Adding Extensions to Chords

As I’ve said in previous lessons, learning how to play chords is the basis of playing the guitar. Simple chords are comprised of three notes that are played together. Once you’ve mastered playing simple three-note chords, adding extensions to chords is the next logical step for you to take.

You’ve probably flipped through some music books or looked up a few songs online by now, and you’ve also probably noticed that some chords have names like CMaj7. Don’t worry! This is not a foreign language; it’s simply a type of extended chord, or a chord that contains a chord extension. Chord extensions are notes that have been added to the basic triad.

Simple three-note chords are constructed by stacking thirds on top of each other to create a basic triad. For example-at their core, both major and minor chords are comprised of 1, 3 and 5 intervals; or root, third and fifth intervals. Chord extensions, though, are notes of the scale that are not chord tones, meaning that they are not the root, third or fifth.

You might be wondering, why bother? Aren’t those three notes enough? Well, chord extensions allow you to play more complex chords that have richer sounds. They add color and interest to music, and adding extensions to chords will drastically improve your playing skills. You’ll sound like a more proficient musician!

As with anything else in music, adding extensions to chords can be a bit tricky at first, but if you already know how to build chords for the entire major scale, you’re ready to start adding chord extensions.

Let’s practice. All we’re going to do is build our usual three-note chord but add an additional interval to the triad. Adding a 7th is a common chord extension, so let’s start there and let’s keep things simple. As you know, in the key of C we have the notes and corresponding numbers / Roman numerals:

Therefore, a C Major chord contains the following three notes:

While a C Major 7 chord (or CMaj7) contains those same three notes, along with the addition of the 7th note:

When learning to add extensions to chords, you also need to learn about suspended chords or “sus chords” as they’re often called. Sus chords are chords in which the third of the chord is replaced by either the second or the fourth.

Let’s practice again. We’re going to try a CSus4 chord.

Remember that a C Major chord contains the following three notes:

A Csus4 chord means that the fourth replaces the second.

Therefore, a CSus4 chord contains the following three notes:

Not so bad, right? It will get easier as you go along. When you’re playing music, you’ll notice that a sus chord typically serves as a progression, or a delay, to a dominant chord. It’s not a good idea to end a song with a sus chord because the song will not sound “complete.” It will leave you hanging.

I’m only intending for this article to serve as a very basic introduction about adding extensions to chords. Chord extensions are commonly used in many types of music, and mastering them will have you on your way to becoming an accomplished musician.

Phil Barrow

Phil Barrow

Phil discovered his passion for music in his early teens when he began learning to play the guitar. He attended the VCC School of Music where he studied jazz and contemporary guitar performance. Phil joined Resound as a guitar teacher in 2013 and has been the school’s Director since 2014.

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