Thursday, July 11, 2013

Chord Theory

The Major Scale

Before talking too much about alternate tunings, we need to talk a little about theory, and how the major scale applies to chord structure.  I'm sure this is a bit of review and you can blow through the major scale up and down the neck in every key and position easy as kicking puppies, but it's not the scale so much that's important here, but the intervals. 
Interval: the distance between notes in a scale, usually referred to in steps and half-steps or tones and semitones.

A note on terminology here: A whole step is the same as a tone, meaning the distance between C and D on the musical scale is one tone, or one whole step.  The distance between C and C# would be one semitone, or one half step.  It's important you understand this now, or else as we start to build chord structures you're going to find yourself lost in the woods with no pants. 

The intervals of the major scale are as follows, in steps and semitones, respectively:

W - W - H - W - W - W - H
2 - 2 - 1 - 2 - 2 - 2 - 1

To avoid confusion between semitones and notes within a scale, from here on I will only refer to scales in steps.

The major scale is unbearably easy to remember, as long as you bear in mind that E and B have no sharps (I will also, for simplicity's sake, use sharp(#) notes rater than flat(b) notes, unless convention dictates otherwise, but know that C# is the same as Db), and that the C major scale has no sharped notes.

C - D - E - F - G - A - B

If you write out an entire chromatic scale starting on C and then apply the major scale steps as noted above, you'll see what I mean.

C - C# - D - D# - E - F - F# - G - G# - A - A# - B - C
|        |        |   |        |        |        |   |
C        D        E   F        G        A        B   C

Now here's where it gets a little tricky.  Lets move up to D.  We now apply to major scale intervals in the same manner, but start on D.

D - D# - E - F - F# - G - G# - A - A# - B - C - C# - D
|        |       |    |        |        |       |    |
D        E       F#   G        A        B       C#   D

So as you can see, in the D major scale we now have a couple of sharps: F# and C#, though the intervals remained the same.  If you're not comfortable with this concept, try writing out major scales in various keys.  I'll include a list of major scales in each key so you can check your work.

Building Chords

Now that we've gotten through all that garbage, we can start to look at the theory behind chord structure.  As everyone knows, different chords can be altered to have a different feel to them, such as major, minor, and all those pesky numbered chords.  Forgive me if I'm beating a dead horse or undermining anyone, but I'm just trying to be sure everyone reading this is on the same page.  What you may or may not know -- I didn't for a long time -- is that there is a predictable formula for each type of chord, regardless of the root note. 

Here is a list of the most common chord formulas (though as you'll soon realize there are so many possibilities it would be nigh impossible to list them all).  I considered explaining the formulas first, but I thought that presenting the list first might be more beneficial so you have some point of reference. 

Name          Formula
Major         1-3-5
Minor         1-b3-5
Dom. 7th      1-3-5-b7
Maj. 7th      1-3-5-7
Min. 7th      1-b3-5-b7
Sus2          1-2-5
Sus4          1-4-5
add6          1-3-5-6
Dim(°)        1-b3-b5
Aug(+)        1-3-#5
add9          1-3-5-9

Triad: The minimal chord requirements; three notes.

A lot of chord theory out there uses the obvious easy example of C when explaining chord formulas, but that always confounded me more (probably because I wasn't grasping the major scale as explained above) because there were no sharp or flat notes.  So for my examples I'll use D, or maybe switch it up some just for a sampler platter approach.

I'm sure you've heard people refer to a "major triad" before when discussing chord voicings.  That just refers to the major chord, and the fact that a major chord is made up of three notes.

**A little aside here: another pitfall of my musical naivety was not understanding how a major chord on the guitar can be a major triad when you almost never play only three string chords.  You might say the E major chord couldn't be a triad since you strum all 6 strings to play it (I'm using standard tuning here just for clarity's sake).  But let's dissect that:

e|-0------| >> E
B|-0------| >> B
G|-1------| >> G#
D|-2------| >> E
A|-2------| >> B
E|-0------| >> E

As you can see from the column on the right, though you're playing six notes, they are all repeats of the same three notes, which make up the E major triad.

So what do the three numbers in the formula for a major triad mean?  Well, taking our D major scale we can apply numbers to each of the notes:

D - E - F# - G - A - B - C#
1   2   3    4   5   6   7
(see now why I opted against using the semitone notation?)

