Expressive Chord Creation

Guitar chords are hard? You can wrap your mind around the old "cowboy chords" but have no idea where to go from there? Fear not, here is a simple concept that will help you break free and will stimulate your creativity.

Many players spend all their musical life knowing only few chords. If these few chords allow them to express themselves, that is good of course - but how do you know if the chords you know actually allow you to express what you want to express? It's my experience that when I show a few "non-standard" chords to my students, then they get immediately interested in learning them, no exception. For this reason, it seems to me that players who say that they are happy with the few chords they know are not in fact that satisfied with what they can do harmony-wise.

Before I hear the cry of protest, note that I'm not advocating learning all the names of the chords: in fact I'd really prefer you know the sound of chords. Sure, knowing the names of chords is useful if you want to communicate with others, but don't gorge yourself trying to learn everything about flat 9ths and sharp 11ths.

Not only this, but there is also another problem. Chords do not really work alone: they work in progressions. In order to compose a meaningful song you need more than one chord and they need to work together well. You need more than just "knowing chords": you need to know how they can fit together.

What most people think it's the best solution is to buy (or find online for free) a book with lots of chords diagrams and then try to play them all. Personally, I think it's a terrible idea for the following reasons:

  1. If you just play through the diagrams in the book, you are simply not going to remember any of them
  2. It's difficult to tell the "useful" chords apart from the "less useful" ones unless you hear them in the context of a chord progression.
  3. Chords do not work alone, they work in sets. Even if you find the "perfect chord" you will still not be able to compose a song with this chord alone.

A step in the right direction is explained in the video below: I show you a system to create a whole set of original chords that will work together well; and there is no formal theory involved, just your guitar. Using the system below you can create your chords from scratch, or you can take as a "starting point" a chord you already know and like.

Of course, like many other things, what I just showed will work for you only if you make it part of your daily practice routine. 5 minutes of it a day for few weeks are definitely enough, and it may take a few days to get used to it. Personally when I'm doing it I get lost in the sounds I am discovering and once I come bak to my sense it's few hours later and I have recorded a song - but your mileage may vary.

One of the side benefits of this exercise is that you are going to become much more familiar with your fretboard. The ones among you who are less familiar with your notes on the fretboard may find that it takes a bit of time to adjust and get the system I talk about in the video under their belt. If this is the case, let me know in the comments (or with a pm) and I will make the next video about an easy way to visualize your notes on the fretboard.

Tommaso Zillio is a professional prog rock/metal guitarist and composer based in Edmonton, AB, Canada.

Tommaso is currently working on an instrumental CD, and an instructional series on fretboard visualization and exotic scales. He is your go-to guy for any and all music theory-related questions.

Tommaso Zillio