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Deciphering Chord Symbols
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Deciphering Chord Symbols

                                                                                                By: Lucas Pickford


Reading chord symbols is one of the most common things we as bass players have to do in professional music situations. More often than not we bassists are given charts that don’t have exact bass parts written out. Most of the time this is a good thing! However it’s crucial that we understand the chord symbols and are able to create grooves and solos off of them .The problem is, though, that there are many different ways to indicate the same chords using different chord symbols. It seems each person has their own way of indicating the chord they want, but uses slightly different means of writing that down on paper. In this column I’d like to go through some of the more common ways of indicating certain types of chords and also show some variations that I’ve come across. Hopefully this will expose you to some of the variations you’re likely to see out there in gig land. 

At Berklee College where I went to school, they have a pretty standardized way of teaching the students how to indicate specific chords. I adopted their system while in school and continue to use it with a few exceptions. For the purposes of this article when I say the “Standard” way of writing a chord symbol, I mean the Berklee way. Then I’ll give some common variations. I do this on the Basic Chord Types and the Advanced Chord Types. The point is to be familiar with all of them so you can get through as many different kinds of gigs and musical situations as possible. How you decide to write these symbols in your own music is totally up to you. Here goes.

Basic Chord Types

1. Standard Way: Cmaj 7

Variations: CM7, Cma7, C (with small triangle) – All of these indicate a Cmajor 7th chord.

2. SW -: C7

V: C13, C9 - All of these indicate a Cdominant 7th chord.

3. SW: C7 sus 4

V: Csus, Bb/C, Bbmaj7/C – All of these indicate a C7th with a suspended 4th.

4. SW: Cmin7

V: C-7, Cm7, Cmi7, – All of these indicate a Cminor 7th chord.

5. SW: Cmin(maj7)

V: C- (little triangle7)

6. SW: Cmin7 (b5)

V: C (little circle with a line drawn diagonally through it) 7. This is sometimes referred to as a “half diminished “ chord.  – They both mean Cminor 7th with a flatted 5th.

7. SW: Caug 7

V: C+7, C7 (#5) – All of these indicate a C augmented 7th chord

8. SW: Cdim7

V: Co7 – Both indicate a C diminished 7th chord.

Advanced Chord Types

1. SW: Cmaj7 (#5)

V: E/C – Both indicate a C major 7 chord with a sharp 5th.

2. SW: Cmaj7 (#11)

V: D/C, Gmaj7/C – All indicate a Cmaj 7 chord with a sharp 11th.

3. SW: C7 (#9, b13)

V: C7 (alt) – Both indicate a C dominant 7th chord with a sharp 9th and a flat 13th .

4. SW: C7 (b9)

V: C13 (b9), A/C – All indicate a C dominant 7th chord with a flat 9 and a natural 13th.

5. SW: C7 (b9, #11)

V: Gb/C – Both indicate a C dominant 7th chord with a flat 9 and a sharp 11th

Of course there are more that I may have left out. These are just some of the most common ones in daily use. Every once in awhile someone will write a chord symbol that looks like it came from the crash at Roswell. I’ll have no idea what they mean.  In those cases I just shrug and mutter, “It’s all Greek to me”. Hope this all helps. See you next time!

Lucas Pickford can be reached by e-mail at or by stopping by his web site at



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