Manipulation vs Memorization

As guitar players, we have loads of things to memorize – chords, scales, arpeggios, songs, licks, solos… rather a lot, and many hit a limit where things get forgotten or worse, they get muddled. In this article, I want to share with you a tool that can cut down the memorization you need to do, and that tool is manipulation.

Manipulation can be used in many areas of music (and life!), but I’ll be focusing on chords and how with some understanding of note function and chord construction you can turn one chord into many and understand the relationships between chords. I hope you’ll find it both interesting and helpful.

Let’s start with a look (or reminder) of our chord construction formula of common Triads and Quadads (my term for four-note chords). These formulas describe the notes derived from a Major Scale – the flat notes are literally a note from the major scale flattened, so a b7 is the 7th note of a major scale lowered by one semitone.

Major: R 3 5
Minor: R b3 5

Major 7: R 3 5 7
Dominant 7: R 3 5 b7
Minor 7: R b3 5 b7
Min7b5: R b3 b5 b7

Now let’s look at applying these to a common chord shape - the common “A Shape” barre chord (root on string 5) which is probably easiest to make sense of this concept.

Start by examining the function of the notes in that common shape; you’ll see they are just Roots (R), 3rds and 5ths. Note that I’ve removed the thinnest string note because it’s commonly not played and it makes this exercise easier.

CHORD BOX 1 (Major)

The only difference between major and minor is a flat 3rd, so if you can try not to look at the diagram below, can you figure out how to manipulate that major chord and turn it into a minor.

CHORD BOX 2 (Minor)

It’s pretty easy conceptually, and it works with any Major chord if you know the functions of the notes.

If we now look back at the Major chord shape and the Major 7 chord formula, you’ll see that to get a major 7 we just need to add a 7th degree of the scale, which is the same as moving a root note down a semitone. We probably wouldn’t want to do it to the lowest root note, so do it to the higher one… and you got yourself a Major 7th Chord.

CHORD BOX 3 (Major 7)

Take a look at the Dominant 7 formula now (usually these are just written as 7), and you’ll notice it’s the same as Major 7 but with a b7. So move that 7 down one fret and you have yourself a 7 chord!

CHORD BOX 4 (Dominant 7)

Now the only difference between a Dominant 7 and a Minor is the flat 3, so go ahead and move the 3rd down one semitone and you got yourself a minor 7!

CHORD BOX 5 (Minor 7)

The way we have manipulated one basic shape into many is REALLY useful, and this last example is good to know too – when you see chord alterations of any kind you can use the same trick, in this case, Minor7b5, take that Minor 7 shape and lower the 5th by a semitone and you got it:

CHORD BOX 6 (Min7b5)

This alteration trick works all the time and a great one to use if you don’t know your Major7#5 and you don’t know one, now you can work it out!

Understanding the function of notes and a little theory means you can greatly cut down on the memorization, and it works for scales and arpeggios in more or less the same way and can simplify how you learn scales and modes and will also help you understand the relationships between many scales. It’s amazing food for thought.

Wander over to, and I’ve added a couple of pdf worksheets for you to fill out for this A Shape and also the E Shape – the two most common chord shapes people use and should learn to manipulate. More advanced players should use this trick on all 5 CAGED chord and scale shapes and more chord types too! Now go get Machiavellian on your chords!

Food For Thought