Building Chords By Ear

(written in 1984)

In the midst of all the great noises, effects and runs that accompany linear-type playing, it’s possible for guitarists to neglect their chordal studies. This lesson is dedicated to the construction of chords for your chordal vocabulary. I suggest that all new chord forms you come across be written down in chord tablature and memorized.

Here’s an example of chord tablature:

Here are some experiments to fatten up your chord dictionary. Start by playing a chord, any chord that you’re familiar with. Then take any finger and move it either up or down a fret. If it sounds good, write it down and memorize it. Heck, you can even write a song with it. If it doesn’t sound good, try moving another finger. You can see the countless millions of chords you can construct this way. Here are some examples of a few:

Start with a D barre chord in the 5th position. The notes are D, A, D, and F#. Now, at random, move a note here and there.

Lower the F# to an E, making an E2 chord. As you change, find comfortable fingerings. Now raise the A to a B. That’s a D(6/9) chord. Add an A on top and drop the D on the G string to a C#. That’s a Dmaj7(6/9). Now add a B (on the one E string) in the bass. That makes it a Bm11. Pull the B off the bottom and play the E string open. That’s an E13 (no 3rd). Raise the whole thing up two frets, etc., to infinity.

Another idea from which to extrapolate is to play a chord fingering that is both movable and diatonic in different positions. For example (again in the key of E Mixolydian), go to the 12th position and play E on the D string with your third finger, B on the B string with your first finger and F# on the E string with your pinky finger — one of my favorite Hendrix chords:

In the key of E Mixolydian, you can use this fingering in the open, 2nd, 5th, 7th, 10th and 12th positions.

Another of my favorite movable voicings is C#, F#, B, F# on the 11th position. In the key of E, this voicing works on the 2nd, 4th, 6th, 9th and 11th positions:

There’s many more!