Ever wondered what a seventh guitar chord actually is?Perhaps you've been unsatisfied with available explanations or your own understanding of the concept.
What about the theory behind seventh chords?
These are questions you've probably asked yourself, before resorting back to raw memorization. Still, you continue to think, "Isn't there a better way to learn this outside of note-by-note memorization?"
Instead of just memorizing seventh chords and learning the fingerings, we're going to learn how to build them from the ground up.The answer is yes.
A Better Way to LearnBecause of the way my brain is wired, I'm intensely pragmatic and skeptical.
As a result, I tend to look for ways to understand music at a deeper level and connect the dots thereof. So that's what we'll do here with seventh chords. Instead of just memorizing seventh chords and learning the fingerings, we're going to learn how to build them from the ground up.
We're going to learn how to connect all the dots.
Guitarists should know chords; really know them, not just how to play them.We need an academic understanding of what they are and how they work, music theory and all. We should know terminology and structure, and be able to explain it all to someone else.
It's a better way to learn something, thoroughly and completely.
Is it easy? Absolutely not. And if someone tells you there's an easy way to learn this stuff they're lying to you. I'm sorry, but there's just no other way to say it.
So we'll walk through it step by step; that way you'll actually know seventh chords.
Background InformationTo understand seventh chords you have to first understand the basic underpinnings of what a chord is and then what a triad is.
- Formal Definition of a Chord
- Formal Definition of a Triad
What is a Chord?Conventionally a chord is a combination of three or more notes, heard either simultaneously or in succession like an arpeggio.
Webster's Dictionary defines it like this:
"Three or more musical tones sounded simultaneously."
In contrast, Ottó Károlyi, a senior music professor at the University of Stirling, recognizes two or more notes as a musical chord.
Károlyi, Otto (1965). Introducing Music. Penguin Books. p. 63. "Two or more notes sounding simultaneously are known as a chord."
Triads are the next and last thing we need to cover before getting into seventh chords.
What is a Triad?
Formally, a triad is a guitar chord made up of three notes which are successive third intervals.
But what the heck does that mean?
Well, we've got three notes to work with. And we know that one of them, the lowest one, will be the root note. The next note will be a third (either major or minor) from the root note, while the last note will be a fifth (diminished, perfect or augmented).
So a triad includes:
- A root note.
- Third interval (major or minor) from the root note.
- Fifth interval (diminished, perfect or augmented) from the root note.
Same goes for the perfect fifth, which is seven frets (semitones) from the root note.
You can visualize the process by simply counting up from the root note on the same string.
20th Century theorists, Howard Hanson and Carlton Gamer, expanded the term to make room for essentially any group of three notes, or pitches, that are combined for a chord.
So once again, we have both a formal and casual definition.
Now that we've covered the basic definition of a chord and the structure of a triad, we can finally delve into seventh chords.
Defining Seventh ChordsUnlike our previous two definitions, there's little room for interpretation when it comes to determining what a seventh chord is.
Thus the formal definition is exclusive.
A seventh chord consists of a triad plus one more note that forms a seventh interval with that triad's root note.
If you understand how our triads are constructed it will be fairly easy for you to construct a seventh chord as well.
Since you're just adding a note to an established triad, understanding seventh chords becomes a simple matter of being able to count intervals.
Take the following seventh chord for example:
And we can get there entirely by counting intervals from the root note.
If you're still feeling a little tepid about intervals, here are a few resources you can check out to refresh your memory or get some more clarity before moving on.
- Adding Appeal to Your Power Chords with Intervals and Dyads
- Power Chords, Perfect Fifths and the Consonant Interval
- Guide to Building Foundational Guitar Skills (Intervals Section)
There are five other common or "Tertian" seventh chords that we'll cover to make sure we know the process and the way they're constructed.
- Major Seventh
- Minor Seventh
- Dominant Seventh
- Diminished Seventh
- Half-Diminished Seventh
1. Major SeventhWe've already used the major seventh as an example, but we'll cover another one here just to be thorough.
Remember, all we need to start is one triad.
We'll look for something different than what was used in the previous example.
How about we start with this major triad shape.
By now it should be fairly easy for you to spot the root note, third interval and fifth interval in our triad. Remember, it's still a major chord, so our intervals will have the following qualities:
Major Third - Perfect Fifth - Major SeventhIf you memorize this, you can create a major seventh chord with any root note of your choice.
So all you've got to do now is add the major seventh interval. Where do you think it would go? How could we figure it out?
Remember that a major seventh interval is 11 semitones from the root note. So we can simply count from the root note on the fourth string at the fifth fret, all the way up the fretboard.
