For many years I taught guitar and music theory at college, and have been playing gigs in many styles of music for 40 years.
The chord charts below cover most of the useful and most widely used chord types.
If you check out some of my other articles, the underlying theory is explained—make sure you understand the harmonised scale and its applications. Briefly, all songs are in a key. A key can be described as a set of notes and chords that work together and form a pattern.
The key of C would be as follows:
C Dm Em F G Am Bm7b5 C.
Each chord is built on a note from the major scale ( C D E F G A B C )
This scale fits all the chords, and the chords just use the same set of notes, in different combinations.
Melody lines and improvised lines are based on this principle.
The chords are numbered in sequence—the I, IV and V chords are the major chords in the key of C—now think how many songs you know that use C, F, G in combination. Using Roman numerals is the convention, for some good reasons.
All the other keys have chords in the same pattern, so it is transferable. If you were to move all the notes up 2 frets (C to D is 2 frets), you would have a D major scale, and all the chords in the pattern move up 2 frets too. All the other keys work in the same way.
My article Guitar Chords and Theory has all the info for the way in which chords work together in different keys, and on different string sets.
Even if you can't be bothered with that for now, you could use most of these chords to help your songwriting, and make songs sound more interesting and harmonically advanced.
What do the numbers mean? Very briefly, they are referring to the interval between the tonic or basic note of the chord and the added note. I will explain this later in more detail, but to find what C6 means: play a C Chord and add a 6th to it ( C D E F G A, so A is the 6th).
C7 means play a C chord, and then add a flat 7th (B flat).
C maj7 means play a chord and then add a 7th (B).
Cm7 (C minor 7) means play a C minor chord, and then add a flat 7th (B flat again).
All of which is easy to see on a piano keyboard, even if you don't have any intention of playing piano!
NB: for all these chords, identify the root note and play that as the lowest note of the chord. For instance, Amaj7 would use an open 5th string (A) and you don't play string 6.
Let's look at the first three chords. Bm7 flat 5, E7 and Am7.
This progression is called a minor 2-5-1 in the key of Am. It's very widely used in jazz tunes, especially Latin and Brazilian songs, Santana, Jobim tunes. You'll also find it used in Autumn Leaves, which is one of the greatest jazz tunes in my opinion, and a terrific basis for improvisation. Also in Blue Bossa, My Funny Valentine.
On the second line are the chords F#m7 flat 5, B7, Em7.
This is a minor 2-5-1 too, this time in the key of Em.
Em uses the same chords as G, except B7 is used too.
These chords are really not too hard to play, but they sound great.
These chords are abbreviated as dim or a small circle. You'll find them in music from the 1920s and 1930s, in songs like Makin' Whoopee, Ain't Misbehavin' and literally hundreds of others. This is a useful basic chord to know, and in my other article Jazz Guitar Chords, you can find more advanced ways of doing these progressions.
They are usually transitional chords, joining up chords in a smooth progression, adding tension which is then resolved. Using these chords is an essential part of playing jazz, at least in the era before bebop.
From the 1960s, many songwriters have tried to capture a 1930s style, and using diminished chords is an important part of this. "When I'm Sixty-Four" (Beatles) is an example of this.
There are 4 notes in this type of chord, and you can name the chord after any of them. So while this is an F# dim chord, it's also Cdim, Eb dim and A dim. Buy one chord, get three free.
Now here's an interesting thing. If you move this chord up 3 frets, you get the same chord again, but with the order of notes (inversion) changed. Then move up another 3, another 3 again and the chord sound shifts in an interesting/compelling way, but you are still using the same 4 notes. Musically, you are creating tension.
Even stranger, there are 12 notes, divided by 4, so there are only 3 different diminished chords. So any dim chords can be played starting in fret 1, 2, or 3. Remember the name of the chord can come from any of the four notes in it.
Add 9 Chords
If you like the sound of "Every Breath You Take", The Police and Steely Dan songs, most of the sound is derived from the use of add 9 chords. Looking at C: C E G with an added D, usually next to the C. You could call this add9 or add 2, the same note is added.
Minor add 9 chords: take the E add 9 shape, and flatten the third—G# changes to G (open third string) The A Add9 shape can be changed to Am add9 by flatteneing the third, so C# on string 2 goes down to C (fret1) These are great chords for atmosphere.
A7 sus 4 (James Taylor songs) will usually resolve to A7, then D.
E7 sus 4 will usually resolve to E7, then A.
Three Note Chords
Jazz chords are often played in the Freddie Green, comping style. try the G7 and Bm7 forms which only use 3 notes, but work well. especially in a band context. Mute or damp the middle string so you only hear the notes you are fingering.
The F#m7 chord shape—the same thing applies.
Just using 3-note forms will be an easy way of vastly improving your chord playing in a jazz style.
Also, using these chords instead of full barre chords has many advantages—one of them being they are far less tiring and will enable you to play longer.
A further step is using two-note chords, just the 3rd and the 7th of the chord. Anytime you are playing in a band situation this will work really well, especially if there is a keyboard player, who will probably be pleasantly surprised!
B9 is given as an example. The barre sign means flatten your third finger over the top strings.
You can often replace 7th chords with 9th chords, especially in blues or jazz contexts.
B11 is another substitute for B7, and will usually lead to an E chord. Think of it as an A chord with a B bass added.
Look at C6. It's just a C chord with an added A note.
Following the C major scale C D E F G A B C—note 6 is the sequence is an A.
Similarly, C maj7 has a B—and C7 has a B flat, because it means "C with a flattened 7th".
I find that it really helps to remember the context of a chord—6th chords are used a lot in jazz, gypsy jazz, and swing. The first two chords of The Beatles' "Fool on the Hill" are 6th chords, so think of that sound.
