The guitar has become as integral to Christian music as the major scale is to the harmonic framework upon which our chords and melodies are based. As a songwriter or arranger, being able to play the “diatonic” chords based on the seven notes of the major scale is of tremendous value, regardless of your skill.
Although classically trained pianists are expected to know every note they play, guitarists have the freedom to make music without having to know why things sound good together. Whether you’re a keyboardist, guitarist, or both, finding a healthy balance between these two extremes will serve you well as you hone your songwriting craft.
SHOW ME THE BASS LINE!
With a few exceptions, the lowest note in your average guitar chord is where the “note name” in a chord like C major comes from. If you take the heavy part of “Stairway to Heaven” and just play the bass notes of the A minor, G major, and F major chords, you’d find it still sounds and feels like “Stairway”. A great bass line is an excellent place to start crafting a song. A lot of songwriters spin their wheels trying to find a perfect collection of chords instead of finding a great bass note movement upon which they can easily place chords that will sound great. These bass notes and chords are almost always built using the seven notes that make up the major scale.
JUST COUNT TO SEVEN
In the beginning of this article I referred to the major scale as the harmonic framework from which most songs are crafted. In thinking of the notes of the C major scale (C D E F G A B) as numbers (1 2 3 4 5 6 7), it is not hard to see that the A minor, G major, and F major chords from “Stairway” are based on the 6th, 5th, and 4th notes of the C major scale.
In looking at the keyboard diagram below, if you were to play C, E, and G at the same time you would be creating a C major chord. D, F, and A is where D minor comes from and so on. People have made this way more complicated than it needs to be.
You will often see Roman Numerals used to describe not only what number of the major scale a chord is based upon, but the type of chord it represents. I, IV, and IV are major chords, while ii-, iii-, and vi- are minor chords. Because of the way the guitar is strung, playing the chord based on the 7th note of the major scale can get a little messy, but there is a simple workaround. Playing the V chord in first inversion is a great substitution that is easy to play and sounds great! In simple English, the chord based on the 5th tone of the C major scale is G major, which is made up of G, B, and D. Playing that chord in first inversion simply means playing the exact same notes, but using B as the lowest note in the chord. This chord is frequently written as G/B and is the exact workaround we’ll be using.
Play through the below chords with an even tempo, so you can hear and feel how they work together. Then use your ear to find chords that work well together like I IV ii- V. If you get stuck, try using just the bass notes to come up with a cool bassline, and then add the chords back in.
YOUR FRIEND THE CAPO
Although the chords on this page are written for the key of C major, with a capo you can use easily transpose these shapes into any key, simply by moving the capo to the appropriate fret. Similar to the transposition tool found on many synthesizes, the capo does the heavy lifting, enabling you to use the same shapes over and over, regardless of the key. If your vocal melody fits your register better in D than it does of C, simply place the capo at the second fret and play the chord shapes relationally to the capo just as you would the nut when playing them in “open position”.