Chord Families

chord families

Chord families: A question that pops up quite frequently at workshops and private lessons is: How many chords are there on a guitar and how many should I know to be a good guitarist?

An approach that has served me well is to understand that music is a language and the more conversant I am with that language the better equipped I am to express myself.


Further developing the music – language analogy whereby I think of:


  •  scales – as my musical alphabet​​​​​​​
  • chords – as musical words
  • chord progressions – as musical sentences

Thinking about music in this way helps me learn in a more effective, efficient manner.


I am no longer thinking about chords as isolated blocks of harmony.


That would be like trying to learn a language by opening a dictionary and learning all the words that began with the letter “A”.


I would know a lot of words however, I would not be able to assemble these words in a way that would communicate anything meaningful.


How many chords are there?


Answer: an awful lot!!!


To give you an idea about what you’re up against I’m going to quote master guitarist George Van Eps from his Harmonic Mechanisms Book; where he identifies the number of possible harmonic combinations on guitar.


“there are 344 billion, 881 million, 152 thousand combinations – Spending one second on each of the possible combinations 24 hours a day – 7 days a week – 52 weeks a year – to reach the end of the order would take: 11, 036 years.”


Clearly learning chords in a random or piecemeal manner is a lost cause.


After 11, 036 years you would be:


  • very tired


  • very, very hungry (remember, if you stop to eat, it will take longer than 11, 036 years) and


  • pretty cranky, because you would not necessarily be able to play a song.


Even though you would know a lot of chords you have not have acquired the skill to know which chord goes with which in order to form popular chord progressions. (laughing)


A better way!


I prefer to approach the subject by:


(a) learning how chords are derived from a parent scale (chord Families) and by


(b) learning chord progressions and how those chord progressions are used in music.


This way I have a connected learning process whereby each new discovery helps me grow deeper into music and increases my enjoyment in the learning process.


Chord families:


The concept being that chords are not unrelated groups of notes; they are created from scales.


Naturally, any scale can be harmonized, and will produce a harmony unique to itself.


Here, for instance I am using the C major diatonic scale and layering the scale (much like a layer cake) in 3rds.


C major scale (C Ionian mode) – C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C


Overlaying this scale with notes from the same scale only this time beginning on the 3rd note of the scale “E”. (E Phrygian mode)


This process will produce the two note (Diadic form) of the C major scale
Diadic form –


E – F – G – A – B – C – D – E  (E Phrygian mode)
C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C  (C Ionian mode)


Once again, overlaying our two note harmonization of the C major scale this time beginning on the 5 note of the scale the note “G”. (G Mixo-Lydian mode).


The result will be the triadic (3 note) version of the C major scale.


Triadic form –
G – A – B – C – D – E – F – G  (G Mixo -Lydian mode)
E – F – G – A – B – C – D – E  (E Phrygian mode)
C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C  (C Ionian mode)


The vertical structures formed by this method are the basic chords in C major.


Chord names highlighted

chord families

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