Learn Chord Inversions and Chord Formulas

 

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All of us learn the open chord shapes and after a few months feel stuck. It kind of starts feeling mundane and boring after a point. There is a lot more to playing chords than just the open chord shapes. How to grow past the open chords? The answer is—explore and learn more chord shapes. 

In this lesson, learn about chord inversions and chord formulas and start exploring the guitar fretboard like a pro.

Learn Chord Formulas and Chord Inve...
Learn Chord Formulas and Chord Inversions | Lesson 15

Chord Formulas

All chords are built using different interval combinations. By picking out any particular interval combination, one can play a particular chord. These interval combinations are called chord formulas. E.g. to play a major chord in any major key, pick out the 1,3,5 intervals from the major scale of that key. If you break down, the notes for C Major chord - C (1st Interval Of C Major) - E (3rd Interval Of C Major) - G (5th Interval Of C Major).

Altering a single interval in a chord alters how it sounds. For example, if you play 1-3-5 from a C major interval, it is a C Major Chord. But if you flatten just the third interval in the above formula, 1-b3-5, it changes how the chord sounds completely. Now the chord sounds different and is called a C minor Chord.

Similarly, all chords have a formula that can be related to intervals. In any key, use the formula to find out notes from the major scale and build the chord.

The notes of the major scale can be identified by number, according to their place in the scale. Their location in the scale is called their scale degree. For example, D is the second note of the C major scale, and is called the “second scale degree,” “scale degree 2,” or just “2.” If you do not understand intervals or scale degree or any other music theory jargon, make sure you check out the basic music theory lesson here before proceeding.

Chords can be of two notes, three notes, four notes or even more. Below is a table for all chord formulas. Using it, you can build different chords in any key.

Chord type Formula Example in Key Of C

Major

1 3 5

C E G

Minor

1 b3 5

C Eb G

7th(Also called Dominant 7th)

1 3 5 b7

C E G Bb

Major 7th

1 3 5 7

C E G B

Minor 7th

1 b3 5 b7

C Eb G Bb

6th

1 3 5 6

C E G A

Minor 6th

1 b3 5 6

C Eb G A

Diminished

1 b3 b5

C Eb Gb

Diminished 7th

1 b3 b5 bb7

C Eb Gb Bbb

Half diminished 7th

1 b3 b5 b7

C Eb Gb Bb

Augmented

1 3 #5

C E G#

7th #5

1 3 #5 b7

C E G# Bb

9th

1 3 5 b7 9

C E G Bb D

7th #9

1 3 5 b7 #9

C E G Bb D#

Major 9th

1 3 5 7 9

C E G B D

Added 9th(Chords extended beyond the octave are called 'added' when the 7th is not present.)

1 3 5 9

C E G D

Minor 9th

1 b3 5 b7 9

C Eb G Bb D

Minor add 9th

1 b3 5 9

C Eb G D

11th

1 (3) 5 b7 9 11

C E G Bb D F

Minor 11th

1 b3 5 b7 9 11

C Eb G Bb D F

7th #11

1 3 5 b7 #11

C E G Bb D F#

Major 7th #11

1 3 5 7 9 #11

C E G B D F#

13th

1 3 5 b7 9 (11) 13

C E G Bb D (F) A

Major 13th

1 3 5 7 9 (11) 13

C E G B D (F) A

Minor 13th

1 b3 5 b7 9 11 13

C Eb G B D F A

Suspended 4th (sus, sus4)

1 4 5

C F G

Suspended 2nd (sus2)

1 2 5

C D G

5th (power chord)

1 5

C G

 

All the chords listed above are not of much use to beginners. Some are advanced chords used for phrasing by advanced players. For beginners, knowing just the below-mentioned chord formulas are sufficient.

  • Major - 1-3-5
  • Minor- 1-b3-5
  • Augmented - 1-3-#5
  • Diminished - 1-b3-b5
  • Major 7th - 1-3-5-7
  • Suspended chords - 1-2-5 and 1-4-5
  • Power chords - 1-5

Triads in Music

A triad, as the name implies, is a type of chord made up of three unique pitch classes. A triad consists of Unison, Third and Fifth intervals — three notes stacked in thirds.

Not all three-note chords are triads, however. For a chord to be a triad, the pitches contained therein must combine to create specific intervals.

As with intervals, triads come in different qualities/characteristics. Triads may be major, minor, diminished, or augmented.

To determine the quality of a triad, one must consider the characteristics of the intervals contained therein.

