When an aspiring musician buys their first banjo, guitar or mandolin, they also usually are talked into buying a pictionary chord book. Such a book, lists chord after chord, in charts that are in alphabetically order. Without knowing any better, each time the student comes across an unfamiliar chord in a song, he or she scans the book in an attempt to find the correct chord position on the fingerboard. To learn chords in this manner can be equated to memorizing phone numbers in a phone book.
As a teacher, I advise all my students that the best way to learn chord structure and build a “chord vocabulary” is to begin with basic music theory. This theoretical knowledge begins with understanding the major scale. The major scale (Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, Do) is the backbone of music. It establishes a foundation for a musician to play and understand chords, building melody lines and playing songs.
There are many types of chords and whether or not you use them will depend on the genre of music you play. Unfortunately, some students of the banjo, guitar and mandolin only scrape the surface when studying chord structure. Maybe they learn their open major chords and a handful of minors. Open chords are partially fretted but use open strings as well. Closed forms take the open chords further by moving them up the neck by barring the open strings. Sadly, some students never learn their moveable chord forms up the neck on their instrument.
Studying chords is a process in itself. You can start with a basic understanding that the major chord is built on the first, third and fifth note of the chord’s major scale. The minor is achieve by modifying the major chord with a flatted third. Other chord forms are derived from these chord types and are termed extended or altered chords. Most importantly, the process begins with a basic understanding of the major scale and what notes make up a major chord.
In the future, instead of referring to that pictionary book of chord charts each time you come across a new chord in a song, turn your attention towards basic music theory. Your efforts will be rewarded and you will come out ahead in the long term.