Guitar and Piano Chord Translation

Published: 22nd March 2010
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Ever wonder how you can translate chords between Guitar and Piano? With this simple method, I'll show you how it's done. You'll be able to break down a chord into it's component parts on one instrument, map it and reassemble on the other.

Bridge Guitar to Piano!

One thing that I hear musicians complain about time after time is their inability to "crossover" to another instrument easily. What's more, is that many are already very proficient on their main instrument. What I've found is that there just aren't enough guides out there which can help to TRANSLATE and COMMUNICATE music fully across the instrumental divide. We can call this the "music barrier" and once you learn to cross this threshold, you can easily map one instrument to another. How can this be accomplished? With the building blocks of songs, musical pieces and the harmonies and melodies you hear every day - CHORDS!

Guitar and Piano Chords Translation:

My particular focus for this article is translating chords between Guitar and Piano. I have played both instruments myself for a number of years and enjoy taking songs written for one instrument, to the other. One thing that you must first understand is that Piano is inherently "linear" -- each note up the staff can be walked in tandem right up the piano. The Guitar on the other hand is a more "dimensional" instrument (horizontal frets and vertical strings) -- You can walk up the frets of a Guitar on the 6th string and then you can actually jump across to the 5th string to continue up the staff. You can even play the same exact tone in the same exact octave at the same exact time, albeit with a little stretch of the fingers!

By breaking down chords into their component parts and mapping each tone from Guitar to its Piano equivalent, we have broken the music barrier. Here we go!

Chord Voicings:

In order to provide the simplest method for translating chords between Guitar and Piano we must first discuss Voicings - the arrangement of notes in a chord. Guitar chords are usually played in "root position", or where the bass note is the name of the chord. For example, a C Major chord in root position would have a low C Major note as the lowest note.

Piano is a little bit different in that there is no real de facto way to arrange the tones in a chord, it can be very subjective based on the musical piece. As such, I will base all chords being translated on the Guitar voicings. Another reason that I will base our Piano chords on the Guitar voicing is because Guitar tones tend to be more difficult to wrap your hands around (literally) when they are more spread out like Piano chords are apt to be.

Guitar to Piano Chord Mappings:

Now that we understand voicings, it's time to start mapping some chords! Each of the five fingers is given a number -- starting from the pinky on the left hand we have 5, 4, 3, 2 with the thumb being 1. The right hand mirrors the left with the thumb labeled 1 and then 2, 3, 4 and the pinky at 5. So, the left hand plays the left 5, 2, 1 while the right hand handles the higher 1, 3 and 5.

Spelling out the E9 chord as an example, we have E, B, D, Ab/G#, D, Gb/A#.

Guitar, Piano and Staff Notation:

Now, let's translate this over to the Guitar:

We'll refer to the same E9 chord as an example on the guitar.

For the guitar, the index finger is 1, middle finger 2, ring finger 3 and pinky 4. Thumb is also sometimes used and is usually designated by a T or P. You're now playing the exact same chord played on the Piano, on the Guitar!


That's all there is to it. Our piano fingering guideline can be transposed to any chord, just follow the standard 5, 2, 1 -- 1, 3, 5 rule. Remember, the piano is a lot more "loose" when it comes to playing standards, some chords don't require all six fingers, so take one of them out wherever it feels most comfortable and natural. Practice playing chords with these three fingers on each hand and it will come more naturally when it's time to feel out a new chord.

Most of all, have fun with it! See what songs you can translate between Guitar and Piano. Maybe some sound even better on the other instrument, or you can find new and interesting ways to play them given the difference in timbre between both instruments.

Keep on playing, practicing and communicating the language of music!

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