It’s time to up the ante with some fancy chord work. That moment when you approach the jazzy major seventh, the part-mournful part-aloof minor ninth, and the tension-clad pull of a dominant ninth.
There is an exciting world of harmonic complexity (and mild finger discomfort) awaiting you, and I’ll be methodically walking you through your next lesson. We’ll deal with two or three ways to fret the following chords:
Major, minor, and dominant seventh
Half diminished seventh and diminished seventh
Minor, major, and dominant ninth
Knowing these chords will vastly expand your ability to cover songs more accurately. In addition, they can be used to add richness to any chord changes or progressions during your jamming or practice sessions. So tune up and let’s get to it.
Yes, as guitar players we play more notes, but they have duplicated notes on the other strings that add more weight.
The next and obvious step up is to learn 4-note chords – the first of which are the major, minor and dominant sevenths. Seventh chords are crucial for every musician to know and are an important harmonic resource for songwriting.
Each chord can be played in various inversions and shapes across the fretboard. We won’t venture into the voicings and variations for now. Instead, we’ll learn the basic and most commonly used shapes – with the root note on the E string (6th string) and A string (5th string).
#1 Major Seventh
A major seventh chord is a major triad (R, 3, 5) with a major seventh (7). Here is the chord formula and two shapes you should get under your fingers:
Major Seventh (maj7 / M7 / Δ ): R – 3 – 5 – 7
Pop, jazz, funk, neo-soul, or swing, major seventh guitar chords are a staple in numerous genres. You’ve heard them in RHCP’s Under the Bridge, John Lennon’s Imagine, and Crazy by Gnarles Barkley.
Marvin Gaye’s timeless hit What’s Going On is one of the most popular songs that is centered around a major seventh chord. It starts on an Emaj7 and lots of chord extensions, so it might be worth adding to your list of songs to learn.
#2 Minor Seventh
A minor seventh is a minor triad (1, b3, 5) with a minor seventh (b7). Minor sevenths sound less melancholic than minor chords. They can be used to dilute a harmonic progression. They are generously used in blues, jazz, funk, and other genres.
Minor Seventh (m7, -7, or min7): R – b3 – 5 – b7
Diatonically, you can play the m7 on the second, third, and sixth-degree of a major key and the first, fourth, and fifth-degree of the minor scale. For example, in the key of C major, you can play a Dm7, Em7, and an Am7. In the key of C minor, you can play a Cm7, Fm7, and Gm7.
If you want to hear it in real-world scenarios, listen to Long Train Running by The Doobie Brothers, Cayman Islands by Kings of Convenience, Who Will Comfort Me? by Melody Gardot, and Frank Sinatra’s Fly Me to the Moon.
Nile Rodgers of Chic has used the minor seventh masterfully in his iconic guitar riff in Le Freak. You can keep this in mind for when you start learning 16-note funk strumming patterns.
Dominant chords are staples in blues, funk, jazz, pop, and rock. You’ll notice that there are entire 12 bar blues chord progressions that solely rely on seventh chords.
You can hear dom7 chords in action in Santana’s Oye Como Va, All Blues by Miles Davis, and Twist and Shout by The Beatles. Check out All About Seventh Chords for a detailed analysis and the different ways in which you can use them.
#4 Half-diminished Seventh
Call it a minor seven flat five, half-diminished, or half-diminished seventh – this chord goes by many names. A half-diminished seventh is a diminished triad (1, b3, b5) with a minor seventh (b7). These chords are unstable and tense, and they find ample use in blues and jazz.
Half-diminished Seventh (m7b5): R – b3 – b5 – b7
In a chord chart, this chord is written as ø7 (i.e. Cø7 – C half-diminished seventh).
Diatonically, the half-diminished seventh occurs on the second degree of a minor scale (natural) and the seventh degree of a major scale.
Although uncommon, it does feature in some popular songs as a passing chord or as a way to create tension just before resolving to the tonic chord. Cole Porter’s ‘From This Moment’, ‘Because’ by The Beatles are good examples to check out.
#5 Diminished Seventh
From jazz to blues to metal, diminished seventh chords have been used masterfully to add tension and color to harmonic progressions. This chord (also known as the full diminished) is a diminished triad (1, b3, b5) with a diminished seventh (bb7). It’s written as X o7 in charts (i.e. Co7 ).
Diminished Seventh (dim7 or b5): R– b3 – b5 – bb7
There are many interesting ways to use diminished sevenths. Simplistically speaking, they can be used on the seventh degree of a major scale as a leading-tone chord, as a passing chord, or as a chord substitute for the dominant seventh (a Gdim instead of a G7 in the Key of C).
