If you were to distill all of guitar playing down to its broad foundational elements, you’d arrive at two things: chords and notes. And chords, which refer to three or more notes played simultaneously, are responsible for driving the flow of a song and providing a tapestry for other instruments to weave their magic.

Which is why a solid understanding of chord theory is essential for the budding guitarist. Fortunately, contrary to what Leonard Cohen (RIP) may think, no secret chords exist—there’s a formula for everything. Hallelujah.

After this lesson, you’ll be able to:

Striking a chord

A vast majority of all chords comprise a minimum of three notes each, with power chords being the only exception to that rule. They’re not three random notes, of course. Chords are derived from the intervals that make up a major scale, and, depending on the intervals used, can sound optimistic (major chords), melancholic (minor chords), and anything in-between.

Here’s the good news: You can form chords with ‘formulas,’ which tell you the intervals you need to form a specific chord. And to add to that, there are fretboard finger patterns you can memorize to easily find those chords—we’ll be looking at the “E” and “A” shapes for that.

Introducing the formulas

The table below summarizes the constituent intervals for the three classes of chords we’re going through in this lesson: major, minor and power. These categories of chords use only the root, third and fifth of their corresponding scales.

Icons: ArtWorkLeaf / The Noun Project

So a C major chord, for instance, requires the root, major third and perfect fifth of a C major scale: a C, E and G, respectively. A C minor chord, on the other hand, swaps out the major third for a minor third, which is just one fret flatter. That gives you: C, E♭ and G. And a C power chord removes the third altogether: C and G.

It works for all other keys, too. Here’s the chart dissecting the G major, minor and power chords:

Icons: ArtWorkLeaf / The Noun Project

The only thing left would be to find the best way to strike those notes at the same time on your instrument.

Power chords

A power chord is the simplest and most common type of chord used in rock, metal, indie and other guitar-led genres. It is neither a major, minor nor diminished chord, and can ‘fit’ into in pretty much any key or chord progression. They’re usually denoted by a “5” suffix: A C power chord is a C5, while a G power chord is a G5.

The “5,” as you’d probably have guessed, refers to the perfect fifth, which is the other constituent interval of a power chord besides its root. You’d recognize those two notes from any medieval movie. Think of a pitched battle, with armies waiting on both sides. A horn bellows out the rallying cry: De-DUUM! That’s what a root note and its perfect fifth sound like when rung in quick succession, and that’s what makes a power chord so, well, powerful.

Here’s a C5 and G5 on the fretboard in their most basic forms:

That’s just one way of playing a power chord. Another common way is to add another root note, albeit in a higher octave:
By adding another root note, the power chord grows richer and fuller. And a third way of playing it would be as ‘inverted power chords,’ which, in this case, would mean to remove the root notes on the third frets. The most commonly used example of inverted power chords would be the opening riff of “Smoke on the Water.”

Back in the CAGED

Before we look at major and minor chords, however, a quick refresher on the CAGED system is invaluable. You’ll need to be familiar with the “E” and “A” shapes to understand how to form both major and minor chords.

Here are the “E” shapes:

E minor chord (left) and E major chord (right)

And here are the “A” shapes:

A minor chord (left) and A major chord (right)

If you recall, you’ll be able to move these four shapes up and down the fretboard in order to form other chords. Got it? Great, now on to major chords.

Major chords

Major chords can be thought of power chords with an additional interval: a major third, which colors the chord in a positive way. In other words, you can create any major chord by first forming its power chord, and then adding a major third. Try it out with the C5 and G5 power chords you’ve just learned.
Look familiar? Yep, that’s the “A” shape on the right and “E” shape on the left. It’s important to note that CAGED is a system based upon these chord formulas—not the other way ’round.

However, these are ‘skeletal’ versions of the both major chords. You’ll want to add more roots, thirds and fifths on the other strings to really make the chord sing. Do this, and you’ll end up with six-stringed barre chords.

“E”-shaped barred major chords

For chords whose root note falls on the low (thickest) E string, you have to use the “E” shape. The A and B major chords, and their corresponding intervals, are depicted here:

“A”-shaped major chords

And for chords whose root note falls on the A string, it’s the “A” shape you want:
Commit these to memory, because you’ll need them for minor chords.

Minor chords

A minor chord is the modified version of a major chord, with the major third ‘flatted.’ That means you have to play the note one fret below the major third.

The rules for the “E”- and “A”-shaped chords still stand. If the root is on the low E string, use the “E” shape:
With this shape, you’ll find that to flatten the third, all you need to do is lift your middle finger off the fretboard and let your barring index finger handle the work.

It’s similar for “A”-shaped minor chords:

But rather than the mere raising of one finger, you’ll have to adjust the position of your middle, ring and pinkie fingers. (Here’s a trick to help you remember: The “A”-shaped minor chord position is the same as the “E”-shaped major chord position, just one string down.)

With power, major and minor chords under your belt, you’re already well on your way to writing your own tunes. Try these chords out with progressions first. We’ll be back with more chord categories—sevenths, diminished, augmented and so on—soon.