Learning To Recognise Chords

Following on from the last post I put up about figuring out the chords to a song, I thought I’d share my method for identifying different types of chord. Last time we looked at just major & minor chords, but as we all know, there’s always some “awkward” or “odd” chord that can throw a spanner in the works when it comes to figuring out a song. What follows is a list of ten different chord types and the way that I recognise them.

Basically the idea is that you create a sort of mental “colour chart” or “mood board” with each type of chord having it’s very own characteristics… a feel or mood that you associate with that chord type. In the examples I’ve given, I’ve tried to express the mood that I associate with each of these chord types. These may (or may not) make sense to you, but that’s not the point: what you should do is come up with a way of describing them which makes sense to you – it doesn’t matter if it’s nonsensical to anyone else. If it helps you remember the inherent sound of that type of chord, then you’re doing it right. It can also help if you can associate that type of chord with a well known, or obvious, example of it being put to use as I have done in these descriptions. Anyway… let’s get started (click on the name of each chord to hear it being played – at the end of the post, you’ll find the shapes that I used for these examples):

  • The “add9” chord: a major chord with the 9th note of the scale added in. A really “pretty” and “warm” sounding chord. A favourite of Andy Summers – check out the first chord of “Every Breath You Take”. You’ll also hear this chord in loads of Steely Dan songs. Walter Becker & Donald Fagen had such a fondness for this chord that they actually gave it a name, the “mu-major” chord.
  • The “minor add9” chord: a minor chord with the 9th note of the scale added in. This has the effect of reinforcing the “bleak” or “miserable” nature of the minor chord. Great for writing songs about dark subject matter. The 1st chord in Dire Straits “Brothers In Arms” is a G#madd9.
  • The “Major 7th chord: Want to make a major chord sound a bit more “sophisticated” or “wistful”? Add the 7th note of the major scale to it. Often found in Bossa Nova & other Latin styles of music. A good example of this type of chord comes from the classical world: Erik Satie’s Gymnopedie No.1 is based around major 7th chords.
  • The “Dominant 7th chord: a major chord with a flattened 7th major scale note added in. Often just referred to as a “7th chord”. There is a very dissonant sounding clash between this note and the major 3rd already present in the chord which gives a “tense” or “unstable” quality to it. It’s like the cliff hanger at the end of a movie plot… it just begs to be followed up with a new chord. Best example I can think of now? Well, it has to be the line in Hey Jude where Paul McCartney sings “… And any time you feel the pain…”
  • The “Sus4” chord: This is either a major or a minor chord with the 3rd note replaced by the 4th note of the scale. Because it contains no 3rd, it has a somewhat “ambiguous” or “up in the air/left hanging” kind of sound. Although it’s not strictly a simple sus4 chord, the one that best sums it up for me is that clanging opening chord from “Hard Day’s Night”. You’ll also hear these scattered all over the intro to “Pinball Wizard” where Pete Townshend plays a succession of sus4 to major chord changes.
  • The “Sus2” chord: Similar to a sus4 chord, in that it is neither major nor minor due to the absence of a 3rd. This time, the added note is the 2nd note of the scale. These chords are often confused with add9 chords, but they do have a different sound due to an add9 chord having a 3rd in it. A really good example of sus2 chord in action is Andy Summer’s guitar part on The Police’s “Message In A Bottle”.
  • The “11th” chord: Quite a jazzy one, this… It gets used in a lot of rock & pop music too, though. Basically, think of it as a posher version of a dominant 7th chord, with perhaps a hint of “sus4” ambiguity. In effect, all it is is a root note with a major chord 2 semitones below super-imposed on top of it. It gives a more “sophisticated” sound than a 7th chord, but still can be used in the same way. For a great example of this one in use, listen to the intro of The Beatles “Long And Winding Road”.
  • The “Diminished 7th“ chord: A really nasty sounding chord. Great for creating tension in a song. Try playing one of these followed by a either a major or a minor chord one fret above and you’ll immediately get the idea… this chord creates instability which makes whatever follows it sound much sweeter. Because this type of chord is made up from notes which are all 3 frets apart, you can move the shape up in 3 fret jumps and the chord will remain the same. Remember the old silent movies, where the villain has the damsel in distress tied to a railway track? That’s the best example of this chord being used to create tension.
  • The “Augmented” chord: Another “nasty” sounding chord, this time made up of notes which are all 4 frets apart, so it will move in a similar way to the diminished 7th, but in 4 fret leaps this time. Quite a favourite in the rock n roll genre. In Dave Edmunds version of “I Hear You Knocking” that piano chord at 1:33 is an augmented. It’s also Chuck Berry’s “other” intro… that clanging dissonant chord at the start of “No Particular Place To Go” is a classic example of an augmented chord.
  • The “minor 7b5” chord: If flatulence could be expressed as a musical chord it would be the min7b5 chord, no question! It is possibly the “nastiest” of all “nasty” chords. It sounds (to me, anyway) like rotten eggs mixed with the fox poo that my dog seems to love rolling in. It does have it’s uses though… “ugly” chords like this are great for building tension which can then be resolved as part of the musical story you’re telling. Usually they are to be found buried in the midst of a chord progression & do not stand out as a feature. This makes it difficult to name many examples of prominent min7b5 chords, but the best one I can think of, once again, comes from the classical genre. The famous “Tristan Chord” from Wagner’s opera “Tristan und Isolde” is none other than an Fm7b5. Here it is in context.

And there you have it… ten commonplace chord types and how you can learn to recognise them. As I said earlier the descriptions are simply what makes sense to me. As you gain experience, you’ll learn how to “tag” these sounds in your own way and come up with your own descriptive terms. Now, here are the shapes I used for them all:


Until next time… Have Fun!

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist


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