Now take your major triad formula, 1-3-5, and plug in the notes labeled 1, 3, and 5 from our breakdown of the D major scale.  We get D, F#, and A.  Those three notes make a D major chord, no matter how many times you repeat them.  Digressing to a standard tuning example again, you can dissect the D major chord and see that it's true:

e|-2------| >> F#
B|-3------| >> D
G|-2------| >> A
D|-0------| >> D

So there you have it.  Not so difficult, right?  As long as you have a grasp on the major scale concepts, this should be a slice of pie.  Now to add another layer of whipped cream...

Let's look at the minor chord formula (another triad): 1-b3-5.  That flat(b) symbol on the three is usually spoken as "minor 3rd" when talking about chord formulas, but it means the same thing as flat 3rd.  Here's where things get a little tricky, and another reason I don't use C as an example.  Understand that a minor 3rd does not have to be a flat note, it only means that it is down one half step from the given 3rd note. 

Flat(b): a note one half step (or one semitone) lower than the stated note, not always a flat note.

Looking again at our D major scale, we can extrapolate our 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes again: D-F#-A.  But don't forget that a minor triad always has a minor 3rd, so simply move the 3rd down one half step from F# to F.  So a D minor chord has the notes D, F, and A.  Feel free to check this on your own if you want, I'm not going to provide any more standard tuning examples as it makes me feel like a sell out!

You should now have enough ammunition in your chord theory arsenal to work out the notes that build up other more complex chord, like the minor 7th or added 6th.  Another point worth noting is that some chord formulas have a sharped note rather than a flatted, such as the 5th in an augmented chord.  Keep in mind that just like a flat, a sharp doesn't exclusively mean a sharped note, only a note that is a half step higher than the given note.

Sharp(#): A note one half step higher than the stated note, not always a sharp note.

Also take a look at the last formula listed above, the add9.  I usually write out the scales with seven notes, but remember that the final half step bring you back to the root note, only one octave higher.  So the 9th in a D scale would be E, the same note as the 2nd but one octave higher.

Major scales

As promised, a list of notes for each major scale.  The first note listed, obviously, is the root note.

C  - D  - E  - F  - G  - A  - B
C# - D# - F  - F# - G# - A# - C
D  - E  - F# - G  - A  - B  - C#
D# - F  - G  - G# - A# - C  - D
E  - F# - G# - A  - B  - C# - D#
F  - G  - A  - A# - C  - D  - E
F# - G# - A# - B  - C# - D# - F
G  - A  - B  - C  - D  - E  - F#
G# - A# - C  - C# - D# - F  - G
A  - B  - C# - D  - E  - F# - G#
A# - C  - D  - D# - F  - G  - A
B  - C# - D# - E  - F# - G# - A#

Open Tunings

Without further ado, let's talk about some alternate tunings!  As a convention, a tuning is considered "open" when all the strings are tuned to a major chord.  Meaning when all the strings are strummed without fretting anywhere on the neck, you are playing a major chord.

Open Tuning: When the guitar is tuned in a fashion so that playing all the strings open produces a major chord.

Note I said a major chord.  It may seem dumb, but the rules (dispatched in the times of yore by the almighty guitar gods, I suppose) say that only a major chord may be produced to be called open.  That's not to say you can't tune your guitar to, say, a minor chord and still produce that chord when strumming open, you just can't call it an open tuning.  But really, who cares, right?

So now that you've suffered through all my chord theory geeking, you can understand the basis of open tunings that much better.  Let's take Open D as an example.  You would tune your guitar (from low to high) as follows:

D A D F# A D

Look somewhat familiar?  That's because they are the notes that make up the D major triad!  You may be asking, why tune them in that order?  As long as all three notes are present it's still a D, right?  That is right, but take a look at which notes are most prevalent:

D A D F# A D
1 5 1 3  5 1

A lot of 1sts and 5ths, right?  That's because (as you may have already noticed) it's the 3rd that tends to give the chord its feeling.  The root and 5th more or less stays the same.  So you could tune to a D major chord and throw in some more 3rds, but that would just make your chord shapes that much more difficult to finger.  As you'll see, there are really 3 main ways to make an open tuning, depending somewhat on what root note you're using, but I'll get to that later!

Sticking with Open D (one of my favorites and one of the more commonly used open tunings), if you play all the strings open you get a D major, so say you fret all the strings on the second fret.  Now you have an E major.  Just think of your barre chords but with only one finger, movable up and down the neck.  That's why open tunings are so popular with slide players.

Another thing about open tunings that I think is really cool is that you can change an entire chord often with moving one finger.  For example, we know that a suspended fourth (sus4) is a major triad with an added fourth and no third (hence "suspended;" it's neither major nor minor).  So in D:

1 - 4 - 5
D   G   A

So looking at our Open D tuning, it would only take a simple change to go from D major to Dsus4:

D |-0------|-0------|
A |-0------|-0------|
F#|-0------|-1------| >> F# changes to G
D |-0------|-0------|
A |-0------|-0------|
D |-0------|-0------|

By playing the first fret of the 3rd string you've now eliminated the third and made it a fourth.  Another reason for the order in which the strings get tuned.  You could really play through almost all the common chords in D without having to use more than one or two fingers; something that would not lend well to standard tuning.

    D    Dsus4  D5   Dadd6  D7   DMaj7  Dadd9
D |-0----0----|-0----0----|-0----0----|-2----
A |-0----0----|-0----2----|-3----4----|-0----
D |-0----0----|-0----0----|-0----0----|-0----
A |-0----0----|-0----0----|-0----0----|-0----
D |-0----0----|-0----0----|-0----0----|-0----

I suppose the practical uses of this are arguable, but it can give you a fuller sound, especially if you're playing solo acoustic, and the above example are just basics.  Duncan Sheik uses a single chord shape moved down the neck, completely changing the chord root and voicing in his song Little Hands:

   Dm7      Ddim7    Gm/D
  *Preformed in D minor tuning, note the minor 3rd...

But I digress.  Like I said before, there are 3 main ways to tune to open, and it often depends on the root note you're tuning to.  For example, tuning from low to high 1-5-1-3-5-1 works fine with D, but say you wanted to tune to Open A.  You'd end up with A-E-A-C#-E-A and probably a couple broken strings trying to get there!

So here are the three tuning formulas and the keys they are usually used in:

Formula       Root notes
1-5-1-3-5-1   D, E, F
5-1-5-1-3-5   G, A
1-5-1-5-1-3   B, C

The real take-home message here is that if you know your chords in Open D, then you also know them in Open E and Open F, they're just a step and half step higher, respectively!

A couple more points I'd like to make without rambling too much.  Notice that for the second formula the lowest string is the fifth, not the root.  You can still achieve your open chord by strumming all the strings (it would be in the second inversion, I believe, but that's a bit beyond the scope of this discussion), but the droning bass 5th can sometimes sound "messy," so it is common practice I think to play the five strings without the bass note.  That doesn't mean to disregard the 6th string all together, though.  The root note is actually the 4th in the key of the fifth... try to think that through when you've been drinking...  how about an example instead: Open A.

5-1-5-1-3 -5

Playing the bottom five strings gets you an A, but take note that if you are looking at forming some E chords, you can get some cool ones from including that low E:

1-4-1-4-6 -1 >> in the key of E the A is the 4th and the C# is the 6th

*this isn't a very practical way to work out chords, but suffices as an example

So by playing the top three strings, you'd get an Esus4(no5).  I throw in a second fret on the 3rd string to add the 5th (B) and make a really cool sounding movable sus4 chord shape!  You can also second fret both A strings and play all six strings to get an Eadd6.

    Esus4    Eadd6    Dsus4
E |--------|-0------|--------|
A |-2------|-2------|-12-----|
E |-0------|-0------|-10-----|
A |-0------|-2------|-10-----|

E |-0------|-0------|-10-----|
                      ^I threw this one in to show that it can be moved

And my final point before I try and park this thing is that there are no hard-fast engraved-in-stone gospel rules for alternate tunings.  Do whatever you think will sound cool and bam! you'll have something that sounds like nothing anyone else has!  It's not uncommon to tune Open D using the formula for Open C (D-A-D-A-D-F#) to play some cool octave riffs or to capo Open D on the fifth fret to get an Open G without having that 5th bass note.  Some bands (Sonic Youth and Soundgarden come to mind) have even tuned all the strings to the same note just an octave apart!  Experiment!

D.s. al Coda

I think I've covered all the basics here to get you started with some alternate tunings.  I have some chord charts I made up for Open D and Open A (and working on Open C) that I'll post before too long, but what really grounded me in music theory was coming up with the chord shapes on my own.  Next time I'll talk about some non-open alternate tunings and maybe go over some chords and scales (without all the theory!).  Until then, long days and pleasant nights!

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