If you do that you'll go from the fifth fret to the 16th fret.
That means we're looking for an F# near our original chord. The first note that comes to mind might be the low F# on the sixth string, but that's not a functional option.
However, the F# on the high E string is in perfect position to complete our major seventh chord.
You can apply the same process to any other triad to make it a major seventh chord.
2. Minor SeventhAll of the same principles will apply to the minor seventh chord, where the only difference is that third and seventh intervals will be minor in their relation to the root note.
Here are the intervals we need to use.
Minor Third - Perfect Fifth - Minor SeventhWe now have our root note on the sixth string at the fifth fret, meaning our chord is going to be an Amin7 by the time we're finished.
Our first interval is a minor third which is three semitones from the root. The perfect fifth interval is the same as before, now falling on the second string at the seventh fret.
In order to add our minor seventh interval, we need to count ten frets up from the root note.
This gives us a C, which we can include in our chord with the C note at the sixth fret on the second string.
3. Dominant SeventhA dominant seventh chord will be composed of a root, plus the following intervals:
Major Third - Perfect Fifth - Minor SeventhLet's start with an E at the seventh fret on the fifth string.
Our major third and perfect fifth should be easy by now, leading us to the following shape:
Now we need to add our minor seventh, which will be a D note considering our root E.
The seven, highlighted in red, is our D note, completing the dominant seventh chord.
4. Diminished SeventhFiguring out the diminished seventh will be slightly trickier because you'll have two diminished intervals to deal with.
Minor Third - Diminished Fifth - Diminished SeventhOur diminished fifth (also know as a Tritone), is going to be six semitones from the root note or one less than what we were becoming accustomed to with the perfect fifth.
The sound it creates is called "dissonant."
In order to add our diminished seventh note, we'll need to go nine semitones above the root note, which in this case is A. 10 semitones would get us to G, so one less will be F#, which we've highlighted red in our chord.
5. Half-Diminished SeventhThe half diminished seventh requires the following three intervals from the root:
Minor Third - Diminished Fifth - Minor SeventhSo this chord will actually be a bit easier to understand than the diminished seventh, since we have two minor intervals instead of two diminished intervals.
We'll start with our root note here:
Remember that a diminished fifth is six semitones above the root.
Now we can add our minor third and seventh intervals.
The same principles can be applied to the minor major seventh chord and the augmented major seventh chord, which are not listed here, but are still considered Tertian. As long as you know the intervals, you're good to go.
Want to see them all in one place?
Here ya go:
Major Seventh: Major Third - Perfect Fifth - Major Seventh
Minor Seventh: Minor Third - Perfect Fifth - Minor Seventh
Dominant: Major Third - Perfect Fifth - Minor Seventh
Diminished: Minor Third - Diminished Fifth - Diminished Seventh
Half-diminished: Minor Third - Diminished Fifth - Minor Seventh
Minor Major Seventh: Minor Third - Perfect Fifth - Major Seventh
Augmented Major: Major Fifth - Augmented Fifth - Major Seventh
If you know the intervals you discern and even build your own chords pretty quickly. So instead of looking up a bunch of seventh guitar chords and simply memorizing, you can make them from scratch.
Pretty cool, right?
Instead of having a surface knowledge and not really know what you're playing, you know why every single note in these chords exists, namely because you know the four components that make up a seventh chord.
Let's go ahead and review:
- Third Interval
- Fifth Interval
- Seventh Interval
But most things worth learning, like music theory, aren't easy.
The ProcessTo review and summarize what we've covered, let's look at the process by which we've gotten to this point.
- Understand the basic definition of a chord.
- Understand the definition and formal components of a triad (root, third and fifth interval).
- Learn how to count intervals from the root notes (by the number of semitones - use the chart provided).
- Build your seventh chords by finding a root note and adding the appropriate intervals depending on the commons name (major, minor, diminished, etc.) of the chord you want.
A Brief Argument for Music TheoryMost people don't like the idea of learning a lot of music theory.
It's boring, time-consuming and looms large for a lot of people who "just want to play." If you do just want to play a little, that's fine.
At the same time, this type of material probably isn't for you.
It's for those who want the numerous benefits that theory and an in-depth understanding of music has to offer guitar players. It gives you structure and definition to what you see happening on the fretboard so that you always know why you're playing something.
That's why I teach and recommend to all my students that they learn as much of it as possible.
Following UpDo you have thoughts about the material?
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Keep the fire alive.
Flickr Commons Image Courtesy of Spencer Williams