When three or more notes are played at the same time, it's called a chord. Chords, however, are not just any 3 or more notes thrown together. There’s a system to building and naming them.
Chords are constructed upwards from any note (called the “root note” or “tonic”). The root note is marked by the number “1” in this website. Intervals are added to the root note to make each chord. Any intervals can be added to the root note to make the chord and different names are given to the chord depending on which intervals are used. But most chords are built using major and minor third intervals.
As a reminder, here are all the intervals with their symbols and their names:
To build a Major chord, for example, you start with a root note; add a Major third interval above it, and then a minor third interval above that (which is also a fifth above the root). In symbols, here’s that recipe again: M3-m3 (also noted as 1-3-5).
So in the C Major diatonic scale (CDEFGABC), E is a Major third above C, and G is a minor third above E. Therefore, CEG is a C Major Chord. To simplify this process think of it this way: chord construction is about adding thirds (either major or minor) after the first note.
As another example, let’s start on E instead of C. The E is now our root note. Adding a minor third, our next note is G. Adding a Major third to the G, our next note is B. The B is also a fifth above above the root note E. Our chord is now an E minor chord. It’s called minor because the first interval (from E to G) is a minor third. Here’s the minor chord recipe: m3-M3 (or 1-b3-5).
Starting from the B note, add a minor third, a D note. From D to F is another minor third (F is also a minor fifth above the B note). This is called a B diminished chord because it has two minor third intervals stacked on top of each other. Diminished recipe: m3-m3 (or 1-b3-b5)
Three-note chords are called triads. There are seven in the diatonic scale. Here they are in key of C:
If we change keys, the notes in the list above will change, but the Major and minor pattern will remain the same. Here’s the key of G Major (GABCDEF#G) as an example:
Notice that the recipe for the chords in G Major matches those in C Major. Because this pattern is the same across keys, it is possible to train our ears to hear chord changes in different keys. This topic will be address more in the IMPROVISATION section.
The notes of a chord can be played in any order. For example, we could mix up the C Major chord notes (CEG) and instead play it EGC, or even GCE. Variations in the order of chord notes are called inversions.
When the root is in the bass (CEG),
the inversion is called a 5/3 chord, because:
the G is a 5th above the C
the E is a 3rd above the C
When the third is in the bass (EGC),
the inversion is called a 6/3 chord, because:
the C is a 6th above the E
the G is a 3rd above the E
When the fifth is in the bass (GCE),
the inversion is called a 6/4 chord, because:
the E is a 6th above the G
the C is a 4th above the G
Each inversion sounds a little different. Here are all the inversions of the triads in C Major:
Inversions are the real interesting part about the pedal steel guitar. The PSG is the only instrument that I know of that allows the inversion of one chord to be smoothly played (portamento) into the inversion of the same chord or a different one. Here are just a few examples of the countless possibilities:
This first example shows how the inversion of one chord can be turned into the inversion of same chord. In this case the Root inversion (5/3) of C Major down to the Second inversion (6/4) of C Major.
The next two examples above show how to turn one chord into another without even moving the bar.
The last example shows that moving the bar and using the pedals can allow wide pitch changes while changing from one chord to another.
The chord story doesn’t end with three notes. With only triad inversions, we may not feel like we have all the material needed to add the necessary flavor to the music. Therefore we can extend chords beyond the triad by adding thirds (both Major and minor).
Adding a Major third onto our C Major triad, gives us CEGB (1-3-5-7). This chord is a Major seventh chord. The seventh chord has several other forms. Here are the seventh chords of the key of C:
Inversions of the Sevenths.
Of course seventh chords can be inverted as well. Because there are four notes in the chord there are four inversions. For example, in key of C, the sevenths can be inverted like this:
When the root is in the bass (CEGB), the inversion is called a 7/5/3 chord, because:
the B is a seventh above C
the G is a fifth above the C
the E is a third above the C.
Sometimes this chord is abbreviated and just called a 7 chord.
When the third is in the bass (EGBC), the inversion is called a 6/5/3 chord, because:
the C is a sixth above the E
the B is a fifth above the E
the G is a third above the E.
Sometimes this chord is abbreviated and just called a 6/5 chord.
When the fifth is in the bass (GBCE), the inversion is called a 6/4/3 chord, because:
the E is a 6th above the G
the C is a 4th above the G
the B is a 3rd above the G.
Sometimes this chord is abbreviated and just called a 4/3 chord.
When the fifth is in the bass (BCEG), the inversion is called a 6/4/2 chord, because:
the G is a 6th above the B
the E is a 4th above the B
the C is a 2nd above the B.
Sometimes this chord is abbreviated and just called a 2 chord.
Each inversion sounds a little different. Here are all the inversions of the sevenths in C Major:
Playing the sevenths.
Many steel guitarists use only 3 fingers to pick the strings. What this means is that full seventh chords can only be played by strumming the strings. But this can be very difficult, or impossible, if the notes of the seventh chord are not on adjacent strings.
