Tonality And Chord Quality

Chord Quality

The terms we use to describe chords, major, minor, dominant, diminished, etc., are often called the quality of a chord. As music stuudents we learn the official, theoritical, cut and dried definition of chord quality which refers to the construction of the chord, or the intervals (distances) between its notes. As a performing musician and an improvisational artist chord quality means something quite different to you: its the generall overall flavor, the musical effect and the artistic impact of the chord that is important. For the modern, working musician the three types of chord qualities that are iimportant to you are: major, minor and dominant 7.

Start Jamming

As I have said before, in order to learn lead guitar you must play lead guitar. This statement may seem a bit paradoxical but it is entirely true. It means that you are your own best teacher, best critic and best audience and as you develop your own cool and interesting vocabulary you are taking mental notes along the way remembering what works for you and what doesn’t. Imagine yourself playing with the best band in town, being there lead player and adding new unique and original ideas to the performance. Pretending.

The exercise below is a generic pop/ rock groove centered on an A bass note -since I am only using the root note the music will accept either a major, minor or dominant chord sound as a basis for your soloing. As you are practicing with the track focus on only one chord at a time, do not change chord sounds in the middle of the track. At first, use only the tools and techniques that we have learned in the course so far: chord tones and single chromatic approach notes, chord tones and double chromatic approach notes and of course the magic formula: TR3.

Throughout this entire curriculum you have learned to think of each chord you are presented with as having two, common knowledge and first choice versions: one of the first choice versions has its root note on string six the other has its root note on string five. In our world, this is called root 6 and root 5 thinking. Continuing with that line of thought, when you are presented with an A major, A minor, or an A dominant seventh chord you need to be able to play, name and find anyone of the six chords illustrated in the diagram below an effortless, automatic and instant manner.


Improvisational Practice

The play along exercise to the right is a simple, rock style drum and bass groove with no implied chord quality -there is no rhythm guitar and the bass part is comprised entirely of one note: A natural. That means the entire flavor; the entire musical effect of the sound of the track is completely up to you and your guitar. I suggest you do this exercise six times using each one of the six chords illustrated above and sticking to one chord at a time. As you practice, listen for the sound of the chord, the quality of the chord in your soloing. If you are having trouble, many your improvisations to groups of three or four notes and forcefully create the sounds of those chords with your guitar using chord tones and chromatic approach notes. Return to this exercise often as it is great ear training and may represent a fundamental shift in the way you view lead guitar playing.


As modern guitarists the system of music we adhere to is called tonal music, meaning that musical compositions are organized around a central note called the tonic or the I. Tonality is closely related to the concept of key and the two terms are often used interchangeably. It is generally understood that tonality refers to compositions based on either a major or minor scale, if you have studied music before, you have heard this referred to as diatonic tonality, harmonic tonality, functional tonality or common practice tonality.

For our purposes of studying lead guitar playing we are going to start by thinking of tonality as either a major key, a minor key or a dominant one based on the mixolydian mode. Every key has a scale associated with it and it is this scale, along with its harmonies, that provides the musical material necessary to compose in that key. The type of scale also provises the general overall flavor, personality and character to a musical composition or section: the tonality. The three tonalites we are concentrating on are presented below in the key of C as a graphic organizer.


The concept of tonality is similar to that of chord quality because we are continuing to study the general overall mood, flavor and artistic qualities of a complete song or section of a song. The chief difference then is that when we think about chord quality we are discussing one single chord, when we discuss tonality we are talking about a series of chords, a chord progression, an entire song or a section of a song. When expanding our discussion of chord quality to one involving tonality, the rules of the game don’t change: the major tonality, just like the major chord quality is happy and bright. The minor tonality, like the minor chord quality is dark and gloomy. The dominant seven or mixolydian tonality, is funky and bluesy just like the dominant seventh chord quality.


“My first experience with the guitar was taking lessons from Karl Aranjo as a high school student. His lessons were more than just a collection of tips and riffs: they were a method. As I look through, I get to take a trip back through those lessons and am reminded about I loved about them. His strong focus on the fundamentals quickly draws a connection between general music theory and the particulars of how that theory can be applied to the guitar, even allowing us as guitarists to use our instrument as an abacus-like tool to enhance our musical insight. In high school, Karl’s lessons got me up to speed to jam with my friends and in the school band almost immediately. In the almost 20 years since I left high school and had my last lesson with Karl, the things he taught me have continued to serve me well; I’ve played almost continuously in a variety of styles (jazz, rock, funk, folk), both as a hobby and as a part-time professional (currently playing with San Francisco’s Smash-Up Derby). If I hadn’t grown up in the same town as where Karl taught, I might have missed out on a lifetime of fun playing the guitar. With, wherever you are, you can benefit from the same quality instruction that I had!

-Grahm Ruby

“Mr. Karl Aranjo is one great teacher to work with. When working with him, he is very flexible, and will teach you all the basics and fundamentals you will need while learning how to play the guitar. From learning basic chords to crazy licks and solo’s. You will become an expert in no time and looking like a professional guitar player. In my experience, I learned to master chord progressions much easier and understand it in a better perspective. In my music career/hobby, it has given me nothing but success to play in a band as a front man/rhythm guitarist, compose my own type of music, and as well as songs that I really wanted to learn how to play on the guitar. Learning through Karl Aranjo was a great experience and has helped me understand the guitar a lot easier, I would not have wanted this learning experience any other way.”

-Julius Isaac

“I had the pleasure of being a guitar student of Karl’s for several years. Karl advanced my playing ability a great deal very quickly by giving me a perfect combination of guitar technique, theory and assigning songs that motivated me to continue learning. I highly recommend Karl for all level of guitar players no matter if you are a beginner or advanced.”

-Tom Hunt

”Karl Aranjo is a great and experienced teacher with an extensive knowledge of guitar playing and theory. His thorough online course, covers the whole spectrum from the first time beginner to advanced.”

Blake Aaron- Internationally Known Recording Artist

”Karl helped me dive into the blues when I was first starting out, and learning how to improvise opened up many doors for me on guitar. He has a vast knowledge ranging many musical styles, and i would recommend him to anyone trying to learn the instrument!”

Eric Cannata Young The Giant