Guitar Chords, Guitar Scales and Alternate Tunings

This site offers chord and scale fundamentals for guitar. Much of this information is applicable to other instruments and can be transformed with a little imagination. A companion site is in development for banjo, so Stay Tuned!


Table of Contents

The Basics
Tonality and Tonal Characteristics
Essential versus NonEssential Tones

The Basics
Music is made by playing sequences of sounds as individual or combined elements. These elements include notes, intervals, chords and scales. Scales form the basis for most of the music we hear today and are used to develop melodies and the supporting harmonies. Each of these elements are defined below:

Note - A single pitch or tonality.

Interval - Two notes.

Chord - Three or more notes.

Scale - a series of notes arranged in an orderly sequence.


A methodology for describing combinations of tonality based on the major scale. Every formula starts with 1 as the root then adds tones to describe a specific combination of tones. This formula, or spelling, describes a unique interval, chord or scale.

Formulas are expressed with numbers where 1 is the root, 2 is the second note of the major scale, etc. So, a 1 3 5 formula is a chord that includes the first, third and fifth of the major scale. This is the formula for a Major chord.

Each interval (1, 2, 3 etc) can be lowered or raised by flatting (b) or sharping (#). Thus the third can be flattened by lowering the 3rd interval by a half-step: b3. A minor chord occurs when the third is flattened. So, the formula for a minor chord is 1 b3 5.

In western music there are two primary scales used: the Major scale and the Minor scale. For our purposes, the major scale is fundamental because we use it to describe all formulations of intervals, chords and other scales.

Major Scale - A sequence of 7 notes with the pattern: 1 - 1 - 1/2 - 1 - 1 - 1 - 1/2.
where 1 is a whole-step and 1/2 is a half-step .
The formula for the Major Scale is 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 and is the reference for all formulas.

Major ScaleC Major Scale

Chromatic Scale - A sequence of 12 notes with a patterns of all 1/2 steps.
formula for the Chromatic Scale is:
1  b2  2  b3  3  4  b5  5  b6  6  b7  7   -or-
1  #1  2  #2  3  4  #4  5  #5  6  #6  7

Chromatic ScaleChromatic Scale


Tonality and Tonal Characteristics

Every combination of notes, or tones, has a certain tonal characteristic. Some combinations are easy to listen to, some create a tension, while others make us cringe. Fundamental tonal characteristics include: Major, minor, dominant, augmented and diminished.

What determines tonal character?

Tonal character is determined by the notes being played relative to the root. Here are some general guidelines:

Major: A major third above the root - 1 3 5

minor: A flat third above the root - 1 b3 5

Dominant: A major third and a flat seventh - 1 3 5 b7

Augmented: a major third and a sharp fifth - 1 3 #5

diminished: a minor third and a flat fifth - 1 b3 b5 bb7

Essential versus NonEssential Tones

When playing chords, not all tones must be played. In fact, many times playing all of the tones of a chord on a six string guitar is impossible. For example, a Major 13th chord is made up of 7 tones - 1 3 5 7 9 11 13. It's tough to play 7 notes on a 6 string instrument.

What's crucial is that the essential tones be played. These are the tones that impart the tonal characteristic of the chord.

Ok, so which tones are essential?

In general, tones that dictate the tonal quality of the chord must be played. For example, the 3rd and 7th are almost always crucial to imparting tonal quality. The 3rd and 7th tell our ear that the tonal characteristic is major, minor or dominant. In all of these chords, the fifth is always a perfect fifth. In other words, the fifth is always the same and doesn't give us any indication of tonal quality.

However, in the case of augmented and diminished chords, the fifth determines the tonal characteristic as it is either flattened (diminished) or sharpened (augmented).


There are a large number of tunings used for guitar. Alternate tunings are tunings that differ from the standard tuning. Alternate tunings change the tonal characteristics of the instrument and the voicing of chords.

Some tunings, particularly those termed "open" tunings, can make playing the guitar easier as the fingering can be come quite simplified. "Open" tunings get their name from the fact that the tuning is a common chord when strummed with no fingering.

Guitar Tunings (under construction)

Many of the diagrams used to describe chords only represent fingering with dots. So, how do I know where to put my fingers? Figure 1, General Gudelines for Fingering, describes a set of genreal rules for determining finger placement for basic chord constructions.



chordAlchemy chord and scale software for guitar
All chord and scale diagrams were created using chordAlchemy. To learn more about chordAlchemy visit
   My thanks and appreciation to theAlchemist at tonalAlchemy for use of their program and images!