Minor guitar chords are an excellent way to capture the contrast from happy to sad within a chord progression, build tension, and tell a story without words. As you can imagine, they’re pretty important, and also a great way to get started with learning more about guitar and the music theory surrounding it. As you read on, we’ll talk more about these minor chords, as well as how you can start playing them right away! Let’s dive in.
Playing Minor Chords
Cutting right to the meat of it, let’s go over our A, B, C#, D, E, F#, and G# minor chords, using a number of chord charts:
Chord charts of our various minor chords close to the open note position.
Trouble With Chord Charts?
If this is your first time seeing a chord chart, you might be feeling a little overwhelmed! Don’t fret, chord charts are an easy and very effective way of learning what could be some of your favorite chords!
First, let’s bring our attention to the big rectangular box/boxes above, housing a number of vertical and horizontal lines. This represents our fretboard. Each of the vertical lines within represent a different string on the guitar. From left to right, we have our low E, A, D, G, B, and high E strings. The horizontal lines, however, separate one fret from the next.
Within the frets, and covering the strings you might see a circle containing a number anywhere from 1 – 4. These numbers represent each of your fingers and where they’re supposed to go to form our chord. The number 1 is for your index finger. The number 2 is for your middle finger. The number 3 is for your ring finger. Finally, the number 4 is for your pinky finger. On some of these chords, you’ll notice a long grey bar stretching across multiple strings. This indicates that we are to form a “barre” over those strings. A barre helps you form what’s known as a “barre chord”, and can be achieved by draping your index finger across multiple strings along an individual fret, then applying pressure. This will be very uncomfortable at first, but with practice will get easier.
Next, let’s bring our attention to the top of the fretboard. You’ll notice on some chords there are “O’s” or “X’s”. If there’s an “O” above a string, this indicates that you are to play an open note (a string to be played, but not fretted). On the other hand, if you see an “X”, this indicates you are not to play the string to complete the chord. Finally, off to the left, there may or may not be a number present. If there is a number, this indicates that we are to start our chord on that numbered fret. If, however, there are no numbers present, this generally implies that we are to start from the open note position. Easy as that!
What Is a Minor Chord
Music wouldn’t sound as interesting or move you if everything sounded happy all of the time. In fact, minor chords are a really great way to add some color to your chord progressions, helping a deeper story unravel. But what makes our minor chord work, and sound the way that it does? A couple of big factors in this come down to our key and the scale formed around it.
First, let’s talk about the key. A key may be described as a collection of notes within a scale, that form the foundation for our various songs and musical pieces. To find out what these notes are, it’s important to first define our key signature. Every key has its own key signature. A key signature is often seen after the clef on a piece of sheet music, as a collection of sharps (#) or flats (b). Notes that are marked as sharp are to be raised by a semitone. However, notes that are marked flat are to be lowered by a semitone.
In the situation you need to find a key signature for your corresponding key, it can help to refer to the circle of fifths as an aid.
A diagram of the circle of fifths, displaying all of the most commonly used keys.
The circle of fifths is a wheel-shaped diagram displaying all of our most commonly used keys and their corresponding key signatures. Within our circle, we have two rings. The inner ring contains all of our minor keys, while the outer ring contains all of our relative major keys (keys that have a different root note, but share the same key signature). As you go clockwise around the wheel starting from A minor, you’ll notice that every key gains an additional sharp to its key signature. On the other end of the spectrum, going counterclockwise, every key gains an additional flat to its key signature.
Starting with the right half of our wheel, the way we can determine which notes are sharp in each key signature is with a simple acronym: FCGDAEB. This stands for:
“Father, Charles, Goes, Down, And, Ends, Battle”
Each word within this acronym is meant to represent a different note receiving a sharp in sequence. To make the most of this, however, it’s going to take a small bit of memorization on your part, to remember how many sharps each key has. It’s not required to remember how many sharps each key has, but it makes things a little bit easier! You may always refer to the diagram when in doubt. Let’s see how our various minor keys look following this sequence:
a = No sharps or flats.
e = F#
b = F#, C#
f# = F#, C#, G#
c# = F#, C#, G#, D#
g# = F#, C#, G#, D#, A#
d# = F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E#
a# = F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E#, B#
Let’s try figuring out the key of C# minor, containing 4 sharps. We have our key number, 4, so using our acronym, as well as our fingers we’d go, “Father, Charles, Goes, Down…” therefore, the sharps in the key of C# minor are F#, C#, G#, and D#. Let’s try once more with the key of D# minor, containing 6 sharps. Using our fingers again, “Father, Charles, Goes, Down, And, Ends…” therefore, the sharps in the key of D# minor are F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, and E#.
