The garage rock sound is eminently simple, so you can get a long way to replicating the sounds of bands like the 13th Floor Elevators and the Seeds by picking up basic guitar major, minor and seventh chords. Garage rock bands weren’t big on music theory, but understanding the basics of how chords are put together gives you a better idea of when to incorporate different elements into your playing.
The basic major chords are all you need for most garage rock songs, and this simple approach is integral to getting the iconic sound. Chords are built from different notes, and these are all taken from a scale. Scales are just groups of notes that sound good together, and the major scale is the basis for major chords. You simply take the first, third and fifth notes from the scale to make the chord, so from the C major scale (C, D, E, F, G, A and B) you get a chord from C, E and G. The same goes for the major chords in any scale, so in G major (G, A, B, C, D, E and F#) you take the G, B and D notes to make the chord.
Here are some common major chords arranged for the guitar. The diagrams are easy to understand – they’re basically a simple picture of a vertical guitar neck, with the six strings running vertically (with the thick E string to the left) and the frets running horizontally. The double-line at the top represents the nut, and the single horizontal lines represent the fret markers. The circles tell you where to put your fingers, and they’re numbered from one to four, index to pinky.
Most of these are pretty straightforward, but you might struggle with F because your index finger has to cover two frets. If you’re struggling with it, normally it helps to lower the thumb of your fretting hand. Don’t play the strings marked with Xs.
Practice changing between these chords to help you get to grips with them more. You can play a simple progression with C, F and G or G, C and D, although these are a little too wholesome for garage rock.
Minor chords produce a drastically different sound by altering just one note. The third is flattened (which means moved down by one fret) for a more melancholy tone. Here are a few minor chords that you can use with the majors above:
Try a progression with C, G, and A minor, or G, D and E minor to produce something with more of a garage rock sound. If we look at the C major scale again, C, D, E, F, G, A and B, you can see that the first, fourth and fifth notes can be played as major chords, and the second, third and sixth can be played as minors. This is the same for all major scales, so you can use the G major, A minor, B minor, C major, D major and E minor chords in G major.
Finally, some garage rock tracks incorporate seventh chords, which include the flattened version of the seventh note in the scale. So a C7 chord will also include the B flat (b) note, and a G7 chord will also include an F. These create a more tense sound, and can be really useful in songwriting.
You can basically replace ordinary chords for sevenths whenever you’re looking to add a bit of tension to a progression. Bands like the Sonics used wrote portions of songs simply by alternating between two seventh chords – so see what you can create!