Talkin' Chord Symbols

One subject that creates the most confusion and yields the most questions among my students is chord symbols. Which of these is a power chord? What is that triangle supposed to be? Is a 13(#11) still a dominant seventh chord? Can I just ignore these things? Chord symbols really aren’t all that complicated, but they do require some basic knowledge and a little bit of mental organization. They appear on lead sheets in every genre and whether you are comping for others or trying to solo over them, quickly navigating a lead sheet full of chords is essential. In this lesson were going to take a look at the most commonly seen symbols for each chord voicing and how you can organize these in your mind. This is primarily a lesson on the voicing structures that you are most likely to see so I won’t be going into slash chords or any of the more advanced voicings.

First, this lesson requires a basic understanding of the different chord families, Major, minor, diminished, etc... I won’t be covering voicings in this lesson simply because I’m hoping that this will be a tool for all musicians who just want to understand these crazy things. (That is an extensive topic for another day).

Second, this lesson is not genre or instrument specific. I see chord symbols in virtually every gig I do. I use them to make notes for myself when I’m subbing in a wedding band and I need to remember all 60 pop tunes I learned this week. Playing a vocal/guitar folk duo. I see them big band charts, my favorite bands song books, transcriptions, when I’m composing, the list can go on... No matter what you like to play you will see some version of these.

Third, and finally, power chords are not covered in this. The quick and dirty on them is to keep in mind that whenever you see a letter and a “5”, you are looking at a power chord. Ex. “C5” (the root and 5th of a chord).

So with all this in mind, if you are still up for it, hop on over to and check out this quick lesson on chord symbols and if you have any questions or want to learn more about this topic send me an email.