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Q&A - How to think about chord shapes

Hi David,

I hope you're well. I'm still practicing and I'm still making progress. It's slow and steady, but I'm seeing meaningful progress that makes just improvising a fulfilling and lovely process.

I switch between using your video course and your book. I'm currently in the section of your book on chord shapes. I was slightly confused about how to understand the different chord shapes in relation to the way we build chords from the major scale. For example, the 3 chord would be notes 3, 5, 7, 2. What I have found hard is to now understand this as a minor chord shape starting on note 1.

Should I be able to think of the 3 chord as 3, 5, 7, 2 and 1, b3, 5, b7 at the same time and be able to switch easily between the two ways of thinking about them? Or having I gotten mixed up in my understanding?

All the best,

David's response:

Hi Ravi,

Your understanding of the chords and chord shapes is exactly correct. You can just think of the chord shapes as an observation about the internal distances within any chord. So in your example of the 3 chord, you are absolutely right that these are notes 3, 5, 7 and 2. And then if you get out your handy tape measure and you start measuring these distances, you'll find that these are notes 1, b3, 5 and b7 relative to the starting note.

Right now you don't need to be in any rush to assimilate this new way of thinking, but you are right that over time you will learn to see the chord both ways. The guitar actually facilitates this process and makes it almost inevitable that you will ultimately learn to see all of this stuff, just because the fretboard itself is so visual.

Here's something you can do right now to start building this skill comfortably and easily. It only takes a minute. Each time you sit down to practice, first pick a chord shape to study (major, dominant, minor or minor b5). Let's say you choose the major chord shape (1, 3, 5, 7). All you need to do is practice playing this chord shape in one single octave on your guitar. That's it. As you do this, just think the numbers to yourself. (So every time you play note 5 you should be aware that it's note 5, for example.)

Now that's an easy example because you're already very familiar with the notes 1, 3, 5 and 7. So maybe tomorrow you work up the courage to take on the dominant shape. These are the notes 1, 3, 5 and b7. Well, if you can play 1, 3, 5 and 7, then you can certainly play 1, 3, 5 and b7. All you have to do is lower the seventh by a half step and you have your b7. So just play this chord shape within one octave, and remember to think about each tonal number as you play the note. (When you play the note b7, you should literally be saying the words "flat seven" to yourself.)

I think you'll have no trouble doing this, especially if you limit your focus to just one octave. But then what's going to naturally happen is that after about a week or so of doing this simple little warm-up every day, your own desire for variation is going to make you want to go beyond a single octave. So you'll naturally start going into the next octave as well, and before you know it you'll be painting these chord shapes freely across the entire fretboard.

Eventually you will become very familiar with all of the ways that each chord shape can appear on the fretboard. You don't even need to consciously try to notice any of this. It's just going to happen for you automatically, because through playing these chord shapes you're eventually going to get to know what they look like on the fretboard.

Then what's going to happen is that when you go back to playing our tonal chord concepts like the 3 chord (this time thinking to yourself that the notes are 3, 5, 7 and 2), you won't be able to help noticing that this is also a minor seventh chord. It won't even take any effort. You'll just see the shape that your left hand is tracing on the fretboard, and you'll recognize that this is the minor chord shape that you've been learning to build all over the fretboard.

So just try to balance your time between improvising with tonal concepts (like the 3 chord) and improvising with chord shape concepts (like a minor 7th chord). This simple practice of alternating your focus will help you become more aware of the chord shapes that are present in the music you're playing.