Maroon 5’s This Love, George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord, Michelle by The Beatles, and Blue in Green by Miles Davis are some examples that come to mind. Artists like Robert Johnson, Steely Dan, Beatles, and Queen are known to use these ‘near voiced’ chords.
Ninth Chords: Major Minor Dominant
Ninth Chords may not pervade the song charts of pop and rock songs, but they feature in some of the most memorable harmonic progressions in jazz, gypsy jazz, swing, blues, and funk. They are, at heart, chord extensions – some form of the seventh chord with a ninth added to it.
Rootless ninth chords are worthy of every jazz cat’s vocabulary. They can add ambiance and color to the harmony while comping or chord soloing.
You can use these shapes I’ve shared for this purpose, although you will benefit from learning more shapes across the strings and fretboard as you progress.
There are close to a dozen types of ninth chords, but most of them are altered ninth (dominant) chords where you raise or lower notes. We’ll only deal with the three main types in this post as they will see more playtime in an intermediate guitar player’s repertoire.
#1 Major Ninth
A minor 9th is notated as m9, min9, or -9 in chord charts i.e. E-9 or Em9. You can see that the chord is a major seventh chord with a ninth on top. Or, it’s a major triad + seventh + ninth. For instance, in the key of C, you play C – E – G – B – D.
You can replace any major chord with a major ninth as long as the ninth is within the diatonic scale. You can play it on the first, fourth, and fifth-degree in the major scale and the third and sixth degrees in the minor scale.
The major ninth might look and sound erudite, but it’s featured in songs ranging from Blur to Mayer to Debussy and Katy Perry. The intro to Mayer’s ‘No Such Thing’ and Katy Perry’s ‘Birthday’ starts with a major ninth.
#2 Minor Ninth
A minor 9th is usually marked as m9, min9, or -9 in chord charts i.e. E-9 or Em9. It has the root (1), the minor third (b3), fifth (5), minor seventh (b7), and major ninth (9).
Minor Ninth: 1 – b3 – (5) – b7 – 9
Minor ninth chords are a little plusher and ‘jazzy’ than regular minor chords. You can swap the minor chords on the second and sixth degrees of a major scale (Dm9 and Am9). Similarly, you can play them on the first and fourth degrees of the natural minor scale.
As for famous songs, Pink Floyd’s Breathe starts with a minor ninth.
#3 Ninth (dominant ninth)
Ninth chords (without mentioning major or minor) are a default reference to the dominant ninth. The chord is essentially a dom7 chord (1, 3, 5, b7) with a ninth note (9) added to it. It’s marked with a ‘9’ in chord charts i.e. G9.
(Dominant) Ninth: 1 – 3 – 5 – b7 – 9
Ninth chords serve the same harmonic function as the dominant seventh so they are often used interchangeably (chord substitution) or during tritone substitution. However, that might be beyond the scope of beginners so we’ll leave that for a separate post
You can hear ninth chords in That’s Alright Mama by Elvis, The Rain Song by Led Zeppelin and Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag by James Brown. Such chords also feature in jazz, R&B, blues, rockabilly, and funk music.
What is the Difference Between a Ninth Chord and an add9 Chord?
You’ll encounter chords such as Cadd9 in many pop/rock progressions. It’s important to understand that ninth chords are not the same as add9 chords.
The ninth chord spelling consists of the root, third, fifth, seventh, and ninth (1,3,5,7,9). The add9 chord has the same spelling without the seventh (1,3,5,9) – a major triad with a ninth added to it (no seventh).
Famous Songs to Practice With:
Now that I’ve given you a new bunch of new chords to learn, here are some songs that feature these advanced chords:
Incubus – Drive
Frank Sinatra – Fly Me to the Moon
Sting – Englishman In New York
Tom Misch – Disco Yes
Elton John – Benny and the Jets
George Harrison – While My Guitar Gently Weeps
John Mayer – Gravity / Daughters
Melody Gardot – Baby I’m a Fool
Radiohead – Street Spirit
Roberta Flack – Killing Me Softly
I hope this post has been a good next step in your guitar learning journey. You can learn these chords in any order, however, I suggest starting with the maj7, min 7, maj9, min9 first.
Once you have these advanced guitar chords under your fingers, you’ll find it easier to cover, create, and compose peppered progressions that are bound to make a few heads turn.
You can practice the corresponding arpeggios in one or two octaves when you learn any advanced chord. This will train your ear to identify the sounds and how the notes and chords relate to each other.