Piano and Keyboard
All this chord theory works equally well on keyboard. It's worth trying it on piano anyway as it is simpler to see how it all works. The link to looknohands.com might help, as there is a comprehensive resource in the Piano Room.
You can try things out and listen to them using the virtual keyboard, so you don't even have to own a keyboard for this.
Using just the white keys play a C major scale: C D E F G A B C, using notes 1, 3, 5 give you a major chord.(C major).
Maj7 chords: add the B (note 7 in the sequence).
7th chords: add Bb.
6th Chords: add the A (note 6 in the sequence).
Minor chords: flatten the 3 to E flat (C minor).
All other chords follow the same formula.
Maj 7 chords
If you play A maj7 (see the chart) and follow it with D maj7 (fret 2 over the top 3 strings), you instantly have a nice ballad type chord progression. A maj7 means an A chord plus a G sharp note.
A7 is a different sounding chord with a different function too. It's an A chord with a G note added. A to G is a flat 7 interval.
Note that 7 and maj7 are different notes, a semitone apart.
I know it turns people off music theory when the numbers appear—but much of music is strongly related to maths, and there's no way round that. When you realise how useful it is, you'll feel happier dealing with the numbers.
Jon Green (author) from Frome, Somerset, UK on September 04, 2012:
Thanks Hezekiah. I find that learning the same chords on guitar and piano really helps you improve.
Hezekiah from Japan on September 03, 2012:
Nice Hub, I will use some of this theory for the Piano.
Jon Green (author) from Frome, Somerset, UK on February 22, 2012:
Thanks a lot.My advice is 10 mins practice, then take a break.You can repeat that as many times as you like - even once a day will get results.
Aesthetics Romio on February 22, 2012:
Many many thanks u for your nice chord solution. I think its very easy technique n increasing sense if anybody practice attentively. Awesome your thinking dear Jon Green.........
Jon Green (author) from Frome, Somerset, UK on January 03, 2011:
Thanks, welcome to HP.
easyfreerecipes from Atlanta, GA on January 03, 2011:
nice, you go from the basics to more advance, with chord charts and actual examples. very goo...you earned your score on this one
Jon Green (author) from Frome, Somerset, UK on September 17, 2010:
OK - try using three-note chords. Pentatonic scales will work but chord arpeggios are really useful. It takes a while!
nikmaya62 on September 16, 2010:
Thanks for sharing. I have a band, and I am a guitarist. My band genre is rock, but actually i like jazz music very much. My problem is to play jazz music, we have to mastered many chords progression and i still strange with the jazz chords because in rock i just use power chords and scale melody. I hope i can learn more after read your hubs. I've bookmarked this hub.
Jon Green (author) from Frome, Somerset, UK on July 06, 2010:
Hi - add9 chords are the key to the sound of The Police and Steely Dan, a great sound.
Jon Green (author) from Frome, Somerset, UK on July 01, 2010:
Hi Tony,you're welcome.I think harmonised scales are the key to understanding music.
Tony McGregor from South Africa on June 30, 2010:
Brilliant! Thanks for expanding my undserstanding of chords.
Love and peace
Jon Green (author) from Frome, Somerset, UK on June 30, 2010:
Hi vintage - you're welcome.
Jon Green (author) from Frome, Somerset, UK on June 28, 2010:
Thanks Rowan - all the best with your hubs.
illkid_88 from United Kingdom on May 17, 2010:
Thanks for the link Jon. Was gonna write a hub on more advanced jazz chords but looks like you beat me to it! Nice work.
Jon Green (author) from Frome, Somerset, UK on May 12, 2010:
essential jazz chords for beginners
Jon Green (author) from Frome, Somerset, UK on January 22, 2010:
Thanks Daniel - you won't regret it. Take a few lessons if you can though.
Daniel Townsend on January 21, 2010:
Really enjoyed your lesson. I am trying to learn jazz guitar right now.
Jon Green (author) from Frome, Somerset, UK on December 23, 2009:
Hi avangend - I'm glad you're invincible! And thanks for the link, God knows it's a slow business deriving revenue from Adsense!
avangend from St. Louis, MO on December 22, 2009:
Thank you for your very helpful and insightful hubs on guitar, I enjoy reading them. I actually linked one of my hubs to yours because you covered the topic of barre chords better than I did.
Jon Green (author) from Frome, Somerset, UK on October 29, 2009:
Thanks islandvoice and aloha (?)
Sylvia Van Velzer from Hawaii on October 29, 2009:
My son in law plays jazz guitar, so, this i will share with him.
Jon Green (author) from Frome, Somerset, UK on June 23, 2009:
Thanks Rajiv,will do. And it's nice to have some respect.
Jon Green (author) from Frome, Somerset, UK on May 07, 2009:
Thanks parkerk393. personally I really enjoy playing Freddie Green rhythm guitar in a jazz band. here's a joke for you:
Man goes to the doctor's surgery complaining of deafness. The doc says "Can you describe the symptoms?"
Man says - "What? Oh, yeah, well Homer likes a beer, and Marge has bright blue hair.."
parkerk393 from Arlington, Texas on May 06, 2009:
Great hub. I learned a lot of these chords when I played in my highschool jazz band.
Jen's Solitude from Delaware on May 06, 2009:
OK, I'll check it out, thanks.
Jon Green (author) from Frome, Somerset, UK on May 06, 2009:
Thanks again Jen. That website represents an amazing amount of work - there is easy guitar, advanced guitar and piano sections - all very well designed and completely free.
Jen's Solitude from Delaware on May 06, 2009:
Hi Jon, It was fun learning about the 9th chords and the chords used for jazz. The virtual keyboard sounds interesting too.