Part Four

Chord Variations, Complex Chords

Concept #8 - Keeping Things Interesting

Imagine living in a world where there was only one shade of red, one shade of green, etc. You would get used to it, but it's far more interesting to have variations in color.

The same is true for chords in a song. It's much better to have several ways to play the same chord. We have a number of options to introduce variety.

This is an exciting area to study, but it can get complex quickly.

(Note: if this is the first time you've seen the following concepts, they may seem confusing at first. Just skim read it then and go on to Part Five. Remember, strong songs can be written with simple chords too.)

I will illustrate some of these concepts with keyboard chord diagrams, but there are too many possibilities to draw them all. At some point you may wish to find a book or an app showing various chord diagrams for keyboard, guitar, or another chordal instrument you may be playing.

Adding Interest with...

1 - Chord Inversions

2 - Slash Chords

3 - Chord Variations

4 - Seventh Chords

5 - Altered Chords

6 - Chord Substitutions

7 - Secondary Chords

1 - Chord Inversions

Suppose you are playing a simple D major chord. You look down at your hand and notice you are playing three notes: a D, an F#, and an A. You ask, "What would happen if I let go the D note and replaced it with another D further up the keyboard?" You would still have a D major chord, but it would be a different arrangement of the three notes.

The idea here is this: as long as you are playing a D, an F#, and an A, regardless of where they are located on the instrument, you are playing a D chord.

On the right are three pictures showing the D chord with two inversions. Notice that the same three notes are involved. They just show up in different places.

The D Chord (right hand in root position)

The D Chord (right hand in first inversion)

The D Chord (right hand in second inversion)




The Add 2 Chord - D2 (or Dadd2)

The Suspended Chord - Dsus (or Dsus4)

The Major Six Chord - D6

The Major Seven Chord - DM7

The Major Nine Chord - DM9

2 - Slash Chords

Until now, every time we showed a D chord, the bass note was always a D. What would happen if we played the F# or the A instead? We would still be playing a D chord, but changing the bass note makes a big difference. It makes such a big difference that we have a way of indicating when we want the bass note to be one of these other possibilities. We call them slash chords.

When we want a D chord with D in the bass, we write D. When we want the F# in the bass, we write D/F#. When we want the A in the bass, we write D/A.

This is illustrated in the drawings to the right.

By the way, did you notice that the middle chord, D/F#, has only two notes in the right hand? This is intentional. When the "third" of a major chord is in the bass, it often sounds best to leave the "third" out in the right hand. (F# is the "third" of the D chord because the D scale goes D, E, F#...)

3 - Chord Variations

There are some very common variations musicians use all the time to add variety and interest. Here are a few of them, applied to the D chord.

The 2 chord adds note 2 to the chord. (By note 2, we mean the 2nd note of the major scale whose name is the same as the chord currently being played. In other words, if you are playing a D chord, think for a moment about the D major scale. Which note is note 2? That’s the note we will add.)

The suspended chord moves note 3 in the chord up one half-step,  replacing note 3 with the 4th note of the scale. This 4th note has a tendency to feel like it is ready at any time to come back down to note 3, so while it is on note 4 it is “suspended” or lifted up, waiting to step back down. It is quite often written sus4.

The major six chord adds note 6 to the basic chord. In the case of a D chord, the sixth will be the note B.

The major seven chord adds note seven to the basic chord. Added to a D chord, the major seventh would be the note C#.

The major nine chord has a major 7 in it, and then we add note 9.  Note 9, depending on where you position it, sometimes looks like note 2, but we call it 9 when note 7 has already been added to the chord.

4 - Seventh Chords

Minor chords will often add a 7th to them.

The E minor chord adds note D as its seventh.

(Note that this is not the same as adding a major seventh (M7) to a chord. The seventh and the major seventh are two different notes.)

The F# minor chord adds note E as its seventh.

The B minor chord adds note A as its seventh.

V chords often have a 7. In the key of D, the V chord is A, so you might see the chord A7 appearing in the music.

5 - Altered Chords

So far, all the changes we've made have added notes that are in the scale. There are other notes though that are not in the scale. Switching a note in the chord to a non-scale note gives us an altered chord.

Two very useful altered chords are the iv chord (notice we switched from IV to iv, from major to minor), and the iim7b5 (pronounced "two minor seven flat five"). In the key of D the IV chord is G, so the iv chord is G minor. The iim7b5 is Em7b5.

6 - Chord Substitutions

There are a whole group of chords with interesting names like nines, elevens, thirteens, nine sharp fives, nine flat fives, and the list goes on. These chords generally have a more complex sound. A good player will use these chords when that particular sound is desired. Often the player "substitutes" one of these complex chords for a simpler one in the music. For example, if the music calls for an A7, an A7b9 might in some instances be more interesting. Here are two possible chord substitutions for the A7 chord.

7 - Secondary Chords

This topic is addressed in Part Five. Before going there, let’s take a minute to step back and see where we've been.

Review of Part Four

In this part, we saw the number of chords available to us suddenly explode. We learned that even simple chords can be played in several ways called inversions. Slash chords were introduced to keep track of bass notes when the bass is playing something other than the root. We used scale notes to get chords like 2, sus, 6, M7, and M9. We used non-scale notes to get iv and iim7b5. Chord substitutions like nines, elevens, and thirteens came along to replace sevens when needed.

We still haven't discussed how these new chords fit into our Map, and we haven't covered secondary chords yet. These topics are just ahead in Part Five.

The E Minor 7 Chord - Em7

The F# Minor 7 Chord - F#m7

The B Minor 7 Chord - Bm7

The V7 chord in D is A7.

The G Minor Chord - Gm

The iim7b5 in D is Em7b5.


A9sus4 (or G/A)

Copyright 1998 - 2019 Stephen Mugglin

Permission is given to make not-for-profit copies of this material.

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