regular C major in there, until I decide to learn this C 6/9 shape."

The same basic guideline applies to the Dm and Dm7: You can replace a Dm6, a Dm7, a Dm9, and Dm11 with plain ol' Dm. You can do this because all of those 4-note chords have the basic Dm triad inside of them: notes D, F, and A, *and* that fourth note is present in the C major scale.

Keep in mind that you can't always do these substitutions in chord melody arrangements -- when one guitar plays both the accompanying chords and melody. For example, if the melody note is D and the chord calls for C 6/9, you can't substitute a regular C major chord for 6/9, because it doesn't have a D note in it.

How to practice arpeggios

By now, I bet you already have a pretty good idea of how to practice arpeggios. You know they need to be in a 251 or similar progression. This makes sure you're making *music" with your arpeggios, and not just random notes or meaningless shapes for your fingers.

*And* as mentioned a short while ago, you want to practice the arpeggios together with chords. Why? So you can see, feel and hear the connection between melody and harmony. When you practice chords together with arpeggios, your fingers and ears come to know what melody notes go well with what chords, and what chords work with certain melody notes.

Once you get comfortable with playing chords and melody together, you can donate your pillow and mattress to the Salvation Army, because you'll be having so much fun playing, and digging your total understanding of your playing, that you won't want to take time away from playing to sleep.

Another thing you'll want to do in practicing arpeggios is change the way you play them; once you can play one pattern smoothly, make a new pattern.

Where do you get ideas for patterns?

Start with the basic "stair step" pattern that you see in the previous tab. Here's the C major arpeggio repeated for your convenience.

  E E E E E E E E  

(Remember that you need to practice this as part of the 251 progression shown previously.)

Do you see how we go up and then down with the C major arpeggio? Once you can play the pattern smoothly, you'll want to change the pattern, maybe to something like the one in the tab labeled Pattern 2 in the Power Tab file. Here's the ascii tab for it:

  E E E E E E E E    E E E E E E E E

  E E E E E E E E    E E E E E E E E

And after you can play Pattern 2 smoothly, you might want to change the starting note: instead of starting the arpeggio on note C, you'll start it on E, as Pattern 3 shows:

  E E E E E E E E E   E E E E E E E E

  E E E E E E E E    E E E E E E E E

In the next installment of All About Chords, we're gonna do something pretty hip; we're already learning to practice important stuff in a musical context. Now, we're going to make that musical context into a *Bluesey* musical context.

© 2003 Darrin Koltow, All rights reserved

Free Download - 17 Essential Strum Patterns PDF

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