Why is it important to learn about guitar chords? It’s clear you don’t need to understand the nuances of chord theory to play music. Today it seems most pop songs can be played using just three or four chord shapes. As such, many aspiring guitar players never move far beyond the basic chords they learn in their first few lessons. Besides, everyone knows the really impressive stuff on guitar comes from playing lead, right?
While I’m sure nobody disputes the impressiveness of left-hand acrobatics, in reality most guitar players will likely spend the bulk of their time accompanying others. This means playing rhythm and therefore brings us back to talking about chords. The basic open shapes many of us already know provide a great foundation for learning rhythm guitar. However, they’re only the starting point. An entire color palette is open to us. Why would we paint using only primary colors?
A more in-depth understanding of chords will improve every aspect of your playing. Chords aren’t only relevant for rhythm guitar; they’re foundational to things like songwriting, arranging, and learning music theory. Developing your understanding of chords will enable you to play in any key, identify different key centers, and navigate complex chord charts. It will also improve your knowledge of the fretboard, enhance your musicality, and inspire new creative possibilities.
It’s true that you don’t need to know much about chords to start playing music. After all, how much did you know about language before you started talking? At some point, however, you learn that talking and saying something interesting are two different things. To dismiss the importance of understanding chords is to miss out on a whole world of depth and color. From the lush to the exotic to the sometimes jarring, chords form the musical landscape that underpins everything we do on guitar.
Flicking through a chord book, it’s easy to assume that chords are just different shapes on the fretboard. After all, this is how most of us are taught to play them; we learn an E shape, followed by an A shape, followed by a D shape, and so on. While this approach is helpful for explaining how chords are played, it often overlooks a basic explanation of what they actually are.
Chords aren’t shapes—they’re collections of notes. Chord shapes simply reflect where these note groupings occur on the fretboard. In other words, a chord isn’t defined by its shape but by the unique spacing of its notes in relation to one another. We call the distance between these notes intervals. When different intervals are stacked together, they create a particular mood or feel—some cheerful, some somber, some harmonious, some dissonant. Although we commonly picture chords by their shape, in reality they’re collections of notes that can take many shapes.
To reiterate, a chord isn’t some static fixture; it can assume various forms on the guitar neck. Chords aren’t identified by their shape but by their notes—the sound created by the intervals being played. Why is this an important distinction? Because it highlights two key insights. First, a single chord can be played using various shapes (different voicings of the same notes). And second, various chords can be played using a single shape (the same voicing of different notes). That’s why most chord shapes on guitar are considered movable—a recurring theme in the following chapters.
From this perspective, we can view guitar chords not as static shapes but as dynamic, malleable forms. Remember that a chord shape is simply a collection of specific intervals on the fretboard. Given there are only 12 notes in the musical alphabet, these note groupings will repeat in various places on the guitar neck. A chord progression, therefore, is essentially a sequence of shifting intervals. It’s a harmonious (or sometimes dissonant) movement of notes that can take various forms on the fretboard. When playing music, we use these different patterns as sonic textures to help us express an emotion, paint a picture, or tell a story.
Tip: Chord theory doesn’t need to be overly complex. Remember that in Western music we’re only working with 12 different notes. While it may seem like there’s an endless library of shapes, this simply reflects our creative options in grouping these notes together.
Have you ever picked up a songbook, flipped past the songs with too many chords, and gone straight to the chart that looks least intimidating? For many guitar players, chord symbols represent seemingly isolated chunks of information we need to somehow navigate. Unfortunately, thinking of chords as unrelated patterns is a common stumbling block to using them effectively. Amid learning grips, nailing changes, and keeping everything in time, it’s easy to lose the flow and musicality in what we’re playing.
Ultimately, the complexities of chord theory can be reduced to one simple concept: individual voices moving together. To demonstrate this, picture a person singing a simple melody. If they’re joined by a second person singing a complementary but different melody line, we’d call this blend of two voices a harmony. Now, imagine a third person joining in, this time adding a new harmony line to complement the other two. If we captured a random snapshot of these voices together, the mix of three different but complementary notes would give us a chord.
Seems simple enough, right? And in many respects, it is! However, while it’s theoretically correct to call this snapshot of notes a chord, viewing the chord in isolation doesn’t complete the full picture. Why? Because these notes are taken out of context. A random freeze-frame of three voices gives no indication of the overall movement in the music. Chord progressions are exactly that: progressions. They imply multiple voices that flow in context. By viewing chords only as isolated shapes, it’s easy to lose sight of this central point.
To be clear, it’s extremely useful to reference chords as separate forms on guitar. It helps us visualize them, know what they sound like, understand their structure, and get our fingers used to playing them. However, we must remember that chord symbols are like small snapshots frozen in time—and we don’t play chord symbols, we play chord progressions. Chords are defined most clearly by their movement, the contrast of notes shifting in relation to one another. Even though we may learn or practice chords as distinct forms, they never represent isolated blocks of information. A chord is always used in context with the one before it.
Tip: In learning a song from this perspective, even complex chord charts take on new meaning. A progression isn’t a series of isolated shapes but a flow of voices moving together. Usually, if a progression feels disjointed, it’s a simple reminder to rethink the chord shapes being used. Just because one shape may be more familiar than another, doesn’t mean it’s the best-sounding choice for every situation.
Copyright © 2016 Luke Zecchin
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