As you look to explore new genres, add some flavor to your playing, or read off of lead sheets at Sunday morning church services, there may come a time when you need to learn chords you’ve never heard of or tried before.
If you’re relatively new to guitar, 7 chords probably fall under this category. To add to the confusion, there are three different types of 7 chords – dominant, major and minor – and they are each a little different.
In the grand scheme of things, these are not terribly complicated or exotic chords. There are far more difficult and complex chords in jazz music.
But we all have to start somewhere, and 7 chords are as good a place as any. So let’s learn how to play them.
How 7 Chords Work On Guitar
Let’s get back to the basics. If you’ve studied our other guitar guides, you probably know by now that a standard chord is comprised of three distinct notes.
Let’s use a G major chord as an example. G is made up of the notes G, B and D. These notes are also the first, third and fifth notes of the G major scale (chords are constructed in “thirds” – this is the basic theory behind how a chord is formed).
To make this a 7 chord, we would need to add a fourth note into the mix. The exact note would depend on whether it’s a dominant, major or minor chord.
In the case of a dominant 7 chord, the notes would be:
G, B, D, F
Now an F note doesn’t typically belong in G major, but it gives the chord a somewhat “bluesy” or even “mischievous” sound.
With a major 7 chord, it would be:
G, B, D, F#
This is pretty straightforward. Major 7th chords are characterized by a calming, jazzy sound.
And with a minor 7, it would be:
G, Bb, D, F
Because it’s a minor chord, we need to flat the “third”, which is why the B becomes a Bb. Overall, minor and minor 7 chords don’t sound all that different.
Now you know the basics behind the three different types of 7 chords.
Learn 7 Chords In The Open Position
As with anything else on the guitar, it’s easier to play in the open position than it is to barre up. If you want to be able to play these chords freely in any position on the neck, you will need to learn the barred versions as well, but we’ll start with the basics.
In most cases, the only chords that can be played in the open position are: C, A, G, E and D. This is also true – most of the time – with 7 chords as well.
First, we’re going to try the dominant 7 chords. Here is how you would play C7, A7, G7, E7 and D7:
Here is a very basic guitar theory lesson. If it doesn’t make any sense, don’t think too deeply on it right now, because you can always come back to it.
Most of the time, dominant 7 chords are only used in blues, jazz, and as the “fifth” chord (V) in folk, rock, or pop songs. This is the only way they properly “fit” with the tonal center (key signature). This isn’t to say that there aren’t other uses for them, but it’s always best to learn the rules before you break them.
Now let’s try those major 7 chords in the open position. So we’ll take a look at: Cmaj7, Amaj7, Gmaj7, Emaj7 and Dmaj7.
While a bit unusual, these shapes shouldn’t prove too challenging for an intermediate level guitarist. The basic theory behind this is that you can turn any major chord in a given key signature into a major 7th (except for the fifth). This isn’t to suggest that you would always turn a major into a major 7 – it really depends on the song.
Finally, we’ll work on those minor 7 chords. Now, as with other types of minor chords, there isn’t an easy way to play C or G without barring up, so we’ll have to skip Cm7 and Gm7 for now.
Here’s how to play Am7, Em7 and Dm7:
This is a good starting point, but as you probably know by now, there are 12 notes in the western scale, so whether we’re talking about dominant, major or minor, there are 12 chords to learn for each chord type. But barre chords allow us to bar up open position chords without having to learn completely different shapes.
Going Beyond – Barre Chords
If you’ve been following along with our guides, you should have a pretty good idea of how to play barre chords. They take time to master, but once you get a feel for them, you can play just about any chord in any key, which is why you’d want to learn how.
Since we’re almost coming to the end of this particular lesson, we’ll only talk briefly about how to turn the open position chords you just learned into barre chords.
It’s always important to distinguish between fifth string barres, and sixth string barres. The difference is simply this: the root note is either being played on the fifth sting or the sixth string. For example, with an A chord, the root is on the fifth, and with an E chord, the root is on the sixth.
And most of the time, you’re just going to be barring up A and E shapes anyway. So if you were to turn an A chord shape you’ve learned into a barre chord, you would “bridge” your index finger across the top five strings, and use your other fingers to construct the exact same chord shape right next to your barre. It works the same way with sixth string roots, with the difference being that you would “bridge” your index finger across all six strings.
Dominant 7 chords can often be heard in blues and sometimes in pop songs. Major 7ths are sometimes used in pop songs, and likewise Minor 7ths. But here’s what they have in common – they can all be heard in jazz songs.
From a songwriting or creative perspective, there are no rules about when and where these chords can and cannot be used, but from a theoretical perspective, there are definitely “right” and “wrong” contexts.
The main thing is to master the shapes so that you are able to play them as needed (i.e. when you’re reading lead sheets). Then, you can begin to think about how to incorporate them into your own songs.