On the other end of our spectrum, if we wanted to figure out a key containing flats, we’d reverse our acronym FCGDAEB to BEADGCF. This stands for:
“Battle, Ends, And, Down, Goes, Charles’, Father”
Therefore, the sequence of flats on the left side of our circle of fifths would appear like this:
a = No sharps or flats.
d = Bb
g = Bb, Eb
c = Bb, Eb, Ab
f = Bb, Eb, Ab, Db
bb = Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb
eb = Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb
ab = Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb, Fb
Using the same method as we did with our sharps, we can use our fingers, and say the acronym, “Battle, Ends, And, Down, Goes, Charles’, Father” to figure out our various keys with flats.
If you know how many sharps are in your keys but struggle with the other half of the circle of fifths a nice trick is to remember the number 7. For instance, if we know that B minor has only 2 sharps, how many flats should Bb minor have? The answer is 5 flats. This is because when we take the number 7 and take away 2, we get 5. This can be done for any keys on the wheel, as long as you have the information from the opposite side!
Moving on, let’s take a look at our scales. Within our minor keys, it’s important that our minor scales have a strict pattern consisting of tones (T) and semitones (S). This pattern appears as:
T > S > T > T > S > T > T
Now, let’s look at our A natural minor scale:
A > B > C > D > E > F > G > A
This scale is an excellent example, as it contains no sharps or flats to overcomplicate things. Our second interval from B > C is a semitone, as well as our fifth interval from E > F. The rest remain as tones. The pattern is set this way for all of our minor scales.
Breaking down our scales further, each note within has an important role to play, especially when putting together our chord progressions. We can call these our different scale degrees. Every scale degree has an identifying name to help musicians refer to them easier. Within the A minor scale, let’s take a look at our various scale degrees:
A = Tonic (1st Degree)
B = Supertonic (2nd Degree)
C = Mediant (3rd Degree)
D = Subdominant (4th Degree)
E = Dominant (5th Degree)
F = Submediant (6th Degree)
G = Leading Tone (7th Degree)
A = Tonic (1st Degree/Octave)
Let’s talk a bit more about each degree. Our first degree, the tonic, is our tonal center, the root note. This is where things feel calm, and resolve. Next up is our second degree, the supertonic, which shares two notes with our fourth degree’s triad, making it a good predominant alternative. A step up, and we’re on our third degree, the mediant. The mediant shares two notes with our tonic triad, making it an excellent degree to draw the tonic out further. Upwards, we have our fourth degree, the subdominant. This is a light tension-building degree, sharing but one note with our tonic, which happens to be the root note. Our subdominant often moves to our fifth degree, the dominant. This is our climax, the peak of our tension. Next to our tonic, this is our most important degree. Oftentimes, after reaching the dominant, we’ll move home to our tonic – but we’ll keep going up. Next is our sixth degree, the submediant. The submediant acts as another predominant alternative, sharing two notes with our subdominant. Next, we have our leading tone, on the seventh degree. This degree is an important part of forming our seventh chords, as well as a big tension-building degree. In fact, try playing your A minor scale, and ending on G; your ears will want to hear it resolve to A. Finally, we move upwards again, back to our tonic, just an octave higher from where we began.
Using what we know about the various scale degrees, we can now form some triads. A triad is a type of chord, containing three notes played in unison. These notes fall on the tonic, mediant, and dominant degrees of our scale (1st, 3rd, and 5th degrees). If we were trying to form an A minor triad, we would get the notes: A, C, and E.
There are very specific intervals that form our minor triads, giving them their melancholy sound:
- Minor 3rd – Between the 1st and 3rd degrees. A > C.
- Major 3rd – Between the 3rd and 5th degrees. C > E.
- Perfect 5th – Between the 1st and 5th degrees. A > E.
Making Chord Progressions
Creating a chord progression can be a challenge for a lot of musicians, especially one you like! Thankfully, however, there is a method to make this task a little bit easier! It involves the use of our trusty triads. Let’s go and form one on each degree of our A minor scale:
A Minor = A, C, E (Tonic/1st Degree)
B Diminished = B, D, F (Supertonic/2nd Degree)
C Major = C, E, G (Mediant/3rd Degree)
D Minor = D, F, A (Subdominant/4th Degree)
E Minor = E, G, B (Dominant/5th Degree)
F Major = F, A, C (Submediant/6th Degree)
G Major = G, B, D (Leading Tone/7th Degree)
These are all of the chords you can use within A major!
