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About Chords

In the Middle Ages, early in the development of the Western musical tradition, music was almost entirely melodic in nature. Over time, Western music evolved into the present system, which is based on the combination of melody and harmony (chords).  A chord is a combination of three or more notes that sound together simultaneously. In the modern tradition, Western music of all types, including classical music, is based on progressions (sequences) of chords. In popular music, a rhythm musician (for example, a rhythm guitarist or a keyboardist) plays the chords that drive a musical arrangement. A skilled rhythm musician lays the groundwork for a successful musical arrangement by playing the chord progression on which it is based competently and in a musically sensible and satisfying manner.

In the song chart for a song, the chords are identified by means of chord symbols. The chord symbols used in the song charts differ from the chord symbols used in conventional notation (for example, staff or TAB) in one important respect. In the song charts, the chord symbols for minor chords and minor-related chords always employ lower case letters (for example, the chord symbol e represents an e minor chord). You can click here for a quick guide to the various types of chord symbols used in the charts, including how the chord symbols are pronounced, the types of chords they represent, other commonly used names or symbols for certain chords, and how certain chords are constructed.

Because the chord symbols identify chords by name only, the song charts can be used by any rhythm musician (anyone who plays an instrument that makes chords). Not surprisingly, many of the chord symbols in the charts for songs that are based on guitar arrangements refer to commonly used guitar chords. You can click here to view and print chord diagrams for 18 Common Chords that are among the most frequently used guitar chords. Notice that the chord diagrams are configured horizontally rather than vertically, which is the conventional configuration. This has been done because the horizontal configuration conforms more closely to how the neck of the guitar is viewed while playing, and because the horizontal configuration allows for diagramming several chords on a single staff (a staff is a group of parallel horizontal lines). Also notice that in each of the 18 Common Chord diagrams, every string is accounted for, either with an X indicating that the string is omitted from the chord, or with an O indicating that the open (unfretted) string is included in the chord, or with a fretting dot accompanied by a parenthesized number specifying  which fretting finger should be used to form the fretted note. Different fretting fingers can be used if doing so makes more sense in the context of a  particular chord progression, or makes a chord fingering easier to form correctly.

The chord doc for a song shows the exact guitar chord fingerings used to play the song on the recording. Taken together, the chart and the chord doc for a song make it relatively easy to learn to play the song in more or less exact imitation of the guitar arrangement on the recording. At the top of a chord doc, any of the 18 Common Chords that are used in playing the song are listed, in the order in which they are called for in the song arrangement. The 18 Common Chords are identified in the chord docs, as well as in the song charts, solely by their chord symbols. Just below the list of common chords in a chord doc, the required information for non-common chords is given in table format. Any non-common chords that share the same name (and therefore the same chord symbol) as one of the 18 Common Chords are identified in chord docs and in song charts by asterisked chord symbols. The asterisks are used to avoid any confusion about the distinction between these alternate fingerings and the common chord fingerings.

You can click here to view a depiction of the 18 Common Chords in table format. This will demonstrate the connection between chord diagrams and the same information given in table format. Although you may find that you are able to make out chord shapes fairly easily when the required information is given in table format, you will probably find that you prefer the chord diagram format when you’re working with new chords. If you prefer chord diagrams, you can translate the information given in table format in a chord doc into horizontal chord diagrams drawn on a 6-line staff. You can click here to download and print a page of blank staves (plural of staff) that can be used for constructing chord diagrams.

Chord docs also contain important information in the heading regarding the guitar tuning used, and whether or not a capo is required. You can click here to view a list of alternate tunings that includes all of the tunings called for in the chord docs..The chord docs for songs played in alternate tunings are usually particularly useful, because the chord shapes used in alternate tunings are normally very unfamiliar, and very unlike chord shapes used in standard tuning. Guitar music played in an alternate tuning often  has a different sound and feel than guitar music played in standard tuning, and not infrequently sounds far more complicated and difficult to play than it actually is. Because the use of alternate tunings tends to open up new possibilities in terms of playing style, chording technique, and musical style, alternate tunings are an excellent vehicle for creative expression.

A capo is a device that fastens to the neck of the guitar across all the strings and directly behind a specified fret. The effect of a capo is to raise the pitch of all the strings by the number of half-steps corresponding to the fret at which the capo is placed. For example, when a capo is placed at the third fret (actually between the second and third frets), it raises the pitch of all the strings by three half-steps. When playing with a capo, a guitarist uses the same chord shapes used when playing without a capo, except that the chords are formed above the capo rather than above the nut. In the charts and chord docs for songs played with a capo, the chords are likewise named in the usual fashion, as if playing without a capo. However, in the charts for these songs, the actual chords sounded need to be indicated as well, so other rhythm musicians can use the charts to good advantage as well. For example, with the capo at the third fret, when the guitarist plays an A chord, the actual chord sounded is a C chord. In the charts for songs played with a capo, the guitarist’s chords are notated in the usual fashion, but then directly beneath each chord, the actual chord sounded is indicated. This results in double rows of chord symbols throughout the chart. When double rows of symbols are used in a chart, guitarists playing with a capo should read the top row of symbols, and all other rhythm musicians should read the bottom row. The same type of double row notation is also used in charts for songs played in D Standard tuning (all the strings tuned two half-steps lower), which like the capo transposes all the chords and notes played to different actual pitches.


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