One of the most common obstacles when learning rhythm guitar is knowing which variations to play over written progressions. Do you play the written chord? Or do you play a variation? Or do you move between both?
These decisions put the brakes on your playing fast, and cause undue confusion in players of all experience levels. In this lesson, you’ll alleviate that confusion as you look into different minor chords, how they fit into the minor family, and how they can be used in your playing.
By knowing minor chord shapes of various harmonic colors, you’re able to comp of minor tunes with confidence. You’ll also be able to step out beyond playing only the written chords, bringing in extensions and chord colors along the way.
What is the Minor Chords Family?
Before you study these chords on the guitar, it’s good to know exactly what a minor family chord is.
A minor family chord is one that contains a minor triad, with optional extensions on top of that three-note chord.
This means that every chord with a minor triad (R-b3-5), is a part of the minor family.
From there, you can add extensions if you wish, such as the 6th, 7th, 9th, etc.
Here’s a list of common minor family chords.
Why Study Minor Family Chords
The reason that you study chord families, including the minor family, is to be able to move between these chords in your playing. If you see any chord from this family written on a lead sheet, you can choose to play any other chord from that family.
Think of this as a painter would shades of different colors.
If you see m7, that’s sky blue. But you don’t have to paint with that color; you could use baby blue (m6) or navy blue (m11) instead, for example.
Being able to move between minor family chords in the moment helps you interpret chord progressions and add personality to your comping.
To begin, you’ll study the foundation for all minor family chords, the minor triad.
This chord is built with the following interval pattern, and is the triad that all further chords in this lesson are built from. If you don’t have a minor triad as the basis of your chord, it won’t be a minor family chord shape.
Interval Pattern = R b3 5
Here are six different Am chords that you can learn, take to other keys, and add to your rhythm guitar playing. Start by playing each chord separately, and then play them back-to-back as you compare how each sits and sounds on the guitar.
You’ll now expand minor family chords beyond the triad as you study m6 chords on the guitar.
These chords are used in jazz and Brazilian music (among other genres), over iim and im chords.
Because there is a natural 6 interval here, this chord is directly related to Dorian and Melodic Minor, chords that function as iim and im in progressions.
Here is the interval formula for m6 chords.
Interval Pattern = R b3 5 6
Now that you know how to build these chords, you’ll learn how to play m6 chords on the fretboard.
Here are six different Am6 chords that you can learn and apply to your comping over progressions and full tunes. Once you’ve played through each shape, put on a backing track and add these new minor family shapes to your playing.
Probably the most popular minor family chord on this list, m7 chords are found in every genre of modern music.
These common chords are used as the tonic, iim7, iiim7, relative minor, and other minor family chords.
Here is the interval pattern for the m7 chord type.
Interval Pattern = R b3 5 b7
With the interval pattern for m7 chords down, here are 6 Am7 chords that you can learn on guitar. Work each on their own, and then combine them to compare their sounds on the fretboard.
As well, make sure to work these shapes in other keys, over progressions, and full tunes in your studies.
You’ll now move on to your first extended minor family chord, the m9 shape.
This chord is a favorite of jazz guitarists, and is often used in Brazilian jazz music as well.
Here’s the interval pattern for m9 chords. As you have 5 notes in this chord, you’ll often remove one note from these shapes. This makes it easier to play on guitar, and if you keep the 9th interval, you’ll keep the sound of the m9 chord in your playing.
Interval Pattern = R b3 5 b7 9
Now that you know how to build m9 chords, you can take them to the guitar.
Here are 6 different Am9 chords to explore in your playing. After you’ve worked them as written, take them to other keys and to full tunes in your studies. You can also play them back-to-back in order to hear how each sits differently on the guitar, but shares a similar sound with other m9 shapes.
With a modern sound, m11 chords bring to mind songs such as So What, and other modal jazz tunes. Used by Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, and other pianists, m11 chords have also become a favorite minor color for jazz guitarists.
Here’s the interval pattern for m11 chords. Because these chords have 6 notes, you’ll only use some of these intervals in the chords below. When eliminating intervals from a m11 chord voicing, you need to keep the 11th in that shape, otherwise any other note is ok to take away.
Interval Pattern = R b3 5 b7 9 11
Now that you know how m11 chords are built, you can take them onto the fretboard.
Here are 6 fingerings for Am11 chords that you can explore in your playing, work in other keys, and apply to comping over tunes. Work each chord on their own at first, then play them back to back in order to hear how they sound compared to one another.
The final minor family chords in this lesson is the mMaj7 chord, which you can see below written as AmMaj7. This chord is often played as the tonic minor chord (ImMaj7) in jazz, though you can use it in place of any minor family chord in your playing.
The maj7 interval creates tension with this chord, much more so than any other minor family chord, so it needs to be treated with care.
Here is the interval pattern for mMaj7 chords.
Interval Pattern = R b3 5 7
Now that you know how to build these chords, here are examples of mMaj7 chords on the guitar.
So What Chords
Now that you’ve explored minor chords on guitar, you can take that knowledge to a full jazz standard, in this case So What.
Built with two m7 chords a semitone apart, this tune is perfect for exploring minor family chord colors in your playing.
In this study, you mix various minor, m6, m7, m9, m11, and mMaj7 chords as you comp over this classic Miles Davis tune. To challenge you further, identify each different minor chord in the song, to learn to recognize these chords on paper.
As well, once you’ve learned this study, put on the backing track below and jam with your own chords over this minor key standard.