If you come across a complex chord symbol with several sharps and / or flats, chances are it’s an altered chord. In this installment of Guitar Command’s series of guitar chord theory articles, we look at how altered chords are formed, and how to play them.
There is a lot of information in this lesson, but don’t worry, there are some nice chords to play at the end!
Altered chords are, as their name suggests, standard diatonic chords in which one or more of the notes have been altered, either by being sharpened or flattened. Any chord can be altered, but in popular music and jazz, altered chords usually refer to dominant chords. In this article we will be looking at altered dominant chords.
Altered Dominant Chords
Songwriters and composers use altered chords to ‘spice up’ otherwise normal-sounding chord progressions. Altered chords can produce complex-sounding harmonies, often with a jazz sound. Compare the two chord progressions below:
Notice how the G7#5 chord introduces a new color to the progression. (In the above example the guitar chords are different voicings to the notation, but the chords are the same).
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Altered Chords Symbols
Altered dominant chords often have long and scary-looking chord symbols. Although they may look complicated, these chord symbols are simply telling the performer two things: the basic type of chord, and how it should be altered.
Flat 5 / Sharp 5 Chords
A common alteration is to sharpen or flatten the fifth of the chord. This will be indicated in the chord symbol with either a #5 or a b5.
Therefore, a 7b5 is a standard seventh chord in which the fifth has been flattened.
G13#5 is a G13 chord in which the D (the fifth) has been sharpened to a D#.
Other Altered Tones
Ninth and eleventh notes can also be altered. A chord symbol such as Bb9#11 may seem intimidating, but it is simply a Bb ninth chord with a sharpened eleventh note:
Notes of a Bb seventh (Bb7) chord: Bb, D, F, Ab
Notes in a Bb dominant ninth chord (Bb9): Bb, D, F, Ab, C
The #11 interval from Bb = E (the 11th would be an Eb, therefore the #11 = E)
Therefore, the notes in a Bb9#11 chord are: Bb, D, F, Ab, C, E
Cheating With Complex Chords!
Of course, you don’t necessarily have to work all of this out as you play. Hopefully you’ll know all of the chords that you come across. However, there is a way to cheat: unless the altered chord contains a sharpened or flattened fifth (and often even if it does), you can just use a standard 7th chord in its place.
Alt Chord Symbol
Occasionally, a composer or arranger will simply write ‘Alt’ next to a chord, in which case it is up to the performer to decide how to alter the chord. Altering the fifth and / or ninth degrees of the chord (i.e. sharpening or flattening them) will usually create a suitable chord. You should take into account the notes in the melody line. As you get to know more altered chords, you will be better able to select a suitable chord in this situation.
+ Chord Symbol
The + sign can be used to indicate a sharp 5 (#5) chord. Chords with sharpened fifths are also known as ‘augmented’ chords. Another symbol used for this kind of chord is ‘Aug’.
More Than One Altered Note
Altered chords can contain more than one altered note. For example, a D7#5#9 contains both a sharpened 5th and a sharpened 9th note. Let’s break this chord down further:
Standard D9: D, F#, A, C, E
D7#5#9: D, F#, A#, C, E#
The first part of the chord symbol tells you the basic chord type (D7), the second part tells you which notes are to be altered (#5#9).
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Common Altered Chords:
Below are some common altered chords. Try playing each one in place of the G7 chord in this chord sequence to get an idea of how they sound.
It is important to hear altered chords as part of a chord progression. Played out of context they can sound rather strange!
Common Altered Chords
(The root note of each chord is shown as a blue circle)
Create Your Own Altered Chord Shapes
As you play more altered chords, you’ll begin to learn where the altered tones fall in relation to the root note. This will help you to work out your own chords.
For example, if the root note is on the 6th (bottom E) string, there is a #5 on the second (B) string a fret higher.
In guitar chords, the notes do not necessarily have to be in any particular order. In a 7b5 chord, for example, the flat five could either be above or below the seventh note. Let your ears be the judge.
Altered Chords Conclusion
If you’ve gotten this far, congratulations. We’ve covered a lot of ground in this lesson. Hopefully those jazz chord sheets don’t look quite as intimidating now and you are finding places to play altered chords in your own music. Let us know how you get on in the comments below.