Evolution of Guitar Chords

Guitar chords

Why is this such a debated topic for so many guitarists?  I’ve seen books and books and more books on the subject.  But wait, there’s more… LED lighted guitar necks, devices that will you let play guitar chords with the push of a button,  guitar chord wheels, and the list keeps going on and on.  What is the fascination with this among guitarists?  Why is it being broken down to a science?

When I was an undergrad at The Ohio State University, my instructor at the time, Tim Cummiskey, presented an assignment to me.  It was called ‘transfers’.  It was like boot camp for guitar chords.  But let me back up a little further.  What lead me to that point.

My personal evolution of guitar chord knowledge.

Campfire chords.

I call them ‘campfire chords.’ There is any number of names for them, but it’s all the same.  Listening to my dad strum the folk anthems of Bob Dylan and Peter Paul and Mary around the campfire when I was a little boy, it’s only natural that I named these ,”Camp fire chords”.  It’s a handful of easy chords that every guitarist learns when they pick up the axe for the first time.

Bob Dylan strums a G major chord on the guitar.

Bob Dylan strums a G major chord on the guitar.

These chords all use at least one open string.  The king of campfire chords is G Major (320033).  It resonates huge and full.  Not only that, it’s counterparts C major (X32010) and D major (XX0232) are also easy to play and sound great.  There is only like a million tunes that use these chords too.  I can honestly say, after decades of playing the guitar, there is still something very satisfying about picking up the box and strumming a plain ol’ G major chord.  Have you ever heard ‘Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd? I rest my case.

E minor.

G major was… (maybe still is)… King.  Then somewhere around 1989 I made a major breakthrough.  Not yet owning my first electric guitar, I discovered an even more powerful chord than G major.  E ‘freaking minor!  Holy shit.  (022000) This was it man.

There happened to be a cool TV station at the time that played music videos.  It was called MTV and there was one particular video that blew my mind.  Standing in a bleak warehouse was four long haired guys, dressed head to toe in black. They were jamming around a drum set with scowling faces. The video was edited with scenes from an old war movie I did not know.  Any guesses?

Metallica One

A screen shot from Metallica’s brutally stark music video for One.

Can you believe there was a time when MTV played Metallica’s epic ‘One’ from start to finish!?  It is unthinkable today, but back then it blew my 9 year old brain.  This was the heaviest music I had ever heard and after that I did’t want to play campfire chords anymore.  Of course, E minor was the basis for all of Metallica’s early work.

Power chords.

A further evolution came when I realized I didn’t even need the extra three strings on the top of the guitar.  Those would be the skinny ones, ahem.   This coincided with the stumbling block that untold numbers of guitar novices face… That F major (133211) chord is hard!  What do you mean, “No open strings?”

Let’s face it. F Major sucks and if you cheat and only play strings 4-2 (the F major triad) it sounds weak and wimpy.  But wait!  If I eliminate the top three strings and only play the basic ‘power shape’, I can move the pattern anywhere.  The shape I am referring too is first finger on the fat string, then ‘plus 2 it’ for my other fingers.  Ladies and gentleman, this is how a ten year kid teaches himself guitar.

Oh and this works for the strings right next to it, but if try it on the next three it doesn’t work.  No matter, all the bands I liked never went beyond the low strings anyway.

Barre chords.

But what about minor chords?  You need that minor third in there to get a dark moody brooding sound sometimes.  I learned that if you knew two things, the root note on the sixth or fifth string AND which finger pattern to use you could create any chord you wanted too.  (WTF is a seventh chord?)  This is the biggest double edge sword for guitar. The ability to quickly learn to transpose without actually knowing what you are doing.  It’s easy, just slide your hand shape up two, three, four, nine, frets… and boom! You got the exact chord you need.

This took me pretty far until I heard John McLaughlin at age 15 for the first time.  Birds of Fire hit me like a bolt of lighting the first time I heard it.  I had no idea what it was. I didn’t understand it. I’ll admit, I didn’t really even like it.  But I what I did like was it drove my siblings crazy, so that made me want to play more and more and louder.  There was something there.  It wasn’t Bob Dylan. It wasn’t ACDC or Slayer.  It wasn’t radio friendly Spin Doctors.  It was angry and terrifying.  It hurt my head.  But what it did was show me that there was much much more to this guitar than the level I was at.

Dublin Coffman Jazz band – dominant and minor 7ths.

My dad almost wrecked the car when I told him I wanted to go to school for music. I understand now why, but at the time I wouldn’t hear it.  So I became determined to get into the local high school jazz band.  I drove down to the guitar store in Columbus, OH and paid some guy to teach me ‘jazz’ chords.  I have no idea what he showed but obviously it was enough to get me into Dr. Jeff Keller’s jazz ensemble.  I think he gave me a sheet with some dominant 7th chords and minor sevenths.

The year flew by and then I failed my audition to the Ohio State School of music.  True story. I couldn’t read music, even though I had written my first big band arrangement by that time.  I attended a summer jazz camp and busted my ass in the practice room.  OSU let me in on probation the following semester and I never looked back.

