How can two chord charts be so different for the very same song?

We recently had a customer pose a very good question. They’d been looking at the song ‘How He Loves’ and had a number of different chord charts for it, some aimed at guitar and some aimed at piano. Some were from official paid-for channels, others were freebies comped off the internet. The thing was, although the song’s basic chords are C, Am, G and F all the way through, each chart had different chord names. One piano version used C, Am7, C/G, Fmaj7. Another sometimes substituted the Fmaj7 for an F2 or F5. Then various guitar versions used C, Am, Gsus, F2. Or C, F2/A, Gsus, F2. Or C, Dm7/A, Gsus, F2. And one even used C, F2/A, D, F/A.

So the obvious question was – which one’s right?

Now there are various things going on here. Firstly, lots of free charts from the web are put together by enthusiastic people with varying degrees of music theory understanding, so sometimes the chords are simply wrong, but at other times chords come out with quite different names purely depending on which instrument is transcribing them. This is especially true for songs written on guitar but then transcribed on piano where the pianist tries to imitate the exact notes played in every guitar chord shape. Broadly speaking most guitarist’s learn chords by shapes that fall nicely to hand with and move from one chord to the next by moving as few fingers as possible. Those shapes work very nicely over basic chords and so they will give that shape a basic name, or a name that they’ve seen in a chord diagram. Those names are often abbreviated for the sake of easy learning and brevity. However keyboard player have to learn chords by the proper notes and not shapes. So if a keyboard tries to replicate and transcribe those exact notes it can come out with either a very long-winded and confusing name or describe a chord that gives a very different sound to the one intended.  Of course those proper names are technically precise but not very applicable in the real world.  Cmaj9add4add6(b13)(b5) anybody?

Conversely chord sequences can look incredibly complex on a chart if they are trying to replicate moving bass lines or particular arpeggios played on piano. This especially true for hymns and carols where the chord can seem to change on every beat and frighten the life out of an unsuspecting guitarist!

As an example the shape below is a beautiful sounding chord that many guitar players use over an F chord.



The notes in a basic F chord are F, A and C, but using this shape the guitarist is actually playing the note C, F, G, C and E.

So as the lowest note is a C you could describe it as a Csus4 or more technically a Cadd11. But that’s not the right sound at all, as the implied bass note needs to be an F, (it’s just the guitarist’s fingers aren’t bionic and cant get there)

And to be technically correct, as the C is the lowest note we’d have to describe it as an F/C something, but there’s the open G so it’s an Fsus2/C and of course the top open E string so we’d perhaps call it an Fsus2maj7/C.  The problem now is not only the long-winded and pedantic chord name, but also because we’ve named it a major7 chord. 

Maj7 chords have a very distinct dark, jazzy sound and that guitar chord doesn’t sound like a maj7. That top E is really droning an octave above where most of the bass notes placed in those type of guitar chord shapes, it’s just in that particular shape unless you use your thumb to play that low F bass note the bass is implied rather than played. So what we really want is an Fsus2add15/C(no 1st). But that’s not a proper chord name, AND I’ve sent you all to sleep!

The watchword here on both is PRAGMATISM. It’s great to understand the make up of chords but don’t get too hung up on the details if it’s not helpful to all. In the case of the chord diagram I’d simply call it an F chord and let everyone worry about their own voicings. Chances are that many players will probably turn major chords into suspended seconds and minor chords into minor 7ths without realizing it.

I found this out when transcribing the Worship Backing Band EveryKey and Super chord charts. If I listened to the guitar voicings on our backing tracks the chord name could come out as one thing. If I listened to the keyboard part it could come out as something else and then adding the bass guitar could change the overall name of the chord again! So eventually I reverted back to transcribing the simplest version of the chord unless there was an obvious changing bass note or chord extension that gave the overall music a specific sound.

Can you see how I’ve written a very long article to get to a very short answer? It’s the same with chords. Music theory is a system of identifying notes and chords in westernised music that has been developed and tweaked over hundreds of years. It’s not perfect and doesn’t always completely fit together or work seamlessly for every instrument or chord sound, and the naming of guitar chord shapes is one example. It’s a great skill to understand the in depth mechanics of how chords are named, but  long winded technical definitions are generally more confusing to a worship team with varying ability levels, so keep the chord charts as simple as you can to get everyone on side.