Chances are, many guitarists have been playing suspended chords for years and have never really thought much about them. This article will explain exactly what suspended chords are, and what is going on (music theory-wise) when we use them. Suspended chords aren’t hard to play, and we have heard them in countless acoustic, rock & country songs. And just try to play a D chord for 16 beats and not use one- I dare ya!
Suspended chords, or as it is written in a chord chart, sus chords, have a particular sound that can make a boring chord have some harmonic variety. First, we have to understand the name. If it is called suspended, it must mean something is being held back, and it is! Not only is something being held back, but something else is temporary replacing it. Confused yet? Let’s have a closer look.
A Reminder About Harmony
Western harmony (the basis of the most common music forms in the western hemisphere) is built upon the idea of tension and resolution. Some chords sound ‘at rest’ and some sound ‘tense, or unresolved’. Play an A7 to a D:
Notice that the A7 sounds ‘tense’, while the D sounds ‘at rest’. This concept is important when understanding how suspended chords sound and function.
The Dsus4 Chord
Chances are, this is the first suspended chord we had learned, and it is a great place to start the theory part of this lesson. According to a previous article, a major chord contains the root, 3rd and 5th note of a scale. In the key of D, the notes are:
D E F# G A B C# D
The first, 3rd, and 5th notes of this scale are:
D F# A
Now, if we temporarily suspend (see what I did there?) the 3rd note of the scale (F#) and replace it with the 4th note (G), we get a Dsus4 chord, which builds up tension, and then resolves to a regular ol’ D chord.
If you take that same D chord, temporarily suspend the 3rd note (F#) and replace it with the 2nd note (E), and we get…a Dsus2 chord!
A suspended chord can also resolve to a minor chord as well. For this, lets go to the key of Am:
A B C D E F G A
An Am chord contains the A, C, & E. Suspend the C (3rd), and replace it with a D (4th ) and we get Asus4. Replace that C with a B (the 2) and we come up with Asus2. Both suspended chords resolve back to the Am.
Yes, I know these ones already…what about some other chords?
Now that we know what is happening (theory-wise) when we use suspended chords, we can transpose these to other keys. It helps to know what notes are in each chord (or at least some common shapes) so we can use these in our own songwriting. When on any major or minor chord for more than a bar or 2, it is hard not to throw these little suspensions in there, because it keeps the harmony moving.
Here I will play through some major keys using the basic major chord, moving to the sus4 variation, then the sus2 variation, back to the original major chord.
Now it is time for the common minor keys. Same thing here, although you can hear the resolution the the darker-sounding minor chords.
In what is one of the most famous acoustic Who songs, Pete Townshend uses descending sus4 chords for the main riff.
Once you recognize the sound of suspended chords, you start hearing them in everything! What are some of your favorite songs that use suspended chords?