How to Read Guitar Chords

When you know how to read guitar chords you’ll think how easy it is. They’re not hard to figure out, it’s a simple system.

I’m not talking about images I means C9, Fmaj7 or D7. These are symbols you will see in sheet music and song books. Without a diagram you need to find out to make these chords.

They also get more complicated like C7b5 E7+9 and can be confusing to the beginner until you understand how chords are made.

The Major Scale and Chords

The major scale is the basis for most chords you will come across. Below is the C major scale and numbers that correspond to the notes. This is where the numbers on those chords you see come from. It’s also how a lot of them are named.































Chord Structure
How to Read Guitar Chords

This is the beginning of how to read guitar chords.

Every other note is how chords are made. This amounts to stacking major and minor third intervals together to make chords.

Before you go any farther you should know what intervals are and how we use them for scales and chords.

Take a look at the intervals page.

Every new chord starts with 1 no matter what position it is in the scale.

This makes it easier to remember and build chords using the major scale as a base.

This lets us build chords without being in a particular scale.

This is a chord building tool and has nothing to do with music keys.

Chord Formulas Based on Major Scale

This is the basic scale for how to read guitar chords.

All chord formulas are based on the major scale. The formula for a major triad would be 1 3 5. The formula for a minor chord would be 1 3b 5, the formula for a minor 7th chord would be 1 3b 5 7b.

This is because the major scale has a major 3rd and a major 7th and these notes have to be flatted to make the chord formulas work. This is a tool for making chords and has nothing to do with keys or scales. This is a separate little tool someone thought up a long time ago.

The Third Intervals

These are very important intervals as they tell us if our chord is a major or a minor. That one little note makes a huge difference.

Major Thirds

A major third interval is 4 notes or frets from the first note. If your chord has this in it it’s a major chord.

Major chords are just shown as C or F no major added to it unless it has a major 7th in it. Explained down below.

Minor Thirds

A minor third interval is 3 notes or frets from the first note. If your chord has this in it it’s a minor chord.

Minor chords use a small m after them to tell you it’s minor, like this Am or Dm

7th Intervals and Chords
How to Read Guitar Chords

There are two types of 7th intervals and chords.

A major 7th interval is 11 notes or frets from the first note. If your chord has this it’s a major 7th chord.

A minor 7th interval is 10 notes or frets from the first note. If your chord has this it’s a plain 7th chord.

An easy way to remember these is to think 1 note back from the root or root octave for the major 7th and 2 notes back for the minor 7th.

A Cmaj 7th would have a B in it and a C7 would have a B♭ in it.

Major 7th Chords

The major 7th will have some form of major in the chord symbol name usually maj like this Cmaj7. It it has the maj in it this means it has a major 7th in it. The chord could be Cmaj9, this means it is a 9th chord with a major 7th in it.

Minor 7th Intervals

A minor 7th interval just uses a 7 after the chord name like C7 or Dm7.

Any chord can have a minor 7th interval in it not just minor chords as the name seems to imply.

Here is a page on 7th chords Seventh Chords

If a chord has a “major 3rd interval” in it. It’s a Major Chord It won’t have maj after the note unless it has a “major 7th interval.”

If a chord contains a “minor 3rd interval.” It’s minor. It will have a m after the chord note like Cm.

If a chord has a “minor 7th interval” it there will be a “plain 7” after the chord note.

These are the main rules on how to read guitar chords. The rest of it is just adding notes to basic triads, 3 note chords.

Augmented and Diminished Chords

These two are variations of the major and minor triads. They both vary the fifth of a major or minor chord.

The Augmented Chord
How to Read Guitar Chords

There isn’t an inversion named augmented but the augmented chord is made from two major intervals, 1 to 3 and 3 to 5# or C to E and E to G# for the C+ chord

The + sign or aug is used to show an augmented chord like this C+, also other notes can be targeted like C7+9. This Chord would be built 1 3 5 7b 9#. The notes would be C E G Bb D#.

Let’s Analyze this. The C is the root, the E is a “major 3rd”, the G is the 5th, the 7th is a “minor 7th” and the D# is the augmented 9th.

The Diminished Chord
How to Read Guitar Chords

The Diminished chord is made from two minor 3rd intervals 1 to 3b 5b or C to Eb to Gb.

There are only two diminished chord forms the diminished triad and the diminished 7. The diminished 7th chord is made from 3 minor 3rd intervals.

The Diminished 7th chord has 4 names, one for each note and each chord form repeats itself every 3rd fret apart

The formula would be 1 3b 5b 7bb/6 or C Eb Gb A. This is how it works out using the major chord formula. It’s still called a 7th even though it’s a 6th.

The symbol for the diminished chord is dim or the degree symbol C°.

The list below will sum up how to read most guitar chords.

There’s 1 fret difference between the major 7th and minor 7th.

A major chord will be plain like C or F

Maj – This means the chord will have a major 7th in it

7 – A 7th chord without major means it has a minor 7th

aug or + – It has a sharp 5th or another note raised note

dim or ° – This means a minor 3rd and a flatted 5th

A minor chord will have min or m after the note

A Long Chord Example

The 13th chord has the most notes in it. We also leave many notes out so it can be played.

How to make a 13th Chord

We will use the C scale from above to make a Cmaj13th chord

G – 5th – These 3 notes are a major triad

D – 9th/2nd – supposed to be in a 13th

F – 11th/4th – this note is usually left out of a 13th chord

There are too many note to play so we play the necessary ones.

The root can be eliminated especially if there is a bass player but it makes it harder to remember the chord.

The 3rd is needed to tell the difference from major and minor.

The 5th can be left out of any chord unless it’s altered, sharp or flat

The 7th is like the 3rd when it comes to major and minor. It stays

The 9th should stay in a 13th chord

The 11th goes it gives a suspended 4th sound, not good for a 13th chord.

The 13th has to stay or we’ll have to change the chord name.

This leaves us with C – E – B – D – A . I kept the root for this chord

If you have read the above and know a major scale or two you should be able to understand what these symbols mean even if you don’t know how to play the chord.

You will at least have a basic understanding of what chord type it is, major, minor 7th etc.

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