A guide to help you become a better student of the resophonic guitar

Saturday, August 18, 2012

 Chords-Part 1: Major and Minors

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A chord is a group of notes (usually three or four) that have a complementary relationship when played together--that is, they go together in a pleasant or emotive way.

On the one hand, you can think of them as melodic probabilities. For example if you tell me the chord for a particular part of a bluegrass song is A minor, I'd be willing to bet that the melody at that part starts or ends on an  A, C, or E.

Chords also put melodic notes into a context or mood. For example, the note B can be found in the chord of G major, and it is also in the chord of E minor. If you sang a song that was just the note of B repeated over and over (hey, don't laugh, the group America got away with just about that in the song Horse with No Name), and I backed you up by starting on a G major chord and then shifted to an E minor, the mood of your simple song would suddenly shift.

Go to any book store and look at a chord book and you could easily feel overwhelmed by the number of chords there are. But we are going to learn the patterns for just nine chords, and these will supply you with darn near every chord you could possibly want to use in bluegrass.

We'll cover them in three categories:
  • Building block chords: Major and minor
  • Color chords: Suspended 2, suspended 4, 6th, and major 7th
  • Transition chords: Dominant 7th, dominant 9th, and diminished
In this post, I talk about major and minor chords; I will cover the others in my next posts.


Chord theory relies on the concept of an interval. An interval is the distance between two notes, and we measure intervals in half steps (frets). A major interval is four half steps and a minor interval is three half steps. OK, let's take that and go build some chords.

Major Chords

Rule: To build a major chord, start with a major interval and add a minor interval.

For example, let's look at the G major chord--the open tuning standard for the Dobro.
G, B, D

Lay your bar on the fourth fret of the G string and what do you get? B! Lay your bar on the third fret of the B string and what do you get? D! So there are four half steps between the G and B, and there are three half steps between B and D. A major interval and a minor interval. All major chords are built using that pattern.

Here's the pattern for a major chord in the Nashville numbering system: 1, 3, 5, where 1 is the root note of the chord. So to make a G major chord, start playing the scale in the key of G--the 1, 3, and 5 notes of that scale make up the G major. In this case, G, B, D.

Try it for a C major chord. Start at C and play the scale in C. What are the 1, 3, and 5 notes? C, E, G. That's a C major.

Minor Chords

Rule: To build a minor chord, start with a minor interval and add a major interval.

The pattern for minor chords are 1, b3, 5. In other words, a minor chord looks like its major chord form, but the middle note is flatted a half step. That makes three half steps between the first and second note, and four half steps between the second and third notes.

For example, an A major chord is A, C#, E. The A minor is A, C, E. Same as the major but the middle note is dropped a half step--i.e., we take the C# down a half step to C..

Why do I call these two chord types the building blocks? Well, for one thing, there's hardly any song you can't play if you know the major and minor chords. We'll see how the others can make some cool transitions or add some emotive color to your playing, but really, the majors and minors do all the heavy lifting in bluegrass.

And the scale is made up almost exclusively of the individual patterns created by these chords--which I'll talk about next.


Chords in the Scale

Ivan Rosenberg took me through the following exercise.

Start at the beginning of the scale and start making three-note chords by doing the following:
  1. Play a note.
  2. Skip a note.
  3. Play a note.
  4. Skip a note. 
  5. Play a note.
Every time you do this, go up a note and continue until you have started a chord with every note in the scale. Here's what you get:
1, 3, 5
2, 4, 6
3, 5, 7
4, 6, 1
5, 7, 2
6, 1, 3
7, 2, 4

If you were in the key of G, this is what you would be playing (work them out on your fret board and notice the intervals):

1, 3, 5 (G,B,D: a major interval and a minor interval--G major)
2, 4, 6 (A,C,E: a minor interval and a major interval--A minor)
3, 5, 7 (B, D, F#: a minor interval and a major interval--B minor)
4, 6, 1 (C,E,G: a major interval and a minor interval--C major)
5, 7, 2 (D, F#, A: a major interval and a minor interval--D major)
6, 1, 3 (E, G, B: a minor interval and a major interval--E minor)
7, 2, 4 (can we just not talk about this one until later?)

So the scale contains three major chords, the I, IV, and V. How many times in bluegrass do you hear people ask "What's the chord progression?" and the answer is "Oh, it's just a I, IV, V."

Then you have the three minors: ii, iii, and vi. Notice that these are the relative minors of the three majors. G major/E minor, C major/A minor, and D major/B minor. Is that cool or what?

My first Dobro instructor, Mark Van Allen, made the same point but in a slightly different way.

He played the scale of G all up and down the top three strings from open to the 12th fret. He then asked me to imagine that we placed an adhesive dot on every spot on the fret board we had played a note (including open strings as dots on the nut).

It made the following patterns:

Since the Dobro is tuned to a major chord, you can see our three major chords of G, C, and D are straight bars. The three minors make a chevron like pattern, because the middle note of the major is flatted a half step. (Don't worry just yet about that hockey stick shaped guy I'm not talking about. I promise I will get to him later.)

By the way, I'll talk in another post about how to actually play minor chords, since you probably don't have a chevron shaped bar handy.

But there is more here than just a way to play chords. Think of each of these patterns as a roadmap for its particular section of the fret board. Learn their names, their notes' real names, and their notes' Nashville numbers. Then if you are on a note and someone asks, "What note is that?" you can just visualize what chord "map" it is in and instantly name it. And going the other way,  if I'm reading some sheet music and the note is F#, I know that shows up in my B minor and my D major map and that's how I find it.

In my next post, I'll talk about the color chords (you might want to have candles and wine handy for that one).


  1. "By the way, I'll talk in another post about how to actually play minor chords, since you probably don't have a chevron shaped bar handy."

    Hello, I'm on my debut on reso guitar and THIS is the first wall I meet.
    How to make nice sounding Minor Chords.
    At this time, I'm simply playing an Major chord without picking the both B strings, but even if not picked, they sound because of steel-bar movement.

    Be sure I'm waiting for that post more than everything.

    Thanks, mate, for sharing your knoledge.
    Ben, from France

    1. http://dobrodojo.blogspot.com/2012/10/playing-in-minors.html

  2. Hi Michael. My son is learning how to play the Dobro, but although we have bought an online book, we are battling to find something that will teach him HOW TO READ and understand the complete tablature.

    Any suggestions?

    Graeme (South Africa)