With all of the emphasis on fast soloing online and in guitar magazines, it is easy to forget that working players spend most of their time playing chords. Even the heaviest of metals use more chords and rhythm than anything else, and increasing our chord literacy will help us become better players. This article will focus on one of my favorite types of chords and show us how we might use it to add some unexpected color no matter what genre of music we play. Guitar is generally considered a rhythm instrument, after all.
In Western harmony, we have four basic chord qualities: major, minor, augmented and diminished. Just sticking with triads (three-note chords) here, it is pretty easy to say that most guitarists use major and minor chords most frequently. Classical metal players use diminished chords too (I am talking about you, YJM), but the augmented chords get forgotten. Are these because it is some arcane knowledge used only by west coast jazz bands suitable for swingin’ cocktail parties of the 1950s? Or are they Holdsworthian SuperChords used only by those with SuperFingers and not possible by us mere mortals?
Well, if we divide chords up into those that have tension, and those without tension, we can at least hear them:
Notice the first two chords, the major and the minor. The major chord sound bright and happy, while the minor chord sounds sad. The diminished and augmented chords sound…well, tense. In other words, in Western harmony, these want to lead somewhere else, as they contain tension that conflicts with the happy or sad nature of the major and minor chords, respectively. The augmented and diminished chords want to resolve or move to a better, more stable place.
Break it down, bro!
The easiest way to think of an augmented chord is to compare it to a simple major triad. Remember how to take notes from a scale to make a chord? We do the same thing here:
C Major: C D E F G A B or 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Now take the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the scale:
C Major: C D E F G A B or 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
So, a C major chord consists of C E G. To make this an augmented chord, you simply take the 5, or the G in this case, and sharp (#) it. This works with any major chord. Find the 5, and sharp it, and instantly you made an augmented chord.
Augmented chords are usually written with a plus (+) sign after the letter, but are sometimes written with the abbreviation aug after the letter as well.
Try this way or that way
With augmented chords, there are two most common shapes, depending on which strings you are on. Here they are:
Now, here is the cool thing: the notes in an augmented chord are each 2 whole steps apart. What does that mean? Look what happens if I move each chord up 5 frets (count the one you are at):
Each chord contains exactly the same notes! So, if you move this chord up or down 5 frets, it is the same exact chord.
And another cool thing…
The augmented chord is special, and not just because of the neato move-up-or-down-five-frets trick. The three notes of an E augmented are: E G# & C. The three notes of G# augmented are G# C & E. That’s right, any note can be the root! Knowing this, the same shape can be used for many different functions. So once you know one augmented triad, you actually know 3.
How do I use such a strange chord?
Since this is a tension-filled chord, it sounds great in between two major chords. It is usually used between a I and IV chord in a progression (use the augmented chord with the same root as the I):
Augmented chords make a great substitute for the V chord in a blues progression too. Just build the chord on the V’s root. So, for a more ‘outside’ sound and to make a boring ol’ blues sound hip like the kids like, use G+ instead of G7 for a blues in C. For demonstrations of this and other chord substitutions, check out this article.
For a cool exercise, try to run through every single key, using augmented chords ‘leading’ your ear to the new major chord:
Did you ever learn to play a song with an augmented chord? Have you used any augmented chords in your songwriting?