October 21, 2017

What is a Chord?

In my last article, I discussed correspondence with professional steel guitarists as well as advice for new players. This month I’d like to discuss chords and why I find them important to a steel guitarist. For those steel guitarists with a background in standard guitar, ukulele, or piano, the desire to experiment with chord shapes will naturally develop. We have all come to love the endless harmonic possibilities offered by the steel guitar. However, we are at a unique disadvantage when it comes to the availability of notes we can include in a chord or melodic phrase. Because of this, we must take care to use the right notes at the right time. We have the opportunity to express ourselves when playing music and once we fully understand chords we can allow our audience to share our passion for the steel guitar and Hawaiian music.

So, what is a chord? In music, a chord is two or more notes that are played simultaneously. Chords come in many varieties including triads, seventh chords, and extended chords. The heart of a chord is the triad which contains the first, third, and fifth scale degree. Many of our readers are familiar with Major and Minor triads, since they provide the most noticeable sonic variations in popular music styles. Major and Minor triads are identified by the effect placed on the third scale degree in the triad. A Major triad contains a Major third in its triad. In the key of G, a Major triad includes the notes G, B, and D which highlight the G Major scale (GABCDEF#G). This differs from the Minor triad which features a lowered or flat third. The notes included in a G Minor triad include G, Bb, and D which highlight a G Minor scale (GABbCDEF#G). While the third scale degree effects Major and Minor chords, other chord types effected by alternative scale degrees. Augmented chords feature a sharp or raised fifth note, making a G Augmented triad G, B, and D#. Other chords, such as a Diminished chord, feature a lowered third and a lowered fifth. A G Diminished would include G, Bb, and Db.

In future articles I will discuss scale degrees and how one may determine where chords fit into scales. For now, understanding the four chord types I’ve mentioned will benefit beginning steel guitarists. How does one go about learning chord shapes on the steel guitar? The truth is there is no substitute for experience. Many of the most common chord shapes used came about through trial and error. Since there are many different levels of player frequenting the Steel Trappings page, I will recommend Troy Brenningmeyer’s video lesson discussing chord shapes found on lessonswithtroy.com. In his video lesson, Troy offers numerous examples of the chords I’ve discussed here as well as numerous way to achieve specific chord shapes and inversions. Troy also discusses a variety of chords that are accessible throughout the chord shapes he provides including a few hidden chordal possibilities.

So, why should you learn chord shapes? Eventually you will find yourself adding your own flavor to songs. While you may choose to quote your favorite artists, you will have to determine how and when you will play specific licks and chords throughout a song. Understanding chord shapes and how they relate to one another will help you recreate your favorite phrases or your own melodic lines.

I hope this article starts you down the path of chord exploration. Like anything else related to steel guitar, it will take time to master all the possible chord shapes, but it is worth the effort.

As always, I’d like to thank Addison Ching, Alan Akaka, and Troy Brenningmeyer for everything they do for the Steel Guitar community. I hope this article finds everyone in good health!

Until Next Time, Aloha!

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