E major 7, A major 7, F sharp minor 7, B 7, E major 9! What do these chords all have in common? They sound crazy to say out loud. It almost sounds like you’re speaking in some scientific theory mumbo jumbo. They are considered by many to be “Jazz Chords”. I suppose they are, but after you play guitar for 20 years they become just chords. And chords you should probably know sooner than later. The more theory and knowledge you have under your belt, the better living you will make as a working musician.
I’m not here to give a lecture on theory but to hopefully clear up some of the mystery and let your ears do the rest. Let’s take E major 7 for example. Often written Emaj7. The first part, the E, tells you the obvious, this is an E chord. The second part “maj” tells you what family this chord is in, is it major (maj) or minor (m), in this case major (maj). Now the number is really what I am here to try and demystify. In this case 7. The number refers to the major scale of the root note of the chord. The root note of an E chord is guess what? E! So we assign the number 1 to E. So E is equal to 1. So if we play through the E major scale and assign a number to each note we get E= 1, F#=2, G#=3, A=4, B=5, C#=6, D#=7. So by looking at this we can now make the assumption that D# has a role in this Emaj7 chord. And it does. Let that sink in for a second and let’s talk about something else really quick.
From Beginners Perspective
Most chords you play as a beginner on the guitar can look and feel complicated. Many of the chords you learn as a beginner will have you strumming all 6 strings. Here’s a mind blower, even though you are strumming 6 strings it doesn’t mean that the chord is all that complex. Matter of fact most standard chords only have 3 notes in them, and those notes just repeat within the chord in some random order (voicing). These chords are referred to as triads. 3 notes. Now, what the maj7 chord does is it adds a 4th note into the mix, making it more colorful sounding than your standard triad chord. Here’s the rub, a standard E chord is comprised of E, G#, and B. An Emaj7 chord is comprised of E, G#, B, and D#.
That’s the gist. I’m sure I’ve already made things more complicated on some level, but you need to put yourself through that from time to time as a growing musician. The main take-aways from this lesson are: maj or m decides the family of the chord major or minor respectively. The number refers to a scale degree.
A couple tricks to remember. When you see a chord like the B7, you don’t see the family indicator, there is no maj or m beside it, just the chord and the number. In that case what I would suggest is to think of that chord as a “blues chord”. The 7 in a blues chord is one step flat of its maj chord relative. So if we use the Emaj7 for example, the 7=D#, to turn that into an E7 blues chord, we flat that D# 1 half step down to D. So in an E7 chord the 7=D. I don’t want you to focus too much on this but just know that when the family maj or m is not denoted, it’s going to be a Blues sounding chord. When the family is denoted it’s going to sound more Jazz like.
With that in mind take this guitar lesson below, and remember that you are playing a mix of Jazz and Blues chords. And remember a couple of the basic things you learned here. A little at a time, don’t try to understand it all at once. It takes time.