If you’re one of those guitarists who shy away from music theory, today is the day you change your ways!

Pickup Music founder Sam Blakelock is here to lay down some essential theory, in a way that won’t make your brain ache. Understanding how chords relate to each other is essential for guitarists. Whether you want to write singable songs or improve your improvisation – this lesson will help you.

It isn’t just jazz musicians that need to know harmony and theory. We can all benefit from getting the fundamentals under our belt. That’s exactly what we’re about to do.

If you’d like to see some demonstrations of the ideas in this article – check the video guide here.

Pickup Music founder Sam Blakelock, is here to demystify a fundamental music theory concept.

You’ll Learn

  • All the chords in the key of C major.
  • How to navigate a major key using your fretboard.
  • Different chord groupings – tonic, subdominant, and dominant.
  • The concept of relative minor and major on guitar.

This mini-lesson is perfect for guitarists aiming to elevate their songwriting and improvisational skills!

If you want to learn more, we’re currently offering a 14-day free trial with full access to all our content. Structured lesson plans, interactive jams, and personalized feedback on your playing – sign up now!

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Chords in the key of C major

Thank goodness for C major! It makes understanding theory so much easier. Before we discover what a relative minor is, let’s build a key together from the ground up.

This is how we find the chords of any major key. First, we need a major scale.

  • Follow this pattern of whole steps and half steps: W – W – H – W – W – W – H
  • Whole step = two frets 
  • Half step = one fret

Here’s how it looks on the fretboard, starting on a C note –  3rd fret of the A string.

The notes we get from following this pattern from the C note are: C, D, E, F, G, A, B (the C major scale).

  • Whatever fret you start this pattern on, it’ll always give you a major scale. 
  • If we memorize one more simple pattern, we can work out the chords too!

The quality (major/minor) of chords follows this pattern: Major – Minor – Minor – Major – Major – Minor – Diminished

Okay, let’s lay out all that info and see what we’ve got.

StepsWWHWWWH
NoteCDEFGAB
Qualitymajminminmajmajmindim
NumberIiiiiiIVVvivii

That’s it! We’ve got everything we need to build the chords in the key of C major. Here they are along with the individual notes that make each chord – the root, 3rd, 5th, and 7th.

ChordRoot3rd5th7th
ICmaj7CEGB
iiDmin7DFAC
iiiEmin7EGBD
IVFmaj7FACE
VGmaj7GBDF
viAmin7ACEG
viiBmin7b5BDFA

How to categorize chords

We can group these seven chords into three groups – a tonic group, a subdominant group, and a dominant group. This is a common framework that jazz musicians use for thinking about chord progressions.  

Tonic

This is a ‘safe’ or ‘home’ sound with little to no tension. The chords in this group are:

  • The I chord – Cmaj7 is our tonal center.
  • The iii chord – Emin7 has the same notes as the tonic (except for the D)
  • The vi chord – Amin7 again has the same notes as the I chord (besides A)
ChordRoot3rd5th7th
ICmaj7CEGB
iiiEmin7EGBD
viAmin7ACEG

Subdominant

These chords want to move somewhere, but they don’t pull as strongly as dominant chords. The chords in this group are: 

  • The ii chord – Dmin7
  • The IV chord – Fmaj7

Like our last group, these chords are connected through their similar notes – only differing by one. 

ChordRoot3rd5th7th
iiDmin7DFAC
IVFmaj7FACE

Dominant

These chords have the most tension, they really pull towards another chord for resolution. 

  • The V chord – Gmaj7 has a tritone between the 3rd and the 7th
  • The vii chord – Bmin7b5 also generates a lot of pull toward the tonic.
  • Like the other groups, these chords share similar notes.
ChordRoot3rd5th7th
VGmaj7GBDF
viiBmin7b5BDFA

What about the relative minor?

As we’ve just seen, certain chords perform similar functions within a key – perhaps none more so than the I and vi chord.

The vi is the relative minor of the I. This works in reverse too – in the key of A minor, Cmaj is the relative major.

How to find the relative minor on guitar?

If you don’t want to do all the calculations and need a quick trick to find the relative minor of a chord, try this:

  1. Take whatever major chord you’re playing, and slide it down three frets.
  2. Now change that major shape into a minor
  3. Bingo! There’s your relative minor chord.

What about finding the relative major of a minor chord?

You guessed it – slide a minor chord up three frets and change it to a major shape. And you thought music theory was complicated?

Harmony is a mirror

We see repeating patterns and reflections everywhere in music – not just on the fretboard.

The more you understand about theory the more secrets you’ll unveil. Those little tricks will speed up your learning and save time during the writing process, for example:

  • If you learn the relative minor to each chord, you don’t need to learn the relative majors.
  • Just like A is the relative minor of C, C is also the relative major of A – it’s the same for every key.
  • This is evident if you read sheet music – the key signatures are the same, just with a different tonic.

A little theory can save you loads of time in the long run – freeing you up to be more creative.

What’s next?

That wasn’t too bad, right? Music theory doesn’t need to be painful – and getting your head around some basic principles will be a huge benefit to your playing.

Without proper guidance, learning new concepts can be pretty overwhelming though. To cut out the confusion, we recommend you check out some of Pickup Music’s Learning Pathways. These structured plans have step-by-step lessons, interactive jams, and 1-on-1 feedback.

They’re currently offering a 14-day free trial, so sign up and see for yourself!

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