How to understand (certain) guitar tabs/chord notation?
May 2, 2012 1:44 PM   Subscribe

I like playing the piano by following guitar chords. However I don't understand, and nor can I find any reference material, on what certain chords mean.

Here's the example (click below to view - the rest of this question will make more sense if you do! :-)):
Trail We Blaze - Chords

I understand most of these chords (or "tabs"). For example:

E = E major = E + G# + B

A/E = A major using E as root note = E + A + C#

B6 = B major 6th = B + D# + F# + G#

But there are a few I don't understand. Your help please :-)

C# no 3rd add 4th.
I am GUESSING this means C + E + G. (no 3rd = no D#, add 4th = E). But then why not just write C?

F# Natural. I am guessing this is F# + A# + C#. But then why is "nat" needed, surely it is natural by default unless there are qualifiers added?

G/A. This is the most confusing of all. There is no "A" in the G major chord. How can A be the root note if it doesn't even exist in the chord of G?

Em4th. I'm not familiar with 4ths as I am with 7ths. It would be great if someone could explain what this is and why.

Thanks so much - and I'd appreciate if you give the actual notes and the reason why those notes are the ones!
posted by cdenman to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: C# no 3rd add 4th.

This is a suspended 4th chord. A suspended chord removes the 3rd and replaces it with something else, in this case the 4th. The 3rd of a C major chord is E and the 4th would be F. The chord would be spelled C F G. The more typical ways of writing that chord name would be "Csus" or "Csus4."


That's not a standard chord name, I have no idea why someone would write that.

G/A. This is the most confusing of all. There is no "A" in the G major chord. How can A be the root note if it doesn't even exist in the chord of G?

You're confusing the root note with the bass note. "Root note" means the note/scale the chord is built around. The note to the right of the slash indicates the bass note, which is just the lowest-sounding note that gets played. The bass note might be the root note, it might be a different note from the chord, or as in this case it might be a note that's not in the chord at all. G/A means a G major chord with an A in the bass, spelled A G B D.


Again this is not a standard abbreviation. My guess would be that it's meant to be an added 4th chord, which differs from the suspended chord described above in that the third is still present; so the chord would be spelled E G B A, since A is the 4th. A more standard way to write that would be Em(add4). If it were written as Em11, you would also include the minor 7th (D) and maybe the 9th (F#) as well.
posted by ludwig_van at 1:57 PM on May 2, 2012

C# major (major is implied) would be C#, E# (AKA F) and G#. but it says no 3rd. SO get rid of that E#. Add a 4th means add in an F#. It's a suspended chord.

THe notes - 2nd, 3rd, 4th - are the notes in the major (or minor, if specified) scale starting on the note listed.

I have no idea on the "natural" question re: chords.

Regarding G/A, you've a slight misinterpretation in your examples. A/E doesn't mean necessarily the *inversion* of the E major chord that starts on A. Guitar chords, because they hit different parts of different chords, don't bother with inversions. However, the bass note is important, especially if there's a running bass line that needs to be maintained. Therefore, G/A means, play a G chord with your right hand, but with your left, which is playing the bass notes, play an "A".

"4th" just refers to the note in the scale. Add it in. Often it will supplant the third. It adds some tension, some waiting to resolve back to the usual triad.

(7ths are part of the regular progression - 1st, 3rd, 5th,7th, 9th... so it's in a lot of chords.)
posted by notsnot at 1:57 PM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Here's some quick answers. I'm sure somebody smart will be along shortly to lay it all out for you.

No 3rd, add 4th. Equivalent to a sus chord. In a C chord that would be C-F-G. In a C# chord that would be C#-F#-G#. Creates tension to be resolved.

F#nat: no idea. I'd need some context. May be referring to a scale mode for soloing.

G/A: simple. Put an A bass under a G chord. Creates tension. Very common.

Em4th: non-standard guitar chord weirdness. Although this may be related. Anyone care to explain why guitarists use chords that nobody else in the world of music uses?
posted by Aquaman at 1:59 PM on May 2, 2012

Whoops, the first chord is C#sus4, not Csus4, and is spelled C# F# G#.
posted by ludwig_van at 1:59 PM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Whoever did that chord chart seems to be a little sloppy or idiosyncratic in their notation. I assume that by "Em4th" they mean an E minor chord with an added suspended fourth, i.e., E-G-A-B, especially since it follows an E minor chord and then resolves to A minor.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:08 PM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

C# no 3rd add 4th.
I am GUESSING this means C + E + G. (no 3rd = no D#, add 4th = E). But then why not just write C?

Uh, no. A straight C# chord would be "C# + F + G#," like this, but the "no 3d add 4th" is, I think, really just a C#sus4, so "C# + F# + G#," like this.

