How many guitar chords are there? Twelve chords correspond to different musical notes: A, B flat (Bb), B, C, C sharp (C#), D, E flat (Eb), E, F, F sharp (F#), G, and G sharp (G#). However, mathematically speaking, there exist as many as 2,431 playable chords, and 4017 total possible chords—or even more!
If you’re reading this article, you probably own a guitar, know someone who owns a guitar, or you’re just a random netizen with the burst of curiosity as well. There has been an on-going debate in the music industry and internet forums on how many chords can be played in a guitar. Responses differ, some say that there are thousands while some argue that an infinite number of chords is possible.
All of us have instances when we are listening to a new track in a streaming platform or a random track played while out in public and at a particular portion of the song, suddenly, the instrumentals remind us of a song that we are very familiar of, and we aggressively convince ourselves that we’ve heard this from something else before.
Another common experience we share, especially if you play a guitar to jam to your favorite song, is while going through chord books we see chords that are used repeatedly across different songs, some even in the exact order.
So, this leaves us the confusion of how the guesses on the number of chords even reached a thousand, if we could only see less than twenty on a regular basis. The real answer relies on the actual definition of a chord.
Getting to Know the Chord
A chord is a combination of three or more notes sounded together. It is important to note (no pun intended) that the notes should be of different pitch from one another, otherwise, it will not be considered as a chord.
The chromatic scale is made up of 12 notes, which are arranged as C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B, C. Hence, a chord can have between 3 to 12 notes. As the number of notes involved increases, its execution becomes more complex as well.
Triads are among the easiest to play since it is only made up of three chords. 7th chords, on the other hand, are triads with a 7th interval from the root. If you see a chord with the number 7 in it, it’s probably a 7th chord. Some of the common 7th chords include major 7th (Cmaj7), minor 7th (Cmin7), and dominant 7th (C7).
Extended chords are triads with thirds stack onto it, that is why these are also called tertian chords. Meanwhile, suspended chords are like extended chords but second intervals are stacked instead of thirds. Basically, a third is substituted with a second (sus2) or fourth (sus4) of the scale.
Add chords, as its name suggests, are triads with an extra note. These are very easy to identify since you can directly see the word ‘add’ in the chord name itself, such as Cadd9, Fadd9, or Gadd9.
Remember the 7th or extended chords mentioned earlier? When a 5th and/or 9th note is raised or lowered in these chords, they will be classified as altered chords, since some notes are ‘altered’.
We’ve mentioned all throughout the article that a chord should have 3 notes or more but dyads, which are referred to as power chords, are still considered even though it is only comprised of two notes. Power chords are technically a triad with only the root and the fifth of the chord, the third which gives chords a major or minor quality is not included.
Chords are primarily named by its function, not by the notes it contains, which is why some chords are made of the same notes, and therefore, can be used interchangeably. These are called equivalents. C6 and Amin7, for example, are equivalent chords.
Most of the chords mentioned earlier are played with an open string, which means no strings are fingered. Barre chords, on the other hand, are harder to play compared to open ones since an extra finger is used to dampen all the strings, which leaves the user four fingers left available for the remaining notes.
To help beginners understand chords better, here is a good video explaining the concept:
The Basic Chords
All those chords might have been too overwhelming to remember, but you don’t have to master them all to successfully play a guitar. In fact, there are only twelve must-know chords that are recommended to every guitar beginner, and these are A, B flat (Bb), B, C, C sharp (C#), D, E flat (Eb), E, F, F sharp (F#), G, and G sharp (G#).
If you want to expand your chord arsenal a little bit, the major chords of A, C, D, E, and G are good add-ons. You can remember these chords through the mnemonic CAGED. If you want to go the extra mile, you can also look forward on studying the minor chords of CAGED, since only minimal repositioning of fingers is needed.
But… How Many Chords Are There? (All the Possible Combinations!)
Now, for the million-dollar question, and the main reason why you probably kept on reading, how many chords are there? Just like with everything else, mathematics can help us settle the on-going debate.
As mentioned earlier, a chord can be made up of 3 to 12 notes. Today in our quest in finding the approximate number, one-note and two-notes (sorry, power chords) will not be included. Using the combination equation, in a pool of 12 notes, you could form 220 three-note chords, 495 four-notes, 792 five-notes, 924 six-notes, 792 seven-notes, 495 eight-notes, 220 nine-notes, 66 ten-notes, 12 eleven-notes, 1 twelve-notes, with a total of 4017 possible three-to-twelve-note chords. However, due to the limitations of one’s physical body, only 2,431 chords are playable, since playing seven-notes to twelve-notes is arguably impossible unless you have an extra hand attached to you.
Mathematically speaking, the number of existing guitar chords is quantifiable and indeed not infinite. However, this is still up for debate since some musicians contend that these distinguished chords still have variations, and variations, which will eventually become uncountable.
Nevertheless, these wide varieties of chords shows a glimpse of how flexible and vast the possible innovations in the music industry. And to you, who probably wants to master all the chords out there, remember that knowing more doesn’t make you a better guitarist, your knowledge might be an advantage, but remember, actual demonstration is king.
Joyce Ann graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Mass Communication and Media Studies at New Era University. She especially enjoyed her journalism class and was nominated for Photojournalist of the Year. Joyce Anne loves music; she is a self-taught piano player. When she's not writing (or baking or watching documentaries), she's probably playing songs on the piano, mostly by ear.