Chords 101: Chord Naming

There seems to be a lot of confusion about when to use suspend vs. add (e.g. sus2 vs. add2) and when to use single or compound interval numbers (e.g. 2, 4, 6 or 9, 11, 13). Let me try to shed some light on this, especially for non-guitarists writing guitar parts.

Interval Naming & Chord Tensions
This one is pretty simple. If the chord is not a 7th chord, you always use the 1st octave interval names (2, 4, 6). If the chord is a 7th chord then you use the compound interval name (9, 11, 13).

So, if you write a C9: any guitarist worth their salt will play:

What is a suspended chord anyway?
A suspended chord, by definition, is a chord in which you replace the 3rd degree of the chord with the named interval. So a sus4 chord is a chord in which you replace the 3rd degree in the chord with the 4th degree. Likewise, a sus2 chord is a chord in which you replace the 3rd degree in the chord with the 2nd degree.

So, a D(sus4) is asking the guitarist to take a D major chord and replace the F# with a G (the 4th in the D scale) to make this chord:


Similarly writing D(sus2) would be asking the guitarist to take a D major chord and replace the F# with an E (the 2 in the D scale) to make this chord:

Because the sus4 chord is the most popular suspend chord, simply writing D(sus) would automatically imply a D(sus4) chord. You can leave the 4 off of a (sus4) chord designation. It is assumed to be 4 if no number is given.

Is it (add2) or (add9)?
Now, I often see this mistake in written music: there will be a C(sus2) written where it was really intended for the guitarist to play a C(add2).  So, you may ask, what’s the difference?

As noted above, a suspended chord has no 3rd. You replace the 3rd degree with the suspended interval. An (add) chord simply adds an extra note to the chord without replacing any of the notes from the triad.

So, a Csus2 would be:

and a C(add2) would be:

Note, the suspended chord is still a triad (3 note chord: C, G, D, G – low to high. Note: there are 2 Gs in the chord. They only count as 1 note), while the (add2) chord is a 4 note chord (C, E, G, D – low to high).

And simply, it is always (add2) and never (add9). An (add9) chord would be indicating the presence of a 7th in the chord so a C(add9) is simply a C9:

See the difference?

So, if you come across an (add9) chord, just know it was meant to be an (add2) and go with it. If you are writing for guitar, please refrain from (add9) chords and use (add2). If you really want a Dominant9, just write C9 (or E9, or whatever).


The Metronome Trick

When my students stumble over chord fingerings in a lessons I often fall back on a trick I learned while at Berklee College of Music. It’s a simple method for training your muscles to get into and out of a chord form smoothly and quickly.

You set a metronome on the slow side (54-60 bpm) and let it begin counting off the time. Now, since most chords are not played in a musical vacuum you will want to approach your trouble chord with another chord, preferably the one that precedes it in the piece you are playing. So, if you were struggling with an Emi7(b5), for instance, and the preceding chord was a G7 you would use those 2 chords for this exercise.

So, with your metronome happily clacking away get yourself ready for the approach chord (in our case the G7) and count off 4 beats to get you to your first measure. On beat 1 of that measure play the G7 chord, and then immediately release your fingers and use beats 2, 3 & 4 to set up the next chord (the Emi7(b5) in our example). On beat 1 of the next measure you will play that Emi7(b5) and then immediately release it, using beats 2, 3 & 4 to get back to your starting chord.

You would go back and forth between these chords, hitting them only on beat 1 of the measure and using beats 2, 3 & 4 to position your hand for the next chord. After a couple of minutes you will feel your hand finding its way without much effort. At this point bump up your tempo a notch or 2 and continue until it’s smooth at that tempo and keep going and bumping up the tempo until you are at the tempo you will actually be playing those chords.

If you aren’t using a metronome in your practice routine, here is one more reason to go buy one. The simply help you become a better musician.