How to understand scary guitar chords

Scientists believe some chord names produce night terrors in toddlers.

Scientists believe some chord names produce night terrors in toddlers.

Deciphering chord names

Understanding the names of guitar chords can sometimes be difficult. Beyond the names of basic chords there are some complex chords with long and complicated chord names. These “exotic” chords strike fear into the hearts of guitar players (both beginners and intermediates alike) because they seem complicated and hard to understand.

As a novice guitar player, once you are beyond playing open chords, some of the names (and sounds) of other chords can be scary and baffling.

“Why the hell is it called that?” you ask yourself.

Guitar chord names are perhaps confusing because so far you’ve learnt WHAT they are called and WHERE to play them but not WHY they are called what they are. (There’s no shame in this – as a self taught player myself, this was totally my experience also.)

As it happens, demystifying complex guitar chords is not that hard, if you know how to decode them – so let’s cover some basics then move on to helping you with decoding.

We don’t (always) mention everything when discussing chords

When we talk about major chords, for brevity we normally drop the “major” suffix and just say the letter name. So if I say: “Hey! Play an E.” I really mean, play an E major chord.

Also, musos may often omit the word “dominant” when talking about a dominant 7th chord, and just call them seventh chords, as in “Play me an A7”.

So that’s just a quick heads up.

How are guitar chords constructed?

Centuries ago, the fathers of western music decided on some pretty simple rules to make chords:

  1. You need 3 notes to officially call it a chord (this was before Rock gave us 2 note power chords)

  2. These 3 note basic “building block” chords (my term) are the basis for all other more complex chords

  3. More complex chords are created by adding either 1, 2, 3 or 4 extra notes to the existing basic building block chords

Basic chord types

There are several types of basic “building block” chord, each with their own unique sound and quality. You probably know 2 of them already: Major and Minor.

There are 2 others – which are less important for beginners but become more relevant as you continue on your guitar journey. These are lesser known and certainly lesser used in popular music (although big in Jazz) but are worth at mentioning here: they are the Augmented and Diminished chords.

Basic chords types comprise of only 3 notes/pitches. This can be confusing at first because you know you’re playing more than 3 strings when playing chords but check and you’ll find that the other notes are just duplicates of these core 3.

The “3 notes in chord” concept confuses many due to number of strings played or number of fingers fretting the notes.

The “3 notes in chord” concept confuses many due to number of strings played or number of fingers fretting the notes.

But which 3 notes make a chord?

The aforementioned fathers of western music also decided the method to create the most harmonious chords should be: “Pick one, skip one, pick one, skip one” literally cherry picking every other note from the Major Scale. Thus a basic chord is created by selecting the first note in the scale, skipping the second, selecting the third, skipping the fourth and selecting the fifth.

This 1st, 3rd, and 5th note selection is much easier to see on a piano as the gap created by the skipped notes is obvious.


To make a Major chord you’d pick the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes from the Major Scale. To make a Minor chord there is a slight adjustment: you flatten the 3rd note (move it down one fret) to get a flat 3 (written as b3).

Major chords = 1, 3, 5
Minor chords = 1, b3, 5

Note that the single factor that defines whether a chord is major or minor is the quality of the 3rd: a natural 3rd means it’s major, a flat 3rd means it’s minor (natural meaning not sharpened or flattened.)

THEORY EXTRA: Referring to notes in a scale by their number rather than note name (E, F etc) is labelling them by their “scale degrees”.

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Deepening in complexity, the next level of chords (4 note chords) is created by continuing the “pick one, skip one” method: this time selecting the first note, skipping the second, selecting the third, skipping the fourth, selecting the fifth, skipping the sixth and selecting the seventh.

This gives us the subsets of:
Major 7th chords = 1, 3, 5, 7
Dominant 7th chords = 1, 3, 5, b7
Minor 7th chords = 1, b3, 5, b7


Notice how the Major 7 is just a major “building block” chord with a natural 7 added, the Dominant 7 (often just called a seventh chord) is a major building block with a flat 7 added and the Minor 7 is a minor building block with a flat 7 (b7) added.

See this post for an explanation of 5, 6 and 7 note chords (extended chords)

And now, to the decyphering…

Saying long chords names in 3 breathes can usually help you better understand their make-up. A complex chord has 3 components:

  1. A letter name

  2. A chord type

  3. Additions/adjustments (if any)

The letter name is the Root note of the chord and dictates at what fret it begins, the chord type (as discussed above) may be either Major or Minor (if a basic chord) or Major 7, Minor 7 or Dominant 7 (if a more complex 4 note chord), lastly the additions/adjustments describe any extras notes or alterations to existing notes.

Here are some basic ones with just 2 out of the 3 components:

D = D (letter name) major (chord type)
D7 = D (letter name) dominant seventh (chord type)

Now all 3:
C add 9 = C (letter name) major (chord type) add 9 (addition) – a regular C with the addition of an extra 9th note.
E7#9 = E (letter name) dominant seventh (chord type), sharp 9 (alteration) – the Hendrix chord.
D7b9 = D (letter name) dominant seventh (chord type), flat 9 (alteration) – a nice one to pop in before a 7th chord of the same name

Wait! What are 9ths?

It depends if you are talking about 9th chords or the addition of a 9th note (as in our examples above).

An additional 9th note is the one you arrive at after counting up 9 steps of the major scale. The major scale repeats itself after the 7th degree therefore 8 is the same as 1 and a 9th is the same as a 2nd, only an octave higher (2 + 7).

The sharp 9 (#9) is the 9th note of the major scale slid up 1 fret, the flat 9 (b9) is the 9th note slide down 1 fret.

9th chords however are a different thing. These are one level more complex than 7th chords. These are 5 note chords and fall in to the same subset categories as the 7ths: Major, Minor and Dominant.

More on extended chords here

Did you talk about 6th chords yet?

No. So here’s the deal with 6 chords. They are either a major building block with an added 6 (1, 3, 5, 6 is called a Major 6 chord) or a minor building block chord with an added 6th (1, b3, 5, 6 is called a minor 6 chord)

Succesfully taming the most terrifying chords in jazz

Using our 3 breaths method and our LETTER NAME + CHORD TYPE + ADDITIONS/ALTERNATIONS formula, the normally terrifying sounding Bb Minor 7 flat 5 (BbMin7b5) is actually just a chord that:

  1. Starts on a Bb note

  2. Is a Minor 7 chord type

  3. Has an adjusted 5th degree (flattened by moving it down 1 fret)

Congratulations, you have succesfully kicked scary chords in the balls and stolen their lunch money