Good Chord Books


Maybe one day I'll write my own big book of chords, but chords are much harder than scales so until that day I thought it might be useful to make a list of useful things that are out there.

I guess most readers of this post will be interested in the more advanced stuff but, for the sake of completeness, in my opinion the best basic guitar book is

  • Ralph Denyer, The Guitar Handbook

Along with everything else a beginner should know, Denyer includes all the basic chords you need to play pop, rock and folk songs when you're getting started and puts them in a sensible context.

Beyond this, what to do? The problem is that chords aren't just chords -- you really need a harmonic system for them to live in. Simply learning more chords one by one hits diminishing returns really quickly unless you're also expanding your understanding of harmony itself.

If you want some fundamentals I always recommend

  • Jonathan Harnum, Basic Music Theory

which does what it says on the tin, i.e. it contains stuff you should know about without much fluff. It has a strong focus on reading traditional notation, which you'll need to make much progress in this area.

For something jazz-focused, and with a strong emphasis on giving you thousands (I guess?) of chord shapes for guitar, the classic text is

  • Ten Greene, Chord Chemistry

Greene's stuff is amazingly useful and this website collects up his fantastic teaching resources. You can learn a lot about chords just by playing through one of these pages and unlike most of what follows you don't need to read dots to use it.

Of course there are the "college jazz theory" books like these:

  • Mark Levine, The Jazz Theory Book
  • Nettles and Graf, The Chord Scale Theory and Jazz Harmony

Many people like them. Personally I find them bland and I'm not very convinced by them as accounts of what's happening on classic jazz records. But I'm not ideologically opposed to Chord-Scale Theory per se and if you want to learn it these books are well written and organised, which is more than I can say for some of the others in this post that I like more.

For more specific (and, arguably, more modern) jazz approaches to guitar chords I've found the following useful:

  • Corey Christiansen, Quartal Harmony (long video)
  • Alan Kingstone, The Barry Harris Harmonic Method for Guitar (short video by someone else)
  • Mick Goodrick and Tim Miller, Creative Chordal Harmony for Guitar (musical example)
  • David Liebman, A Chromatic Approach to Jazz Harmony and Melody

All of these assume a general framework of standard tonal/modal harmony. So Goodrick and Miller offer some really hypermodern sounds but their recurring example of applying them is "Stella By Starlight". If you want to get beyond ii-V-I into something more exotic, you may have to shuffle over to the classical music department. (Goodrick and Miller is recommended with reservations -- it doesn't explain much and you'll get good at sight-reading chords if you want to get much out of it and it's a bit specialised to the kind of sound the authors are associated with.)

Aside: for technique, the gold standard in my opinion is

  • George Van Eps, Harmonic Mechanisms Guitar

There are three large volumes and almost everything in them is difficult. They're not the best way to just learn lots of new chords, though.

For your "tonal harmony 201" course you may as well use

which almost certainly contains everything you'll ever need to know on the topic and is written by someone who knew what it meant not only to teach and write about it but to put it into practice at the highest level.

A transition to something more modern is provided by

  • Vincent Persichetti, Twentieth-Century Harmony

which offers a kind of tasting menu of approaches favoured by various composers, but most of it remains within, or close to, the tonal system.

There aren't many books about harmony in strict 12-tone music. That music has been dominated by the serial technique, which seems to me to be primarily melodic; there aren't really "chords" so much as "temporararily simultaneous sounds". Of course these aren't accidental -- a good serial composer pays detailed attention to everything in the music -- but they also aren't the focus.

Many Baroque music experts would say just the same thing about Bach. Maybe harmony itself is a Classical/Romantic thing and we would-be modernists should really study counterpoint rather than chords. Personally I find this tough to apply to improvising on guitar but you can never know too much counterpoint so here's a book whose composition exercises might help you get your ear in:

  • Stanley Funicelli, Basic Atonal Counterpoint

Speaking of getting your ear in, this is the best book I know of for the practical musician who wants to learn about PC sets:

  • Michael Friedmann, Ear Training for Twentieth-Century Music

You should probably work through this one before Funicelli if you're going that way, but really this paragraph has been off-topic for the post since neither of these books is about chords.

So when exploring 12-tone harmony, we're mostly on our own. At the more pointy-headed-music-theory end of the spectrum we do have

  • Howard Hanson, Harmonic Materials of Modern Music (archive.org)
  • Elliott Carter, Harmony Book

Both are systematic and contain lots of chords but require significant work to absorb and apply.

All the books mentioned in this post are available to buy cheaply online. I know many people prefer an app or at least an eBook these days but I still think a paper book on your music stand is the best format for actually learning and applying it rather than just messing about. Of course you'll need a basic ability to read dots to get anywhere with most of them, but Denyer and/or Harnum (and practice!) can help you with that.