Chord Inversions

To understand chord inversions, we must first understand what makes a chord. A chord must have at least three different notes to be a chord. Though normally It is played as a cluster of 3 or more notes at the same time, you can play a chord arpeggiated (broken, to sound one note at a time in succession).

The first note of a major chord is called the root or the 1st note. It is the name of the chord. The second note is a 3rd degree above the first note, and it’s called the 3rd note, because it is a 3rd degree higher in relation to the root note.

The 3rd note is called the 5th because it is 5 degrees higher than the root. This is sometimes hard for beginners to grasp, (calling the second, and third notes in a chord, the 3rd and 5th notes,) but it is necessary to know.

Chords are derived from scales. The three notes of a major chord are referred to as the 1, 3, 5 (this could be based on the Major [Ionian] Scale which numbers run 1 2 3 4 5 6 7), while the minor chords are based on 1 b3 5 (could be derived from a Natural [Relative or Aeolian] Minor Scale whose numbers look like this: 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7).

The Inversions section of the Guitar Wheel is a curved guitar neck just like the last section we studied. Simply put, in this section of the Guitar Wheel it is showing you different ways in different places on the guitar a single chord can be played. It’s to get you thinking outside of the box.

The headings “Tonic Chord Inversions” and “Relative minor Chord Inversions” tell you that when you put the Guitar Wheel in a key, these chord shapes are common chord inversions of the tonic and relative minor chords. A tonic chord is the chord that is based upon the first note of a key or scale, the tonic note, G in our picture. The relative minor chord is the chord that is built upon the sixth note of a sixth above the tonic chord, E in our picture.

You may use this section to find different chord fingerings/inversions of any major or minor chord. Just turn the tab to put the chord you want to view in the white dot.

Inversions are chords with their notes arranged in a different order other than the 1 being the low note. If you play guitar but didn’t know what an inversion was, well, you play them all the time.

The Inversion Diagram (inner most part of the wheel) shows various inversion formulas for the major and minor chord. “1” is the root note and is therefore in a white dot. When 1 is the low note, the chord is said to be in Root Position.

Root Position is outlined in blue 1,3,5

1st Inversion is outlined in yellow 3,5,1

2nd Inversion is outlined in red 5,1,3

Understanding the Guitar Wheel™

The following instructions will guide you in understanding the Guitar Wheel. We recommend you watch the Guitar Wheel videos on the video page.


The Guitar Wheel has two sides, the Guitar Side and the Piano Side. Each side is divided into sections further broken down by diagrams and colors. The Guitar Side is designed like a scaled down curved fret board map of the guitar, while the piano side is designed to be useful for any musician. Use the Guitar Wheel to help you discover the patterns and the basic principles of music theory. Study each section with confidence, knowing that it will re-inforce and reveal more of the wonderful mysteries of music theory to you. The more you look at a diagram or a side of the Guitar Wheel, the more its depth will begin to pop out at you.

Helpful tips to remember for both sides:

1) You may turn the tab of the Guitar Wheel to select any key to study. The key you select is displayed in the Master Key window and will “synchronize” that side of the wheel so that all the information is relevant to that key.

2) Chord fingerings, diagrams, and numbers on the Guitar Wheel are colored accordingly:

  1. Green is for Major

  2. Red is for Minor

  3. Orange is for Diminished

3) Notes that are in white dots are root notes of the chord shape or diagram they appear in.

Click on these images for a larger view.

Minor 7th

This red pattern displays the notes in a minor 7th chord. This is an example of a B minor 7th chord fingered on the 7th fret. You can turn the Guitar Wheel to put any note in the white dot in order to see the minor 7th chord formula.

Dominant 7th

This green pattern displays the notes in a dominant 7th chord. Here we have a D dominant 7 chord, also called a D7. The dominant chord is the chord that begins on the 5th degree of a scale. In the key of G, D is the dominant chord. Turn the tab of the Guitar Wheel and put “D” in the white dot. You can easily find the notes and the fingerings on the guitar fret board using the Guitar Wheel.

The Piano Side

On the Piano Side the diagrams are adapted differently to apply chords, chord formulas, scales, and scale degrees to the piano and staff. The parallel chromatic scales for all band and orchestra instruments will help in a number of ways:

1) Transpose scales by degrees. 2) See multiple major and minor keys at a time. 3) Find concert pitch. 4) Learn intervals and know the proper spelling of the Major, Minor, Pentatonic and the 6 note Blues scales.

