How do I play that chord? Part 1. Figure it out.

Playing guitar on porch 7AA
Image by danlovesguitars via Flickr

While on vacation last week I encountered a G7b5b9 chord in a lead-sheet to a tune I wanted to play. I thought I was ready for “Guitar Camp” but I hadn’t packed any of my chord reference books. How do you handle chord names you aren’t sure how to play? What do you do if you don’t have a guitar chord diagram encyclopedia? One way to handle unusual chords you don’t know is to ignore them – or simplify them. Don’t know how to play a G7b5b9? Play a G7 instead. But if you want to at least try the chord someone thought fit the tune you’re playing there are other approaches you can take.

Here’s some thoughts on the matter.

Figure it out. The first solution to this problem is not the first choice many of you would make. It isn’t always the first choice I would make. But it doesn’t require any special software or having access to books. All you have to do is figure out the chord fingering from first principles of chord theory. Start with scale positions on the fingerboard – maybe start with a related chord and modify it based on the chord name of the chord you’re trying to play.

Here’s how I went about this. First you have to know how to play a major scale. We give the notes of the scale the numbers 1 to 7. A G major scale is G, A, B, C, D, E, F#. Music nomenclature can get complicated and confusing with the use of minor, diminished, dominant and so on to refer to notes or intervals. I’m just going to designate any notes that fall outside of the major scale as flat or sharp (b or #). A 7th chord contains the 1, 3, 5 and b7 notes of the scale or for G7: G, B, D and F. The flat 5th is Db. The extended notes come from continuing numbering the scale in the next octave with numbers 8 to 14. Actually, extended chords are all odd numbers which represent note names that have even numbers in the lower octave. The 9th is A and the flatted 9th is Ab.

Thus the scale degrees in a 7b5b9 chord are 1, 3, b5, b7, b9 and the notes for a G7b5b9 are G, B, Db, F, Ab. Now that we know the notes, how do we play them? What finger diagrams can we use?

I’m going to start with a G7 bar chord played with the bar on the 3rd fret (Diagram 1).

G7 showing scale notes in chord
(Diagram 1) G7

G7 showing showing where extended notes might be played
(Diagram 2) Scale

One possible fingering for G7b5b9 - no root. Same notes as Db7.
(Diagram 3) G7b5b9?

I’ve filled in some other scale degrees we need for our G7b5b9 chord in Diagram 2 above.

And finally (Diagram 3) I’ve picked one possible fingering for the chord.

What? No root? When playing extended guitar chords particularly for jazz, you sometimes can leave out certain notes. Which notes? The two most important notes are generally the 3rd (because it defines whether the chord is a major or minor chord) and the 7th (major 7th or dominant 7th). Perhaps it is surprising that one of the two notes that can be ignored is the root. The other note is the 5th. Of course the root is important. So is the 5th. But if you are playing in a band then probably the bass or piano is playing the root or the 5th. Even playing unaccompanied, the root and 5th are often implied from the context.

Is this a good fingering position for a G7b5b9 chord? It’s simple enough. Some of the considerations in deciding if it’s a “good” chord worth playing are does the chord sound good and is it playable. I’ve often found chord diagrams that either sounded unnecessarily dissonant or the finger positions were unplayable by mere mortals. Some dissonance is expected from extended chords, but the placement of the notes in some diagrams just doesn’t work.

If you haven’t noticed, the notes in this chord diagram are the notes for a Db7 chord. It might be good to remember that the bV7th can be substituted for the Ib5b9. (Sorry if I just confused you by referring to chords with Roman numerals. If you don’t know this, a generic representation of the chords in a key can be made referring to the chords as I to VII just as the notes of the scale are referred to Arabic numbers 1 to 7).

Perhaps you’ve decided this was too much work. If you wanted to know all the different fingering positions for a chord then you’ve got to repeat this process in different positions. Many of the possible positions you come up with may not sound so good or may not be practical for humans.

The alternatives to figuring out the chord fingering on your own are to use software (online or desktop programs) or to look it up in a reference book. A third option-  to use a chord diagram device – is essentially the same as using software or a book. Ideally, these methods will produce chords that are both playable and sound good. I’ll review online resources in part 2 of this series.

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