The steel guitarist’s answer to this problem is to either play a broken chord or play a partial chord. A broken chord is dividing the chord into two parts and playing them in succession very quickly. A partial chord is only playing a smaller part of the entire chord. As long as the third and seventh notes are present, the partial chord will more or less carry the same characteristics as the full seventh chord. Furthermore, since the steel guitar is an accompanying instrument, the other instruments playing concurrently will likely fill any harmonic gaps in the partial seventh.
Here are some chord movements including seventh chords:
The first example shows a move from a G7 to a C Major. The second example shows a move from a FM7 to a G7. The two examples above just scratch the surface to all the seventh chord movements possible on the steel guitar.
It is possible to make the chord even longer by adding more thirds. These are the extended chords - the ninth, the eleventh, and the thirteenth. Each has several variations: Major, minor, etc.
They follow the same nomenclature rules as seventh chords, except they are named by their extended note. So a C Major 7 with an additional 9th note is called a C Major 9. A G minor 7 with and added 9 and 11 is called a G minor 11, etc. However, if the extended note is flat or sharp compared to the key center of the chord root note, the chord is named with the highest interval that is not flat or sharp, and the flat or sharp note is named explicitly. So a chord spelled C-E-G-B-Db is NOT called a "C Major b9", but rather a C Major 7b9.
Here are some chord recipes for the extended chords within the Diatonic scale:
As you may have noticed, the diatonic thirteenth chords are all spelled with the same notes, just with different roots. So these names are just to distiguish which note is the root and how the chord functions in the context of the composition. Since a lot of these chords are played as partial chords, the character of each will sound different, depending on which notes are included in the partial. In this case the name of the thirteenth chord will not be as arbitrary as it is with the full chord spelling.
Many of the extended chords in the chart above are enharmonic with other chords, and are usually referred to by their other names. For example, you will hardly ever see a chord called a B dim 7b9. You are more likely to see it as a Dm13 chord without the 9th and 11th.
The purpose of the chart above, then, is to give you an idea of some of the extended chords that are possible and to show the general nomenclature rules for the extended chords. In practice, though, some of these chords are not actually played.
Playing Extended Chords.
Playing these chords on the steel guitar can be as difficult as playing sevenths, and for the same reason. We only have three, maybe four, fingers to sound our notes. Extended chords have 5 or more notes in them. The good news is that because there are so many notes in the extended chords, the notes often fall on adjacent strings, which allows them to be easily strummed.
When strumming the chords is not possible, the solution of playing partial chords may work, but care must be taken as to how the chord is constructed since extended chords often have smaller triad chords within them. For example, the C Maj 9 chord is CEGBD. If you played CEG as a partial chord, you are playing a C Major chord. EGB is E minor, and GBD is G Major.
In order to create a truer sounding partial chord, certain intervals are more important to include than others. In particular, the chord will carry a lot of the same character as the full chord as long as the 3rd, the 7th, and the highest extended note are present in the voicing. So if the chord is a C minor 11, keep the minor 3rd, the minor 7th, and the 11th note (Eb-Bb-F) and the chord will more or less sound like a complete Cm11 (C-Eb-G-Bb-D-F).
If neither an easy strum nor a partial chord is a possibility, using broken chords is the next best way to play extended chords. This is, as mentioned above, simply playing the chord in two quick parts one after the other. Violins and other similar instruments require broken chords to play sevenths and extended chords.
Here are some examples of chord moves using extended chords. The first example moves a Am9 Chord into a G11 Chord. The Next example moves a CM13 Chord to a FM9 Chord. There are obviously many more possibilities.
Not all chords are constructed in stacking thirds. Really any intervals can be stacked up to make chords, but the most commonly used chords are constructed from thirds. The Sixth chord is an example of a chord that is not solely comprised of stacked thirds. Sixth chords include a triad, either minor or major, and the major sixth interval from the root. Here are the 6th chords of the C Major diatonic scale:
Sometimes the sixth chord can also have extended notes in it, like the sixth add nine (6add9) chord.
Sixth chords can be inverted like other chords. Sometimes inverted sixths are “enharmonic” with other chords. For example, an inverted major sixth chord is spelled the same, and by consequence sounds the same, as a minor seventh chord in the same key. In fact, all the sixths constructed from the diatonic scale are enharmonic with seventh chords:
Em b6: EGBC
Am b6: ACEF
Bdim b6: BDFG
G Dom 7: GBDF
These chords are almost always called by their 7th names instead of these sixth-based inversions.
Playing Sixth Chords.
Here are some examples of sixth chord moves on the steel guitar:
The first example shows a move from Am6 to G9. The second example shows a C Major chord move to a F6 Chord.
All the chords explained above have been constructed from notes contained within the diatonic scale. But they can be formed without directly relating to the diatonic or other scales. This can be done by adding any intervals to a root note.
For example, the augmented chord is not found in the diatonic scale, but it is often used. C Augmented is spelled CEG#. It has two major 3rds stacked on top of each other. Here is its recipe in symbols: M3-M3 (or 1-3-#5).
There are many seventh and extended chords that can be constructed with non-diatonic notes as well, like the 7#5 or the 7b9 chords for example.