Two quick references to be familiar with:

The Piano Keyboard (center) spans one octave naming the white and black keys.

The Piano Staff displays the names of the notes in the range of Treble and Bass.

For these instructions we will keep the Guitar Wheel tab turned to the key of F; however, the concepts work the same for any key you select.

Transposing Section

Here is a section especially helpful for understanding chord families, and the relationships between the keys. It is also a very good reference tool for transposing songs into different keys.

This is how to use the Guitar Wheel to make transposing easier. In this section you can see 5 different parallel keys at a time. The name of a key is the same as the note in the first degree (the Tonic). To transpose a song into another key put the original key on any of the spaces on the 1st degree and move parallel (left or right) toward the desired key.


The Major scales begin at the 1st degree.

The Relative Minor scales begin at the 6th degree of the major scales.

The Diminished 7th note is not in the key, but is only included for building the diminished 7th chord.

The Major scale degrees are extended beyond one octave (1- 13) in this section.

The major, minor, and diminished chord structures identify the root, 3rd, and 5th for major, minor, and diminished chords. This shows how chords are built from the major scale.

Concert Pitch is the key which instruments of different pitch must play to be in concert with each other. (See the white arrows.)

Intervals are the distances between notes, or tones. C to E is a Major Third, 1 to a 3 = 4 half steps from origin note/tone to destination note/tone. If we start at E and go to another Major Third G#, we have created an C Augmented chord. So we can say we travelled 2 Major thirds, or 8 half steps (frets for guitars) or intervals from the Tonic 1.

The Major Tonic Chord and degrees are displayed in this next section as a reference for how the different scales are altered from the Major or Minor Scales.

Correct Spelling: Start with a bold note in the 1st degree in any of the four scale rows.

The Pentatonic Scales are found by dropping the yellow notes from the scale.

The 6 Note Blues Scale is formed by adding the flat 5th (blue) note to the Minor Pentatonic Scale.

Scales. Learn the Major, Minor, Pentatonic, and Blues scales and play them in a song in any key.

Enharmonic Equivalents Charts. Notes with two names are shown in this example to correct the spelling for Major Scales. (See yellow grid above.)

We hope to help teachers and students bridge the elusive concepts of music theory together. Music is one of the greatest gifts in life, and we feel privileged to share the joy of your learning experience.

Dennis Cheatham
Music Master Publishing

The Guitar Side

Diatonic Triads

The tab has been turned so that we are in the key of G. This section is a curved guitar neck. Frets are numbered in yellow and the 6 strings of a guitar are numbered at the bottom for your reference. Frets move with the notes as you turn the tab.

The notes of the G major scale are found in the white dots along the 1st and 6th strings. The white dots also serve to name the chord shapes they appear in.

The green shapes and red shapes are major and minor chords. Orange is a diminished chord. Within these chord shapes are the notes that make up each chord in the key.

For example, the first note in the key of G is G and it is found on the 3rd fret. The first chord is G and it is major. It can be played by barring your finger on the 3rd fret while applying your other fingers to the notes within the green shape on the fourth and fifth frets. The second chord shape is the A minor chord, the third shape is the B minor chord and the fourth shape is the C major chord. All the chords in this section are bar chords.

The numbers (1-8) you see aligned with each note of the major scale are the scale degrees. The degrees do not turn as you turn the tab. The degrees are colored to correspond with the major, minor, or diminished quality of the chord built off each note of the major scale.

You also see the heading “Diatonic Triads”. A Diatonic Triad is the proper term used for the (3) note chords built upon each note of the Major Scale.

For these instructions we will keep the Guitar Wheel tab turned to the key of G; however, the concepts work the same for any key you select.

Chord Formulas

This section is helpful for understanding chord families, and the relationships between the keys.

The Major, Minor and Diminished Chord Structures display: the Root, 3rd, and 5th chord formulas for all seven chords of one key.

An interval is the distance between two notes. What makes a chord major is it has an interval of two whole steps between the root and the 3rd. What makes a chord minor is one and a half steps between the root and the 3rd - called a flatted third.

The diminished chord is a chord with every interval only one and a half steps. The diagram below shows the diminished chord add bb7 (double flat.)

A Word From Dennis Cheatham - The Creator of the Guitar Wheel

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