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Building Up Your Chord Vocabulary

Updated: May 25, 2020

Chord Knowledge is Important!

Whether you are beginning to play chords for the first time or are exploring jazzier sounds, learning various chord shapes and systems can be a frustrating endeavor. There are literally thousands of combinations of chord voicings that we can learn on the guitar and this high number of possibilities can be very intimidating. In addition, much of the work that the guitarist does on a regular basis is focused on being a strong accompanist to a singer or other instrument more than playing lead lines.

Without a good approach to learning chords it can be difficult to progress to a point where one can play out with other musicians, since chord work is what guitarists usually spend the most time doing when playing out. Fortunately, learning a new chord vocabulary can become much easier by looking at some of the techniques used to teach foreign languages.

Rote vs. Meaningful Learning:

The first thing to consider is the difference between rote learning and “meaningful" learning.

Rote learning is learning through the memorization of many key ideas and facts. In the language classroom, this would be like studying new vocabulary words. The advantage of this type of learning is that it is a very quick way to gain a lot of knowledge all at once. The disadvantage is that it can make a student miss the forest for the trees, in the subject that they are studying, by providing a lot of pieces of information without the ability to put them together.

Learning through "meaningful" learning is the idea of learning larger structures and concepts of a subject. This would be like spending a semester abroad in another country or listening to movies in a different language. This knowledge is often more malleable and is essential for problem solving, but it takes much longer to learn and often requires some level of rote knowledge before it can truly develop. For example, knowing why George Washington became the first president depends on the knowledge that George Washington was, in fact, the first president.

Learning Chords Through Music:

These two ways of learning are often used in teaching foreign languages and can be equally useful for learning chords on the guitar. A good approach to learning chords is to do a hybrid method of both types of learning. Rote learning of chords can become tied together with meaningful application for learning chords on the guitar. First, start by selecting a group of chords that you will want to focus on for the next week or so. Think of these as your new “vocabulary” words for the week. In our example, we will work through some simple open chords:

A common approach to learning these chords would be to first memorize the chords in isolation from one another. The problem with that is it often can become very dull to work on these chords in isolation; we don’t learn language by reading the dictionary! An easy way to add a little spice to our learning is to immediately apply these chords to a new song.

Learning a New Song

For our purposes, we will use the chords to the song “We’re Gonna Be Friends” by The White Stripes (here is a chord sheet to refer to.) The song uses these three chords throughout its verse sections, meaning that the guitarist, Jack White, is fluent in the chord language we are trying to learn.

Before picking up the guitar though, try to listen to the song with the chord sheet in front of you. As you listen, ask yourself some basic questions about each chord:

  • How long does Jack White play each chord? How many beats can you count before he switches to a different chord?

  • What does each chord sound like? Are they happy or sad? Bright or dark? Does one chord in particular feel like “home base"?

  • What kinds of patterns is he doing with his right hand? Is he fingerpicking or using a pick?

Once you think you hav these ideas figured out, try to play the chords and see if you can make them sound like they do on the track. Other artists can act as a great model for how we should sound! If it doesn’t sound quite right, try to isolate individual chords and make sure they sound correct by themselves. When we isolate chords, this is like using a dictionary to make sure the words we use are “spelled” correctly. This technique will utilize the best of both learning systems!

Once we have learned the verses for this song, we will be well on our way to having a strong understanding of the three chords we set out to learn, but you will notice the bridge looks a little bit different. There is a new chord that we didn’t initially start with in our vocabulary. Write this new chord down in your music log (a topic for a different day). Try to figure out what the chord's name is and how it is used in the piece. Maybe research some music theory and see if it can explain what’s going on. By doing this we add new chords to our vocabulary. This is why it is important for musicians to listen to a lot of music if they want to improve!

A Note for More Advanced Players:

Thus far we have talked about some chords that are often learned very early on (for some teachers they are in the very first lesson). Something to think about is that this method can apply itself for any kind of chord no matter how complex. Trying to learn the different triads you can use over a GMaj9#5 all across the neck? Did you just hear a juicy chord in a recording? Why not use the music you love to learn new vocabulary, or look for songs that utilize the chord vocabulary you are trying to use?

In addition, this method of music learning is covered in length in Victor Wooten’s book, The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music. This is an excellent resource for any musician, regardless of skill level.

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