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So what's the trick?

The chord of the moment.

I must have mentioned this a hundred times since I started writing these articles, and for good reason. When it all comes down, that's all there is. The expression 'Be Here Now', the philosophy that the only reality is the present moment, is music to a T. Even though a piece of music uses a sizable chunk of time, it comes one moment at a time. Each of these moments is backed by a chord. The chord of the moment. It is there because the writer picked a key for the composition, and that key consists of a bunch of chords. While the key is the main setter of the rules, the chord of the moment fills in the details.

"Understand that there is really only one chord out there -- not 1001, as the books tell you."
Know that chord inside and out. Know all it's positions, up and down the neck. Know all it's permutations, as in minor, diminished, major 7, minor 7, augmented, sus 4. Understand that there is really only one chord out there -- not 1001, as the books tell you. In my mind there is just one big cosmic chord, not quite formed, waiting to be forced into some major / minor / extended quality. It lives all over the fretboard, and simply adjusts to it's new position when the chord change arrives. The chord of the moment 'morphs' to a new chord of the moment.

Learn to hear the changes, in the same way you all quickly get to know the sound of a twelve bar progression. These familiar chords are the three major chords from any key. The One, Four and Five chords. There are also three minor chords to listen for. The Two, Three and Six chords. Then there is the last chord, the Seven chord, which is half diminished. Don't worry about it.

Train your ear to recognize them. It's not that difficult. The Six chord is very recognizable. It's also called the relative minor. Listen to them all in sequence.

In the key of C, they are C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am B dim (don't worry about it) and back to C. C, F and G are the major chords, the twelve bar chords, Am is the relative minor. Dm and Em are more obscure sounding, a bit harder to pinpoint, but only at first.

The next step is to see these chords as the source of your melody lines. Play around the shapes. Use the forms as your starting and finishing notes. Build your lines around them. Notice I haven't mentioned scales yet. I won't. They just cloud the issue.

Understand that all chords primarily consist of three notes, alternate notes from the major scale (oops, I mentioned it) i.e. 1-3-5 for C, 2-4-6 for Dm, 3-5-7 for Em, 4-6-1 for F etc. Make it easier on your brain though and see them all as being 1-3-5, or as I prefer, I, III, IV.

There will come a day when it all merges into one friendly, easy to follow, instantly recognizable thing called music. Then you can apply your taste to extract from it what you want to hear...

Kirk Lorange writes a weekly column for GuitarSite and is the author of the instructional book, PlaneTalk