However, for some, you may be seeing this and scratching your head, “where do I start?”. In this case, it can help to consult some of your favorite songs and analyze what makes their chord progression work. Another option is to look at some tried and true chord progressions as a reference. Let’s run through a few, using A minor, once again, as our example:
i – iv – v
The “one-four-five”, containing three chords, is one of the most commonly used chord progressions. For this, we’ll be starting with A minor, our home, and tonal center. From here, we’ll shift to the D minor chord, adding some slight tension. As you know, the D minor chord shares one note with the A minor chord, which is A. Shifting to the peak of our tension, we’re now on the E minor chord. This chord begs for resolve, therefore, we return home to our tonic, A minor.
Our chord progression looks like this: Am > Dm > Em
i – VI – VII
This three-chord progression will start yet again on the tonic, A minor. Things, feel calm, we’re at home here. Next, we’ll shift to the submediant, F major, sounding happier in contrast to our A minor chord. This degree holds some tension, as it functions as a predominant chord, sharing two notes in common with our subdominant. From here, we’ll transition to the peak of our tension, G Major. Unlike our F major chord, G major shares no notes in common with A minor. Naturally, we want to resolve this, therefore, we’ll return home to our A minor chord to do it all again.
Our chord progression looks like this: Am > Fmaj > Gmaj
i – VI – III – VII
Now, it’s time for a four-chord progression. We’ll start yet again on the tonic, A minor. Much like our last chord progression, we’ll shift to our submediant, F major, holding to mild tension. Next, we’ll shift to the mediant, C major, sharing two notes with our tonic, and one with our submediant, thus drawing the things out. Next, we’ll make the jump to our leading tone, G major, the peak of our tension. Finally, we’ll return home to our tonic, A minor.
Our chord progression looks like this: Am > Fmaj > Cmaj > Gmaj
Major VS Minor Chords
We’ve gone over a lot to do with our minor chords, but what about their major counterparts? When comparing major to minor, there are some big differences. Firstly, the keys are very different. If we took A major and put it next to A minor, they’d have what’s known as a parallel key relationship. This means that they share the same tonic, but carry a different key signature. This differs from a relative key relationship, like that of C major to A minor, having different tonics, but the same key signature.
With that in mind, let’s talk about our major scales. Our major scales carry their own set of tones (T) and semitones (S), much the way minor scales do. Here is how that sequence appears:
T > T > S > T > T > T > S
Let’s take the C major scale, containing no sharps or flats, and lay it out:
C > D > E > F > G > A > B > C
As you can see, the third interval, from E > F is a semitone, as well as the seventh interval from B > C. The rest remain as tones. Major scales will always follow this specific pattern.
Finally, let’s talk about our triads. Major triads are built taking the tonic, mediant, and dominant degrees of the scale (1st, 3rd, and 5th degrees). However, the intervals within a major triad, are slightly different than those of a minor triad. Let’s take a look, using the C major triad as an example:
- Major 3rd = Between the 1st and 3rd degrees. C > E.
- Minor 3rd = Between the 3rd and 5th degrees. E > G.
- Perfect 5th = Between the 1st and 5th degrees. C > G.
Can you spot the difference? It’s reversed! Within a major triad, the first interval is a major 3rd, while in a minor triad it’s a minor 3rd. The second interval of a major triad is a minor 3rd, while in a minor triad it’s a major 3rd. The perfect 5th remains the same in both.
Let’s take a look at how to play some of our major chords:
A diagram displaying all of the most commonly used keys.
Don’t be afraid of looking into different chord variations if any of the chords above are too challenging. In fact, chord variations carry a lot of benefits to guitarists. It’s good to find a chord that fits your skill level, but they can also help improve the flow of your song depending on where it’s played on the neck. Different chord variations also carry slightly different voicings of the individual notes forming the chord. This might sound better in certain songs where these different voicings can alter the feeling/mood slightly to sound more impactful. Finally, it can all come down to personal preference. We all have our favorite chords, and some might feel more fun to play than others. Similar in ways to tuning your guitar differently. The important thing is you find what works for you.
Now you have all that’s needed to get started with your minor chords! Learning chords can bring so much value to improving your practice routines, adding more to your chord repertoire for songwriting, or finding new ways of challenging yourself! But why stop at minor chords? In fact, there are so many types of chords to learn; sus chords, seventh, ninth, and eleventh chords, diminished and augmented chords… etc. You may even decide to learn more about the CAGED system, and how the fretboard is just a series of shapes and patterns.
The important thing is to keep practicing and having fun in the process. Chords can feel very uncomfortable when you’re first starting out, so it’s important to give yourself some small breaks when needed! This will help you build your finger strength and dexterity so that forming these chords will all become second nature. What’s next for you?