The Sweet Sound of Major Sevenths

After looking at the theory behind “seventh chords”, it’s time to explore how they sound and how they look on the fretboard. In this installment we’ll start by looking at major seventh chords and arpeggios.

The Sound

To my ear, major sevenths have a particularly bright, sunny and “sweet” sound to them. These sounds are typically found in pop and jazz and are definitely not heavy metal chords! But even if you don’t ever plan on playing a single Steely Dan song in your life, the shapes and sounds can apply to other styles, particularly when improvising.

Another good reason to learn these shapes is that you can transport them into other keys and tonalities. So even if you’re an all-black-clad leather-and-chains shredder, you’ll still want to pay attention to this (I’m sure Zakk Wylde does).

The Approach

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’m going to repeat this again: scales, arpeggios and chords are different versions of the same thing. Chant this like a mantra.

You can think of a scale as having the most musical information, followed by an arpeggio and then a chord. We can’t play all the notes of a scale at once, so we play them in some kind of serial order. A chord is meant to have all its notes played at once and an arpeggio is between the two. But try not to think of them as three different things. They’re really three versions of the same thing.

The Shapes

Let’s walk through the various shapes on the fretboard. We’ll break these out according to CAGED principles and we’ll look at the scale, arpeggio and chord at each position. We’ll work in the key of A starting at the first position:

In this position we’re working with the “G” shape. As you look at the scale, arpeggio and chord, notice how we’re simply removing notes as we move from left to right. These all have the same sound and location on the fretboard. It’s really just a question of which notes to leave out.

Constructing a chord in this shape is a little tricky. I find the shape at the far right to be the easiest to play in most positions, but it means that the lowest root is the third, not the root. This might sound strange if you’re playing alone, but with another instrument playing the bass-note, it sounds great.

The next shape is the “E” shape. Unlike the scale and arpeggio forms in the “G” shape, our fingers never have to move out of the four frets covered at the fourth position:

In this shape, we have two different major seventh chord forms we can use. The notes in blue use a bass note on the sixth string, where the red notes form a chord rooted on the fourth string.

The next patterns are based on the “D” shape. This is the only shape where the root note isn’t on either the fifth or sixth strings, which is a challenge for some guitarists. Don’t let yourself fall into the rut of thinking that the root note has to always appear on the fifth or sixth strings!

In the chord shape, you could also repeat the third on the sixth string if you wanted to add a little harmonic sophistication to your sound. We already have the third on the 1st string, so it isn’t a necessity in terms of conveying the “major-ness” of the chord to the listener.

Our next shapes are in the “C” form:

Like the “E” shape this one doesn’t stray out of the four frets at that position. It’s really easy to see how these shapes are connected to the previous ones, especially if you look at the little three-note cluster on the first, second and third strings.

The final form is in the “A” shape:

The scale pattern has one place where it strays out of the usual four-fret pattern (on the second string), but otherwise is a fairly compact shape.

From here, you can simply repeat the shapes in the same order as you move up the neck. Five shapes—that’s it!

Now scroll back up and pay attention to the order of the shapes: G, E, D, C and A. Count forward to the fourth shape with the same order and you get (drum roll, please) C-A-G-E-D. Nifty!

In the next lesson we’ll look at seventh chords, which are also sometimes called “dominant” 7 chords. Until then, work on these to get the shapes under your fingers and the sounds in your ears.

Rock on!