ReadEmon Hassan

Writing "The 50 Greatest Guitar Books" & How To Simplify Chords

ReadEmon Hassan
Writing "The 50 Greatest Guitar Books" & How To Simplify Chords

Guest post by Shawn Persinger

I got my first guitar in 1984, for my thirteenth birthday. An Epiphone Genesis – with horrible fret buzz on the 10th fret, high E string, but otherwise okay. Accompanying the guitar was the inevitable Mel Bay’s Guitar Chords book. Well I just looked at that G chord on page six and said to myself, “No.”

About a year later I finally learned my first song, “Rock You Like A Hurricane” by Scorpions. Right after that I made up my own first song. Though I don’t remember how it goes or what I called it, it would be safe to say it should have been titled, “Variation on a Theme by Scorpions.” I would learn a new song every couple of weeks – always taught to me by a friend, I couldn’t figure out anything by myself – and then I would make up something similar. This became my modus operandi for the next…well…it’s still what I do. Though I try to be less obvious regarding my source material.

Four years later I bought my first guitar magazine. I still own it. Guitar For The Practicing Musician, September 1989. Jeff Beck on the cover, with his recording of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” transcribed inside. Goodness gracious! If I had been intimidated by the G chord, imagine my shock at seeing 45 chords (yes really 45) transcribed for the Charles Mingus classic. Little did I know that these chords were actually played by the keyboard and had only been arranged for guitar by some sadist (Andy was it you?). There is actually a B13(#11) that has a five-fret stretch and uses all five fingers on the left hand!

About one year later I discovered Foxes Music in Falls Church, VA. I had been accepted into Musicians Institute and I was determined to be prepared. Foxes Music became my source for all guitar education literature.

On my very first visit to Foxes I found Howard Roberts’ Super Chops book. I was delighted because I knew Roberts was the co-founder of Musicians Institute and Super Chops was part of the curriculum. I thought, “This is great. I’ll do the whole program before I even get to school.” I get the book home, open to the first lesson and discover…39 chords, no chord diagrams, no tab, and…the very first chord has a five fret stretch and for chord number 11 you have to use your thumb to play two different notes.

I’m not sure what this reminiscence says about me (masochist?). These books and this particular magazine issue (and many more with equally challenging material) mean so much to me. They changed my life. That’s not hyperbole. I’ve made a living by playing guitar for the last 22 years. Performing, composing, teaching, writing, anything guitar related I do. I can’t help but think these books are as responsible as the instrument.


My book, The 50 Greatest Guitar Books, includes this quote by Charles William Eliot, who, for what it’s worth, served as Harvard’s longest standing president,1869-1909. “Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.”

Here is a piece of advice of I wish I had been told before I bought any of these books or magazines. This is an excerpt from chapter nine of The 50 Greatest Guitar Books on how anyone can simplify chords to fit their need and abilities.

  • Simplify. Many guitarists don’t realize that a G7b9 chord is just a G chord with a couple of extra notes. If you don’t know G7b9 just play G7. Don’t know G7? Then just play G. But you cannot do this with all chords. Here are a few rules for simplifying.
  •  You can remove numbers from any chord.
  •  You cannot remove sharps or flats directly after the initial chord letter name. Ab13 can only become Ab, whereas A7b9 can become A7 or A.
  •  You cannot remove minors. Cm9 can become Cm but cannot become C.
  •  When it comes to chords with alterations – e.g., b5, #5, b9, #9, #11 - you can ignore these alterations but you will lose a little something. For instance, in the Ellington/Strayhorn tune “Take the ‘A’ Train,” you can change the D7b5 into a D7 or D, but it loses a note contained in the melody (that note also tone paints the train’s whistle). The one expectation to this rule is that a minor7b5 chord cannot be changed at all, unless you completely substitute another chord for it, which you can. Any minor7b5 chord can become a minor triad if moved up three half-steps.
  •  F#m7b5 becomes Am. (I realize this is complicated idea for beginners, I am sorry).
  •  You can drop all notes after slashes. A7/G becomes A7 or A.
  •  Transpose. Many of these songs become much easier to play and comprehend if you transpose them into “guitar friendly” keys. Many jazz tunes are in the keys of Ab, Eb, and Bb, which can be uncomfortable on guitar for beginners and earlier intermediate players. Lowering many song’s keys, and their chords, down one fret can be profoundly revealing.

Some audio examples, all performed performed and courtesy of the author, Shawn Persinger, from The 50 Greatest Guitar Books

You can find many more tips and lessons like this in The 50 Greatest Guitar Books.

Shawn Persinger was live on Twitter for #GuitarChat on March 12th, at 9pm (ET). Read the full transcript of the chat  here.

Photo of author in front of Taj Mahal by Molly Fey Persinger.