How to name chords on the Guitar

Have you ever been in a sad situation involving chords? There you are, wanting to play a song, then you download the chord notation from the Internet. Great (that’s what you think). Then at some point in the song, a chord appears that you have never seen before. Gosh, what is this chord?

You run to a chord dictionary, type the chord in question, but the dictionary does not contain any chords with that name. It’s the end, not even the chord dictionary knows!

In reality, you may think that the only way to know how to form a chord is to memorize it. If you don’t have a huge database in your head, you’ll never know many chords. Well, you may be glad to know this is nonsense.

Running after a chord dictionary is a beginner’s practice. Now you will learn not to depend on it anymore. Even more than that; you will learn how to be better than a chord dictionary!

Like everything in music, there is a logical rule for defining the name of each chord. If you know the rule, you can form and name any chord on your instrument. Great, let’s learn how to do it! You will see a “strange” chord in the chord notation and know how to form it without outside help. And there’s more; a friend of yours will form any chord or combination of notes on your instrument and you will tell him which chord he is making. No matter what he does, he can spend the whole day making up chords, you will always know the name of all of them.

So here we go: You have already learned how to make major, minor and seventh chords. But it maybe it’s not very clear how to form these chords on the guitar. Well, it’s very simple, you just need to play all the notes that make up each chord we study!

Let’s start by looking at a possible design for the Dm chord on the guitar:

dm chord on the guitar

Notice how all the notes in the triad of Dm appear on this chord (D, F, A), and only them.

Our first goal now will be to form the Dm7 chord. For this, we will add a note to the Dm chord, which is the minor seventh degree (the C note, in this case). Okay, now we need to know where there is a C note that we can get to add to the Dm chord. See where the C notes are on the fretboard below:

c note in guitar

Notice how very difficult it is to add the C note to the Dm chord without changing its shape. On the other hand, we can use that C note that is very close to the Dm chord:

creating Dm7 chord

For that, we need to remove the D note (because it is “in front” of it there on the fretboard, taking its place on that string). This way we would have the chord:

Dm7 chord

In the guitar, this is very common, since practically all the natural chords that we form have a note that is “doubled”, that is, appearing more than once.

From the nomenclature point of view, nothing changes when you remove a note that is being repeated. It is even possible to choose which note we want to “double”, forming chords that are different in sound, but with the same name.

Another example of duplicate notes in chords

Take, for example, the G major chord below:

G chord

You have probably seen or played this other version of G major:

alternative option G major chord guitar

What is the difference between these two versions?

The G note appears 3 times in each, but in the first shape, the D note is being doubled, while in the second shape, the B note is being doubled.

Since in both shapes there are only the notes G, B and D, the nomenclature does not change; the name of the chord is “G major” for both formats.

You must agree that, although the name does not change, the sound is slightly different, depending on which note you are doubling, as it is more prominent. With that in mind, we can continue our study.

 Creating the Dm7(4) chord

We have already managed to form the Dm7 chord. Now let’s form the Dm7(4) chord. For that, we need to add the perfect fourth to the Dm7 chord.

Note: If it was an augmented or diminished fourth, the chord would be Dm7(#4) and Dm7(b4) respectively, but the procedure would be the same. 

Okay, so what’s the perfect fourth of D? We know it’s G. So let’s try to add that note to the Dm7 chord. Check out where the G notes are on the guitar below:

G note on the guitar

Compare it with our Dm7 chord:

Dm7 chord again

Which G note can we get? Well, you must be realizing that, to add a G note, it will be necessary to “lose” another note, since all the strings are already occupied with a note. You may say: “Hey, the 6th string over there is empty! We can use the G note that is on it!

Well, try to form that chord on the guitar. See how it doesn’t work?! There are physical limitations to this (fingers cannot reach). Let’s try something else then.

Notice there is a G note very close to the Dm7 chord that we formed:

G note near Dm7 chord

However, to use it, it will be necessary to put it in place of the F note, as there is no way to play two notes on the same string. Can we do this?

No! Because the F note is the third degree, that is, that note is defining the chord as D minor. Without it, the Dm7 chord would be Dsus7, because there would be no third (the chord would not be major or minor, it would be suspended). But our goal was not to form the D7sus4 chord, but Dm7(4). That is the reason why we cannot use that G note that we were considering. Let’s try another one. How about this:

g note dm7

Notice that it would replace the A note. Can we do this?

Yes, first because the A note is already doubled. Furthermore, even if there was only one A note, it could be suppressed by the fact that it is the fifth degree of D. Losing the fifth degree does not mischaracterize the chord, it is, nevertheless, major or minor because of the fifth degree.

Of course, the Dm7 chord without the fifth degree will not be as complete, after all, a note from triad was lost. But this loss is tolerable from the point of view of nomenclature. Dm7 without the fifth degree is still Dm7. Now we did it! The Dm7(4) chord will be:

Dm7(4) chord

Steps to form any chord

This method that we used to form the Dm7(4) chord can be used to form any chord we want.

As a basic rule, follow these steps when you encounter an unknown chord notation:

1st) Identify the natural chord present in the chord notation and form it in some region of the fretboard of your instrument. For example, the natural chord of E9(13) is E major.

2nd) Identify the extension notes of the desired chord and find each one on your instrument, looking for the closest ones. In the previous example, you would search for the notes that correspond to degrees 9 and 13 of E, which are the F# and C# notes. Look for one at a time to make it easier.

3rd) See which notes you can replace with the notes you want. In general, you can replace a note that is doubled (repeated) or the fifth degree (which may disappear).

4th) Repeat this procedure in another region of the instrument’s fretboard to see if the resulting chord is “easier” to make. There may be cases where it is impossible to form the desired chord in a certain region, but in other regions, it becomes possible to do it.

To exercise this method a little more, let’s form another chord.

Note: Many steps taught on the guitar about omitting notes do not need to be followed on the keyboard, as the arrangement of the keys and the possibility of using 2 hands facilitates this process, but the basic concept is the same. If you need to omit any notes in a chord and replace them with another one on the keyboard, the same rule will apply.

Creating the Em7(9) chord

Continuing our learning about forming the chords, this time we will form the Em7(9) chord on the guitar.

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Read the continuation of this article and many other full articles in the Simplifying Theory e-book.