Color Tone Chords and Transfers.

This is guitar chord bootcamp.  Pay attention, it’s about to get exponentially harder from here on. One of the first assignments Tim Cummiskey was what he called ‘transfers’.  The basic idea is this, take one chord and play it in 28 different inversions.  I thought it was impossible at first, but he broke it down into a system.

I’ll use G7 as an example.  G7 has four notes in the chord, G (root), B (3rd), D (5th) and F (7th).  There are seven combinations of four strings on a six string guitar.  Four notes x Seven string sets = 28 different voicing of the same chord with doubling any.   I’ll cover this in detail in a later blog post, but just think about this… 28 voicings for 1 chord type (Dominant 7th). Transpose that one chord type to all 12 keys, and we are already looking at 336 guitar chords!  Add more chord types -major 7th, minor 7th, minor 7th flat 5, etc…. Just start with those 1344 guitar chord voicings and let me know when you’ve committed them all to memory.

What works and what didn’t.

Not that I ever finished the assignment, but it really was a bootcamp for guitar chords.  After that grueling process, which often time eliminated many a young guitarist from Tim’s studio, I knew how to create ANY guitar chord I needed.   It happened at the right time, as I started to move out of rock bands and into jazz combos.  I had to know how to play chords like Bb major 9#11.   Let me tell you, this is about as far away from G major campfire chords as you can get.  I mean seriously, I thought people only played music in keys that used sharps.  Want to watch an alto sax player sweat?  Call a tune concert A major.

The fact was however, that  I didn’t need the majority of the chords from the transfers exercise.  As I studied more of the guitar chord master, the immaculate Mr. Freddie Green, I realized 3-note chords were often sufficient.  If you could play it with two notes, even better!  And if you have a young over-playing pianist in the group, you’re fucked anyway, so you might as well be like Grant Green and not play any chords at all.

Rhythm guitar master, Freddie Green.

Rhythm guitar master, Freddie Green.


Fareed Haque and the leading tones.

From here I hit the road with The International Hustlers and Tommy Thomas.  My bread and butter guitar chords were major, minor and dominant 7th’s, half diminished, and the occasional altered tri-tone substitution for effect.  It wasn’t until I began study with the living legend Fareed Haque that I took a fresh look at guitar chords.  Having reached a higher level, (..ahem, cough, cough…) than nearly every other guitarist on the planet Fareed introduced me to yet another way to thoroughly explore the most elaborate chords for the guitar.

Just like Transfers, the approach was systematic.  Starting the 3rd and 7th scale degree of any chord, lets use Eb7, G (3rd) and Db (7th) and building every possible upper extension on top.  Use fingers 2 and 3 to hold the tri-tone shape of the 3rd and 7th and anchor another finger on one extension, lets say the b9 (E natural).  While holding this shape move through every other possible extension.  Like this: your base shape is G,Db,E and the start on the 11th scale degree, Ab, and ascend. A natural (b9, #11), Bb (b9 with 5th), B natural (b9, b13), C natural (b9,13), Db (b9 with dom. 7th), D natural (b9, dom. 7th, maj. 7th).

Head hurt yet?

Then move the flat 9th up a half step to the natural 9th and repeat the exercise.  Really listen to how the sounds blend, clash, collide and resonate together with different intervals.  There is true beauty in dissonance if one knows how to enter and exit correctly.  A musician can LEAD in and out with these notes depending on how he or she hears the melody.  Fareed is the master at this.  He is a master at much more than this too.

Guitar guru, Fareed Haque.

Guitar guru, Fareed Haque.

Howard Roberts, “Jazz Guitar Techniques in 20 Weeks”

We never stop learning, and if you’ve made it this far you might be ready to tackle this rare and extremely difficult study guide.  A scanned version of the text can be found HERE. You will learn chords and voicings that you did not know, even after all of the previous study.  Follow the steps, be brutally honest and in six months you will be amazed at how far you have come as a musician.   Using piano-esqe voicings, my fingers had to learn how to bend backward at odd joints in order to accommodate some of these usual shapes.  It felt akward and unnatural at first, but sticking to the plan at the end of 20 weeks I could nail it!

PS: The metronome will not lie to you. Ever. Do yourself a favor and stay as relaxed as possible while doing your 10 minute exercises. I developed some legit tendinitious in my shoulder while going through this book.

Infinity and beyond….

What’s left?  Only a lifetime of musical exploration.  Have you ever heard of McCoy Tyner?  Quartal harmony? Mick Goodrick’s “The Advancing Guitarist” is a great place to start.  I hope you have enjoyed this long winded journey of my evolution of guitar chords.  If you learned something please leave a comment or question below, and subscribe to my Youtube Channel.  If you would like more information and want to take a one on one GUITAR LESSON with me, send me message!



Do you have anything you would like me to check out?  Leave a comment below and I’ll try to feature it on the blog.  Please subscribe to my Youtube channel and thanks for reading.


Share This: