Chord Theory: Major Chords

This week, we’ll continue our study of chord theory with an explanation of major chords. Before you read on, I recommend that you review the material found in these articles:

One Step at a Time
Intervals: your tape measure for music
Chord Theory: Triads
Chord Theory: Power Chords

Major chords represent our first triad. As the prefix “tri” indicates, triads are chords that have three notes. The power chords that we studied last week are called diads because they are chords made up of two notes. Power chords have an ambiguous sound. They sound strong, yes, but they sound neither happy nor sad. Just settled, rooted and powerful. A triad introduces another note into the power chord that clearly makes the chord feel happy or sad. Today’s chord is the happy variety: the major chord.

We learned last time that a power chord has two notes: a root and a fifth.  A major triad, and all triads for that matter, has an additional note that sits between the root and the fifth. In the case of major triads –  and minor chords, which we’ll talk about next time – this added note is called a “third.” A major triad has three notes that we’ll call the root, the third and the fifth.

Spelling a triad is just a matter of knowing the unique sequence of intervals within the triad. A major triad’s recipe is:

Root + major third interval = Third
Third + minor third interval = Fifth

In this example, the root is G, the third is B and the fifth is D, but we could’ve used any note as the root. Here, we started with our root G, added a major third and landed on the B, our third. From B, we added a minor third and landed on D, our fifth. We simply used our major third + minor third recipe to create a G major chord. I’d like to point out that the distance between our root and fifth is still seven frets, or a perfect fifth, like it was in the power chord.

Now that we’ve spelled our triad, we have to move each note to its own string so that the three notes can be played simultaneously. By now, you should be familiar with the process of finding an enharmonic note to the one you are currently using. Let’s see it in action:

Excellent! Now B has been moved to an adjacent string. Now let’s deal with D:

Now D is on the same string as B. We still need to move it one more time. Will we have five frets to work with? Let’s see:

Nice! We barely had room, but D can be played open on the fourth string. This is what our triad looks like now:

By using major triad recipe of major third + minor third from our root G, we found that our third was B and our fifth was D. We moved B and D to unused strings so that we could play them simultaneously with G. We now have a fully functional G major triad. We’re not done yet though. We have some unused strings to fill.

Although the triad we built is perfectly respectable, it is considered to be a “closed chord” since the three notes are within one octave. This a very piano-like sound. Guitar has a unique harp-like quality because it can play “open chords” where the component notes stretch beyond one octave creating a wider, more shimmering sound. The term “open chords” can also be a guitar-specific term that describes chords that use unfretted strings. In this article however, “open chords” is used to describe chords that have chord tones that sit in an octave other than the root’s home octave.

So what are we to do? How can we expand this basic G major triad onto the remaining three unused strings? There are two ways:

  1. Simply find where Gs, Bs and Ds exist on the unused strings to find voicings that work for your fingers. This method requires memorization of the notes on the fretboard.
  2. Use lesson materials, online resources, songs and books to develop a chord vocabulary. This method involves memorizing dozens of chord shapes and grips.

In this example, I’m going to use my knowledge of the fretboard to find all of the Gs, Bs and Ds on strings three, two and one that are within reach of the other notes:

Strings three and one just have just one choice, G, so let’s fill those in right now:

String two has two choices: B or D. We need at least one G, one B and one D in this voicing for it to be a G major chord. Since both B and D exist elsewhere in this voicing, we can choose either B or D for string two. Here is the G major chord with B on the second string:

This is the G major chord with D on the second string:

These two voicings can be used interchangeably. Many times the choice between the two voicings is made based on the simplest possible movement from one chord to the next..

This is one example of a major chord, but they appear all over the fretboard in lots of shapes and voicings. All you need to know after today is that every major chord, regardless of the root note or where it is on the neck, follows the same recipe: major third + minor third. If you learn to memorize the notes on the fretboard and the intervals between them, you can create interesting voicings of your own.

Next: minor chords.

For more information about me and the guitar lessons that I give in and around Baltimore, visit


About ewguitar
I am a private guitar instructor in Glen Burnie, MD.

3 Responses to Chord Theory: Major Chords

  1. Isaac Middleton says:

    Love your blog Earl! I get excited every week about your new posts. Informative and practical!

  2. Pingback: Chord Theory: Power Chords « Guitar Lessons Baltimore

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