9th, 11th, and 13th Chords

Oooh, look at all those high numbers. Those must be really complicated, difficult chords! Probably sound craaaazy!

Ok, so maybe not.

These chord names may sound impressive, but they’re really just continuations of the same patterns we’ve already been using. A ninth chord is just a seventh chord with the added interval of the major ninth. An eleventh chord is just a ninth chord with the added interval of the perfect eleventh, and a thirteenth chord has the added interval of the major thirteenth.

Before continuing, I suggest reviewing my intervals lesson and seventh chord lesson.

I only covered intervals up to a seventh in my intervals lesson, and that’s because after seven they just start over. So that means that if you see an interval greater than a seventh, all you need to do is subtract seven, like so:

  • Major ninth –> major second
  • Perfect eleventh –> perfect fourth
  • Major thirteenth –> major sixth

Constructing a thirteenth chord

Let’s walk through the construction of a G13 chord, to see how it works. Start with G7, which we know has the following notes:

» G, B, D, F.

Next, add the major ninth, which is just the major second, which is A:

» G, B, D, F, A.

Next, the eleventh, which is the fourth, which is C:

» G, B, D, F, A, C.

Then finally, the thirteenth, E:

» G, B, D, F, A, C, E.

I know what you’re thinking, and yes, that’s a lot of notes. Yes, that’s more notes than can be played at once on a six-string guitar. I think we need to get rid of some.

What can we get rid of? Well, not the G, since that’s part of the chord name. It would be silly to have a G chord without a G in it, wouldn’t it? (Well, unless you’re playing with a bass player, but let’s not worry about that for now.) And not the E, since that’s the thirteenth interval, and also part of what gives the chord its name.

We also can’t get rid of the major third, the B, since that’s what makes this a major chord (rather than a minor or suspended chord).

Next, we also need to keep the dominant seventh, the F. This one’s a little less obvious, and it comes from a rule: high-numbered chords always contain the dominant seventh. Yes, it’s another one of those arbitrary rules that we just have to live with. (Otherwise it would be called an “add13” chord. Read more about “add chords.”)

The rest we can consider optional (though the perfect fifth, the D, is almost always there). That makes things easier, doesn’t it?

  • Required notes: G, B, F, E
  • Optional notes: D, A, C

And of course, the ninth and eleventh chords are similar, but don’t go all the way up to 13.

Now you can play them!

When can they be used?

Since high-numbered chords are just seventh chords with added notes, you can play them any time you would normally play a seventh chord.

But what’s the point?

Why do we need all these big numbered chords? What’s wrong with nice major and minor triads, maybe a seventh chord thrown in just for craziness sake once in a while? Doesn’t this all see a bit… much?

Well, yes and no.

You definitely don’t want to overuse these chords if you’re playing a Woody Guthrie cover, but they can come in handy in certain circumstances. Here are some examples, which I will cover in more depth in future lessons.

Chord/melody: A lot of times, you’ll find yourself playing lead guitar and rhythm guitar at the same time. Since these chords have more possible notes, you have more options for including the melody line along with the backup.

Chord substitution: This is when you substitute one chord for another one. For example, you can play a G13 when the song calls for a Dm, since the G13 already contains the D, F, and A notes. Again, the more possible notes a chord has the more chances you have to substitute it for another chord. (This is a pretty advanced topic I will cover later on.)

General funkiness: These high-numbered chords sound “different.” They sound “jazzy,” “funky,” “strange.” If that’s what you’re going for, they can be just the ticket.

Now go play

Theory’s all well and good, but to appreciate these chords, you gotta play them. Start plugging them into your songs, start jamming around with them. The more you know, the more you can do. So go play.