3 Steps to Master the ABCs of Family Chords

The ABCs of Family Chords

If you’re just starting out on the guitar, one of the most important things to learn is how to understand chord families. Chord families are groups of chords that share common notes. This can make it a lot easier to learn new chords, because you can use knowledge from other chords in the family to help you understand them.

Understanding Family Chords

Guitar chords are organized into families, and each family has its own special characteristics.

There are three groups of chords in a family: major, minor and diminished. Each of these groups have their own unique sound. The major chords (also known as “happy”) include the I, IV and V chords in any key; the minor group (also called “sad”) are the ii, iii and vi chords; and the diminished family contains vii.

Let’s take a closer look at each chord family’s component parts.

The major family

The major family is the most important of all the chord families. This is because the “I, IV and V” chords, the major chords in a family, are the most commonly used chords in all of music.

These chords are also known as the “power chords” because they are so commonly used in rock and pop music.

In the key of C, these chords would be C, F and G.

The minor family

The minor family is made up of the ii, iii and vi chords. In the key of C, these chords would be Dm, Em and Am.

The diminished family

The diminished family is made up of the vii chord. In the key of C, this chord would be Bdim.

These families are then further divided into two groups: major and minor. Major families contain only major chords, while minor families have both minor and diminished chords.

The major family is made up of the I, IV and V chords, while the minor family contains the ii, iii and vi chords. The diminished chord is always found in the vii slot.

Chord Families

Once you know these families, it’s easy to find any chord in any key! All you have to do is identify the family of the chord and then find that chord within that group.

For example, let’s say you want to play a G major chord. You would look at that chord in any key and then find that note on your guitar neck. As an easy example, we’ll use C major as our starting point because its scale has no sharps or flats:

  • C D E F G A B
  • C-I, D-ii, E-iii, F-IV, G-V, A-vi, B-vii°

So, the G major chord on the 3rd fret of the sixth string is the sixth chord in the family. Once you know these basic three families, you can start playing chords all over the neck!

Learning chords within each family is the best way to start off on your guitar journey! Once you have a strong foundation in one family, you can easily move on to the others.

The Construction of Family Chords

Let’s take a closer look at how family chords are formed in depth. If you pay close attention, you’ll learn how things are connected through these seven letters or notes in a scale.

And it is quite easy to get comfortable with these music theories if you simply give yourself the time to understand what you’re doing.

7 Letters in a Musical Alphabet

  • The musical alphabet is used in defining notes. Each note has a name and letter associated with it. They’re made up of seven letters, starting with A and ending with G.
  • There are 12 different notes, including sharps and flats, that make up the musical alphabet which repeats itself on every octave. As previously mentioned, the sharp of the previous letter is identical with the flat of the next letter of the alphabet.


The following 12 notes are all adjacent to one another. There is a half-step interval between two notes.

7 Notes in a Scale

  • The seven notes in a scale are the foundation of chords. A chord is simply two or more notes played together. In order to build chords, you need to know what the intervals are between each note in the scale.
  • You’ll need to know the intervals between notes in a scale to find the chords in a family. Intervals are simply the distance between two notes. Intervals are measured in half-steps (H) and whole steps (W). A half-step is the distance between two adjacent notes and a whole step consists of two consecutive half steps. For example, moving from C to D would require two half steps or simply one whole step.
  • The formula to form your scale is  W-W-H-W-W-W-H. Start with any note from your musical alphabet and then count up one whole step to your next note. Follow the formula until you’ve completed a full octave, seven notes scale plus  the 8th note which is a repeat of the first note. Here’s an example of a C scale: C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C (the only major scale without sharps and flats).

Scale Degree and Qualities

Each note in your seven-note scale has a degree and quality associated with it. Degree is just another word for rank or position of the note within the scale. Quality refers to whether the note is major or minor.

There are three degrees in any major key: tonic, mediant, and dominant. The tonic is always the first note of the scale and the dominant is always the fifth note. The mediant falls in between, halfway between tonic and dominant.

The following are the degrees and qualities of a scale:

  • Tonic (I) – Major
  • Supertonic (ii) – minor
  • Mediant (iii) – minor
  • Subdominant (IV) – Major
  • Dominant (V) – Major
  • Submediant (vi) – minor
  • Leading tone (vii) – diminished

In order to provide a simple reference, Roman numerals are used to represent each note. For major quality notes, we use capital letters and for minor quality notes, we use small letters.

Root Note or Key of a Scale

In any scale, the root note (also called as the key) is the first note or degree in that particular scale. This root note can be thought of as your home base or reference point; it’s the one from which all other notes are stretched out.

You may select any note from among the 12 notes of your musical alphabet as the key for your scale. Again, follow the interval formula and note sequence in the alphabet.

The chords in each family all have the same root note, but sound different because of their harmonic intervals (the distance between notes).

Major and Minor Chords of a Scale

Every note in the scale is linked to a chord. We have three major chords (I, IV, V), three minor chords (ii, iii, vi), and a diminished chord (vii) when looking at the qualities of a scale. The major chords sound happy and bright, while the minor chords sound sad and dark.

When building a chord progression this way, you know that each chord will be related to every other chord because they share notes within the same key. In other words, it’s all family!

All of the Major Scales’ Family Chords

Each note in the musical alphabet has its own chord family. Of the 12 notes, “C, A, G, E, and D” family chords are the five most frequently used in guitar.  Guitarists learn these first.

  • Scale Interval: W-W-H-W-W-W-H
  • 12 Notes of the musical alphabet: A, A#/Bb, B, C, C#/Db, D, D#/Eb, E, F, F#/Bb, G, G#/Ab
Major KeyIiiiiiIVVvivii°
A majorABmC#mDEF#mG#°
A#/Bb majorBbCmDmEbFGm
B majorBC#mEbmEF#G#mBb°
C majorCDmEmFGAm
C#/Db majorC#EbmFmF#G#Bbm
D majorDEmF#mGABmC#°
D#/Eb majorEbFmGmG#BbCm
E majorEF#mG#mABC#mEb°
F majorFGmAmBbCDm
F#/Gb majorF#G#mBbmBC#Ebm
G majorGAmBmCDEmF#°
G#/Ab majorG#BbmCmC#EbFm

Connect with your Family Chords on a Deeper Level!

Learning the different chord families will help you become a better musician. If you take the time to learn about chords and scales, you can start seeing the patterns in music.

This is a great way to learn about music theory and how it applies to the guitar. The goal is to help you understand the music you hear and eventually enable you to create your own.

By taking the time to learn about family chords, you will be able to:

– Understand how chords are related to each other

– Build chord progressions using different families

Once you see these patterns, you can begin to create your own chord progressions and even write your own songs! While it may take some effort to learn about chords and scales, the payoff is worth it. Start by looking for the patterns in the scale and family chords – once you see them, the sky’s the limit!

Keep practicing and have fun! Guitar should be enjoyable so make sure you are enjoying the learning process. Guitar is a lifetime instrument so there’s no rush to learn everything overnight. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither is a guitar player!

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