How Many Guitar Chords Are There Really?

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Have you ever wondered how many guitar chords there are? Well the answer is not as easy as you might think. Trying to answer this question may lead to more questions than answers, and quite frankly, the answer is completely irrelevant to getting good at the guitar.

Everyone that tries to answer this has a different answer, because there are many different categories and definitions of chords. Most guitarists only know a few chords.

Knowledge of chords is not linked to creativity, or musical proficiency in any way. This is because chords are like colors on a color palette. You only need as many as you see fit to express yourself. Anything more is just extra at that point. 

how many guitar chords are there?

12 Musical Pitches

The first thing to take into consideration is the 12 notes of the musical alphabet. Let’s use sharps because we are guitarists.

C C# D# E F F# G G# A A# B C

Each of these notes may serve as root notes of a chord.

Related: Notes On The Electric Guitar

Chord Qualities

It’s no secret that music has a big impact on our emotions. Chord qualities were thought to possess certain emotional qualities. Just as blue is related to melancholy and yellow to youth and happiness. 

There are 6 types of chord qualities.

Major 

The most basic chord quality. Built from stacking a major 3rd and a perfect 5th above the root note. Chords of this type possess a jovial and uplifting quality.

Minor

Minor is the next quality we learn. Minor chords are built from a m3 and a P5. These types of chords often sound sad 🙁

Diminished 

Diminished chords are made from a m3 and a diminished 5th. Diminished chords are significantly less used because they don’t sound as pretty as major and minor. 

This may be because they contain a tritone, which is also known as the devil’s chord. But don’t pull out your black candles and upside down pentagrams just yet!

Dissonance is important in harmony, so these chords are fantastic when used with taste. Jazz music, for example, is filled with diminished chords & other jazz chords. 

Such is life.

Augmented

Augmented chords are almost never used. Why do they even exist?

If you really must know, here’s the rundown on augmented guitar chords

Half Diminished

Half diminished chords are 7th chords. They are also called m7b5 chords. 

They are built by stacking a m3, diminished 5th, and minor 7th.

These chords sound great when used correctly. They contain lots of dissonance and are often used as passing chords.

Dominant

Dominant chords are called that because they are only really used on the 5th scale degree of a key. They are built from a major triad and a minor 7th. Their main qualities are tension and instability. They create a lot of anticipation for returning back to the tonic of the key.

Related: The Major Chords Unveiled: Everything You Need To Know

Chord Inversions

If a chord is played in a different inversion, it still counts as the same chord. However they are played differently, sound slightly different, and sometimes are used for different purposes! Music is a complex subject!

Root Position

R – 3 – 5

1st inversion 

3 – 5 – R

2nd inversion

5 – R – 3

3rd inversion

7 – R – 3 – 5 

Chord Voicings

Have you ever noticed how there is not just one way to play a chord? Different ways to play the same chord on a guitar are called chord voicings. 

Chord Voicings are defined as ”the order of the individual voices within a chord, the color tones added, which chord tones are doubled or omitted and the spacing and octave position of each note.” – Landr Blog

For example, there is an open position version, barre chord version, you might play it only on the top 3 strings, or play it above the 12th fret. This is because whenever you play a chord, as long as you hit the right notes of the chord, it still counts as a chord! 

The guitar is a complex instrument. The chord voicing you choose will have a different sonic expression than the same chord played elsewhere on the fretboard. Segovia often referred to the guitar as the “little orchestra” because of its wide variety of texture, color, and timbre. 

Not to mention all of the unison notes that a guitar has! Compare this to a piano, which has no unison notes!

Extended Chords

While triads and 7th chords made the majority of chords used in the classical western world, modern musical movements have complicated these and created what are called extended chords.

Extended chords are chords that use notes stacked beyond the octave. These chords become 9th, 11th, and 13th chords. 

These chords are also further categorized into qualities, such as major, minor, and dominant.

The Simple Answer

The simple answer is that there are an infinite number of possibilities. 

The Complex Answer

Due to disagreements about the definition of a chord and the number of different ways to cut a pie, this question is unsolvable.

Many argue that a chord does not even have to fit into the standards of a root 3rd 5th triad. Many argue a chord is as simple as at least any 3 notes being played simultaneously. According to that standard, the chords a baby or a dog might play as they bash their hands or paws on a piano constitute music.  Music is theoretical, philosophical, and most of all, SUBJECTIVE.

What type of chord is this?

F G C C# D F A Eb B A# G## Bbb

I have no idea, but it’s a chord.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Many Chords Are There In Total?

Some say 2210. Some say thousands. Some say 12 😂

How Many Guitar Chords Do You Need To Know?

Learn guitar chords as you need to. Don’t think of a number to build up to.

How Many Chords Does The Average Guitarist Know?

The average guitarist probably knows the basic open chords. Some may know anywhere between 6 -12 chord shapes.

How Many Guitar Chords Does an Advanced Guitar Player Need to know?

People that are really advanced like those math rock kids or jazz players might know up to 200. As the saying goes:

“A rock guitarist plays 3 chords to 3,000 people; a jazz guitarist plays 3,000 chords to 3 people”

Conclusion

The answer to “how many guitar chords are there?” Is a can of worms. Every source has a different answer. You might as well ask “What is the meaning of life?” or “is God real?”

Many musicians and music scholars debate over what the definition of a chord is. While music is a science, it is also an art that cannot be fully understood. We don’t have the answers to everything. If you were hoping that the answer would be 12 open chords, I am sorry if I’ve overwhelmed you.

The truth is that many guitarists barely know that many chords. The amount of chords that you can play is no measurement of talent, creativity, or technical proficiency in any way. Don’t think about chords as a number that you need to build up to, think about them as adding another shade to your artist’s palette. Learn more chords as your need for exploration grows.

Related: How Many Tunings Are There?

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About The Author:

An avid reader who loves to write & ponder. Currently studying music and learning guitar, piano, & music theory.

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