The "F#nat" notation is, I think, referring to the natural/harmonic/melodic minor scales, so that'd be an "F# natural minor" as opposed to an "F# melodic minor" or "F# harmonic minor". "F# major" would just be written "F#", as "major" is the default. Check out the wiki on minor chords for more about the natural/harmonic/melodic distinction.

The Em4 is an E minor chord with the 4th--A--thrown in, so "E + G + A + B".

The "G/A" notation is actually two chords, one with each hand. So that'd be a G in the right hand and an A in the left. Sometimes the bass is just the root note, sometimes the treble. Depends on what you're doing.

But Sidhedevil is totally right: that's some dashed sloppy notation. Doesn't conform to the standard at all. I mean, I can figure it out, I think, but without playing it in context it's hard to know whether it's right.

What you really need is a crash course in musical theory. There are intro books out there for both guitar and piano. The latter actually addresses both.
posted by valkyryn at 2:10 PM on May 2, 2012

I wonder if by "F#nat" the transcriber means to indicate an F# augmented major seventh chord (with E#, i.e., F natural as the seventh) but either brainfroze or doesn't have the vocabulary at hand to be clearer?
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:12 PM on May 2, 2012

Are you sure you aren't seeing something like "F#7alt"? That would be the way that an altered 7th chord is notated on a lead sheet.
posted by thelonius at 2:12 PM on May 2, 2012

Long-time orchestra player on woodwinds, been playing guitar THIS time for about 2 years and messed around a bit as a kid.

My take on Aquaman's last statement is that many guitarists are self-taught, for one, and the vocabulary for whatever it is they've come up with after they've messed around and come up with a "chord" that sounds good to them is often just as strange, wonderful, and eccentric as the sonic result. Theory is like grammar - we try to come up with rules that explain what has already happened to see if we can do that again. But time and again I've seen chord notation that is odd, and a guitar chord book often has about a dozen likely fingering patterns (i.e. different voicings) for the same chord name, none of which sound like a) the song you're working on or b) the fingering pattern which is supplied by the person who has written or transcribed the song.

A LOT Of times I simply think the original writer of the song has just played around until they found the sequence they want, then written down something to indicate where their fingers have landed. Ex. there's a song I play that has a standard G chord:

3 (G) (top string, i.e. the lowest pitched one)
2 (B)
0 (D)
0 (G)
0 (B)
3 (G)

In the middle of it, while fingerpicking, I move my index finger from the 5th string to the 4th and back:

3 (G)
0 (A) (not being played while this is happening)
2 (E)

so if my piss-poor theory knowledge is holding up here, I've thrown in a maj. 6th there (E being the 6th degree of the G scale). But my knowing this doesn't begin to tell me why this works, nor would it be the same if I wrote G G6 over the lyrics. It's not only a chord alteration, it's creating an interesting effect due to the timing of the picking.

When I see a notation like


I think the intent is that the first note is really the chord, and the additional note supplied after the slash is functioning as an additional bass note or a passing tone. If I saw A/E notated, depending on the song, I'd probably try picking or strumming an A chord, but with E as one of the alternating bass notes, or perhaps picked once in passing to the next chord. It's NOT likely to be right if you strummed the A constantly with the low E (top string) included (but as noted above, sometimes maybe it can be). Ditto for G/A. In the case of A/E, as you say, E happens to be in the chord itself, whereas A is not in the standard G chord, but either way, the extra note is being indicated as an additional note to throw in there somewhere.

I'm with the others F#nat doesn't make any sense and isn't like anything I've run across.

A lot of chord lead sheets like this will give explanations or ascii diagrams for what they want you to finger. If you know enough about guitar to figure out what notes that would result in, that would be one way to crack the code. If you're going to keep doing this I'd get a guitar chord book that shows both chord diagrams and the notes in a standard treble clef (as sort of your guitar-english/english-guitar dictionary)

You should also know that tab/chord sheets you get off the internet vary wildly in quality. This example, as others have pointed out, is pretty strange in spots.
posted by randomkeystrike at 2:28 PM on May 2, 2012

Also you will probably find it helpful to read through the thorough wikipedia entry on chord names and symbols, which links to the entries on suspended chords, added tone chords, and slash chords (which should not be confused with polychords).
posted by ludwig_van at 2:36 PM on May 2, 2012

"Em 4th" is not common and might not be proper, but it apparently means to play an E minor and add a 4th. E minor is E (root) - G (third) - B (fifth). The fourth is A. So it would be E G A B, but probably not all next to each other. I'd want to look at what the guitarist is actually supposed to play; for instance, the A might be an octave higher.

