Buckle up, Buttercup! So much good stuff will be covered in this installment. Let’s skip the pleasantries and dive in. On three? (/makes eye contact with each Glib) And a One, and a Two, and a…
Chords in Any Key
Remember this diagram?
And ‘member that a typical chord consists of the root, or 1, being played simultaneously with the 3 & 5? …and that a major chord contains the major 3rd while a minor chord has a minor, aka flat, 3rd instead? If not, review the Major & Minor Chords article linked above. Done? Good. Onward!
You also know that after the 7, the scale starts over at 1, and thus the image below should make sense…
Ok, I really need your attention now. What we’re going to do is make every possible 1-3-5 chord using the major scale notes, or the notes in the major key. Not all chords using the notes within the major key will be major chords. Let that sink in. We’ll be using only the notes of the major key (limiting things to only those notes within a given key is called, Diatonic), but doing so will create major and minor chords, as well as one diminished chord. I know, I know. Stay with me. Take a look at this…
The colors are for instructional purposes only. So, what do we have here? The Roman numbers in the leftmost column are standard chord notation. Capitals signify major chords. Lower case is for minor chords. The degree symbol means the chord is diminished; we’ll get to that one in a bit. In each row, there are 3 highlighted cells, which are the notes within the major scale that make up that row’s particular chord.
In the previous theory installment of this series, I didn’t point out something when we looked at chord construction. I’ll do so now. Notice that for the interval in the root (I) chord between the 1 and the 3, there are 2 whole steps. And also notice that the interval between the 3 and the 5 is only 1 and a half steps. That interval pattern makes up a major chord: 2 whole steps to the 3, 1.5 steps from there to the 5. But for a minor chord those intervals are reversed: 1.5 steps to the 3, 2 whole steps to the 5. The relevant diagrams are shown again below for your review.
Back to the “Diatonic Chords in Any Major Key” chart. Let’s look at the 2 chord, the ii. As denoted by the lower case, it’s a minor chord. But why? Well, you know a minor chord has a flat 3rd, but the “3” isn’t even highlighted in that row. What gives?! Don’t freak out, but for this ii chord, we need to think of the 2 as being the 1. That’s right, when we’re talking in terms of a chord, the root note of the chord is always 1, regardless of which note that might be within its relevant key. Confused? “You will be.” Anyhoo… So the ii chord… it follows the minor pattern of 1.5 steps then 2 whole steps, and that’s why it’s a minor chord. Are you seeing it? Maybe this will help…
The iii chord also has the minor pattern. The IV goes back to the major interval pattern, as does the V. The vi is obviously minor.
The vii° is the diminished chord – and thank The Creator there’s only one oddball! Can you guess what makes it diminished? What about its pattern is different from the minor and major chords’? Yup, it has a flat 5th! Technically, it might seem, it’s a minor diminished, but we just call it a diminished chord. The term kinda has another meaning when talking about intervals. So it goes.
Wow, we did it! Now you can impress your local drum circle with some diatonic splainin. But wait! There’s more! Here are all the diatonic chords in every key. Full disclosure: I looted this pic and didn’t bother to verify its veracitah.
Grinding Out a Song
I know I said in the first installment that this next theory article would be about open & barre chords and some improvising, but I can’t get there just yet. Since the focus of this series is supposed to be about theory for beginning guitarists, the diatonic chords discussion above seemed like the next logical step. I will get to that other shizzle, pinky swear, and only in the context of music theory as it applies to playing your axe.
Yet I can’t leave you without a practical application exercise. So let’s utilize our expanding chord theory for grinding out a song (transcribing it, figuring out how to play it, how it was written, what makes it tick). Do you recall “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” from the how-to-practice article? Excellent. Quaere: From looking at its chart below, in which key is it written and are the chords diatonic?
A good first assumption is that a song starts with the 1 chord of the key in which it was written. If it doesn’t, it’s most likely modal, and I hope this series will eventually get to modes. But it most likely will, for most songs. Heaven’s Door starts with the G major chord and so will we. Looking at the jacked “Chords in All Major Keys” diagram above, lo and behold! there is a row starting with G in the I column. Phew! Now let’s look at all the other chords in the song – D, Am & C – are they also in the G key’s row? We have a winner!
[I know you’re secretly wondering if there really is a “Key of Rock.” Well, you just found it.]
But they can’t all be that easy. Such would be boring. I know not everyone is a fan of U2, but The Edge is/was? good. (Squirrel! If you’re into electric you really should learn his pioneering* techniques using a dotted 8th note delay, particularly on “The Joshua Tree” album.) Take a gander at “Running to Stand Still”…
Refer to our handy hot chart and start the process. I’ll wait.
/taps foot impatiently
Is there a problem? It’s that pesky C major inversion, the C over G, innit? The C chord in the key of D is supposed to be a C#°, not a straight C. Is there another key that contains all of the song’s chords – D, G, A & C?
/tries not to look over your shoulder
Well, the chorus starts with an A major, so maybe the chorus is in a different key. (/checks) Nope, the key of A doesn’t contain a C major chord. Does any key contain both the A major and C major chords? Negative. Hold on, the key of G contains a C major chord. So we’re closer. But the short answer is, that’s Rock n Roll, baby. A longer answer is that the song’s key is in fact D, and that throwing the C major in there creates tension – it sounds off, but cool – and resolves to the G major, which is diatonic. Meanwhile, Bono continues to sing in D despite the C natural in the chord. Tension and Release: a subject for another day, when we finally get to improvising.
So what does it all matter? This knowledge will ultimately help you write, grind out songs, improvise… For Heaven’s Door we now know we can solo to that song in the key of G, no worries. For U2’s Running we know we can solo in D, but should stay away from the key’s C# note when playing over the C/G chord. For starters.
You can try this out on some songs you like to strum. A good one might be Pink Floyd’s, “Comfortably Numb”. How many different keys are used in the song? Hint: Bm is the relative minor, key and chord, of D. This means that they share the exact same key notes, so you could start by looking at the key of D. And watch out! That pesky C natural just might show up again.
Ok, next time I *will* cover Barre Chords, as a springboard to, what I call, Back of the Envelope Fretboard Navigation. Tips n Tricks! And this should lead to our first improv discussion and maybe some riffs, complete with video (only cuz I think such would be easier comm for moi) – I’ll have to get with SP on how to do that :/
Now practice, practice, practice 😛
*something something Flock of Seagulls something something