Triad Quality Interval Between Root and Third Interval Between Third and Fifth Interval Between Root and Fifth
major M3 m3 P5
minor m3 M3 P5
diminished m3 m3 d5
augmented M3 M3 A5

Understanding triads is important, as one can easily move around the triads all across the fretboard and play the same chord all across the guitar neck.

Chord Inversions

Moving around chord shapes, while rearranging their notes, is called a chord inversion. For example, if you pick out the notes C-E-G in any order and any position on the guitar neck or a piano or any other instrument, you will be playing an inversion of the C Major chord.

Here is a chart displaying different inversions of the C Major chord all across the guitar fretboard.

C major Chord Inversions Guitar Chart

Similarly, you can invert any chord in any key by just understanding its notes, formulas and locating those notes on the fretboard. Whether it is a major triad, minor triad, 7th chord, diminished chord etc. Different names are used for chord inversions, let us understand the names.

First Chord Inversion

Any chord with the 3rd scale degree in the bass is called the first inversion. For example, in a C Major triad, C-E-G is the root position with C as the root. If you play E-G-C or E-C-G Voicing of the chord, it is called the first inversion. Here, the note E (3rd degree or 3rd interval) is in the bass position.  The alter between E-C-G and E-G-C is called Voice Exchange. 

Below is a table of a few other chord examples and their first inversion to help you better understand.

 Chord In Root Position First Inversion and Voice Exchange Third Degree
C Major Triad ( C-E-G / 1-3-5) (E-C-G / 3-1-5) and (E-G-C / 3-5-1) E
D Major Triad (D-F#-A / 1-3-5) (F#-D-A / 3-1-5) and (F#-A-D / 3-5-1) F#
C Minor Triad (C-Db-G / 1-b3-5) (Db-C-G /b3-1-5) and (Db-G-C / b3-5-1) Db
D Diminished (D-F-Ab / 1-b3-b5) (F-D-Ab / b3-1-b5) and (F-Ab-D /b3-b5-1) F

Second Chord Inversion

Any chord with the 5th scale degree in the bass is called the second inversion. For example, in a C Major triad, C-E-G is the root position with C as the root. If you play G-C-E or G-E-C voicing of the chord, it is called the second inversion. Here, the note G (5th degree or 5th interval) is in the bass position.  The alter between G-C-E and G-E-C is called Voice Exchange. 

Below is a table of a few other chord examples and their second inversion to help you better understand.

 Chord In Root Position Second Inversion and Voice Exchange Fifth Degree
C Major Triad ( C-E-G / 1-3-5) (G-C-E / 5-1-3) and (G-E-C / 5-3-1) G
D Major Triad (D-F#-A / 1-3-5) (A-D-F# / 5-1-3) and (A-F#-D / 5-3-1) A
C Minor Triad (C-Db-G / 1-b3-5) (G-C-Db /5-1-b3) and (G-Db-C / 5-b3-1) G
D Diminished (D-F-Ab / 1-b3-b5) (Ab-D-F / b5-1-b3) and (Ab-F-D /b5-b3-1) Ab

Why Are Chord Inversions Important

When you use chord inversion, it gives the chord a different voicing. Each inversion will sound a little different from the root position chord. This is known as chord voicing. Chords voicing are used in music to add interest and break linearity. Using different voicing, it gets easy to harmonise the music. Here are a few advantages of using chord inversions: -

  • Using any chord inversion in addition to root position gives more variety to a piece of music
  • Using any chord inversion allows for a more melodic baseline
  • Adds a sense of movement
  • Breaks the linearity and monotonous nature of a piece of music.

So next time you are jamming with another musician, try using chord inversions and different voicing in the music to see how it adds to the texture and feel.

In the next lesson, learn how to know chords on a major scale.

Beginner Guitar Lessons


1 comment


  • Kurt Wilhelm

    Can you explain what happens to the intervals when the chord is inverted? The first inversion of C is E-C-G (3-1-5). Doesn’t that create a minor 6th interval (E to C) followed by a perfect 5th (C to G)? I thought I understood major chords to be a major 3rd over a minor 3rd. But, the inversion clearly changes the intervals. While still a C chord, the first inversion is no longer a major third over a minor third. How should I think about this? I am weak on intervals, and know just enough music theory to get into trouble! Thanks!


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Udeeksh is an Audio Engineer and Co-Founder of learnmusicproduction.in. He loves to produce music, research music gear, play guitar, go on treks and road trips.