"C# no 3rd add 4th" is not standard. It should say C sus4 (C suspended 4th). That means you can think of a C major, which, as you said, is C - E - G, but instead of playing that E, you play F, which is a fourth above C. (Your comments about D# and E are confusing. As I said, F, not E, is a fourth above C. D# isn't properly referred to as "a third above C," though D# is enharmonically identical to Eb, which is a minor third above C. Anyway, that's kind of a moot point, since you don't play a minor third or a major third above C when you play a C sus4.)

When you see a letter (or chord), then a slash, then another letter, that always means the same thing -- whether or not the thing after the slash is part of the thing before the slash. The thing after the slash isn't the root note. The thing after the slash is the bass note -- that is, the lowest note when you play the chord in this particular voicing (typically played with the left hand on the piano). In fact, the one type of note you never see after a slash is the root note. That is, you never see "A/A" or "Dm/D." By default, it's assumed that the root note of a chord (for instance, the A of A major) is the bass note. That's how most chords are played. Sometimes, of course, that's not how they're played. In your example of A/E, which you said is clear to you, the guitarist or pianist plays the fifth of A major, E, as the lowest note. The other notes of the chord (A and C#, and maybe also another E) are played higher up. Your example of G/A, which you said you didn't understand, works the same way: the bass note (lowest note) is A, the first note after the slash. Then, above that note, you play the chord before the slash, G major (G - B - D). It's the exact same process, but A/G just happens to be more surprising and dissonant than A/E. (A/G is actually the third inversion of A7. I disagree with notsnot's comment that guitarists don't play inversions.)

I don't understand "F#nat."
posted by John Cohen at 2:39 PM on May 2, 2012

Are you sure you aren't seeing something like "F#7alt"?

No, the gentleman who posted that transcription definitely wrote "F#nat." But it is certainly possible that he misread someone else's notation of "F#7alt" and repeated the error in his transcription.

I kind of can't bring myself to listen to the song to see what is going on there.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:40 PM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

G/A is pronounced "G over A." (By me.) It means G major with a A in the bass.

Listening to the song and following along for that part a few times, I declare that F#nat is apparently F# major add 9. Or really F# major with the 9th (G#) used prominently as a passing tone. I imagine that 'nat' is to alert one to the major quality of the chord since F# minor is in the song a few bars before. And you hardly ever see a plain major chord denoted with 'maj,' it's just the name of the root note of the chord. I.E, Cmaj, Ebmaj vs. C, Eb. But you do see 'maj' written all the time to denote maj7th chords. Having read a lot of chords, I can say that when I say 'maj' on the page a maj7th chord is my first thought. So, 'nat' may be a way to avoid confusion with maj7th chords. That is my well-meaning guess.

This seems a little familiar, like some of the idiosyncratic notations that show up in fakebooks and the like, like using a delta symbol meaning play a major chord, add 6, add 9,or using +'s and -'s for augmented and diminished.

Note F# add 9, not F#9. F#9 nearly always has the dominant 7th tone in it when played.
posted by TheRedArmy at 3:34 PM on May 2, 2012

posted by TheRedArmy at 3:38 PM on May 2, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for a load of truly fantastic answers everyone. You've really helped me not just with this piece (which was just an example really - although I do like the song) but also with undersatnding this stuff in general. I much prefer playing the piano by coming up with the 'details' myself and just knowing the chords, so knowing how to interpret "chord sheets" is really valuable to me! I'm glad to see that others think some of the notation in this example is a bit dodgy as it shows it's not just me.

Much appreciated :-) Chris
posted by cdenman at 5:24 PM on May 2, 2012

Just one more note from a guitarist's point of view:

Tabs and chord charts from the web are notoriously dodgy. I routinely run into the same problems you're having, although I've learned some of the guitar standards like Csus4.

I usually look for sheet music from places like Musicnotes or SheetMusicDirect - they cost money, but they're more accurate.

Also, there are lots of guitar how-to-play videos on Youtube. They'd probably be good for learning the chords too, especially if you have a guitar (or just one of the online chord charts) handy to listen to the chord and compare with your piano.
posted by mmoncur at 10:46 PM on May 2, 2012

I have occasionally seen tab that uses # to mean "weird alternate chord" instead of sharp. I know. It's stupid and annoying. But it exists! For example, C# will mean "weird alternate version of C that I tabbed out earlier but that otherwise has no snappy chord name".
posted by threeants at 4:26 AM on May 3, 2012

I have occasionally seen tab that uses # to mean "weird alternate chord" instead of sharp.

It's definitely F#, F# minor, and C# in this song.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:07 AM on May 3, 2012

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