Read And Play Complicated Chords On The Piano

Lisa Witt  /  Chord Theory  /  UPDATED Jan 10, 2023

Chord charts are awesome — they help you learn and play songs super fast — and they’re a great tool to help you start improvising because they are just a guide for the notes to play.

But …

Some chords can look really funky and complicated on a chord chart. How are you supposed to know what they mean?

That’s what this lesson is about. It will help you demystify complicated chords — and will allow you to figure out pretty much any chord you can expect to find on a chord chart.

It’s useful to have some prior knowledge

I’m going to be talking about 7th chords and major and minor chords in this lesson. If you don’t know what 7th chords are (or you’re just a little rusty), you can find

I mention that it’s useful to have some prior knowledge. To learn all about major and minor chords, and what the difference is, you can find a lesson by clicking here.

And to learn all about 7th chords, you can check out our lesson here.


This song by The Eagles is perfect for illustrating some complicated chords because it has lots of funky chord changes and it even shifts outside the key signature at times.

This lesson will be using “Desperado” as our example. If you want to follow along or just learn to play the song, you can get a FREE downloadable copy of the chord chart here: << Desperado Chord Chart >>

So let’s dive right in…

As soon as you look at the chord chart for Desperado, you can see there’s some interesting stuff going on. Here are the first two lines, which are what we’re going to focus on today:

Immediately you’ll see complicated chords. There are some interesting numbers, initials and there’s even a slash line in there. So let’s break it down one-by-one.

The Dominant 7th (C7)

This is the first unusual chord. To build a 7th chord you just add the 7th note of the scale (see the lesson mentioned above). But if you just add the major 7th note to a major chord, you end up with a Major 7th chord. On a chord chart that looks like this: C Maj 7

That’s NOT what’s going on here.

The dominant 7th is probably the most common type of 7th chord. That’s why it just uses the number 7. There are no other descriptions about it.

To make a dominant 7th you first make a Major 7th — and then lower the 7th by one half-step. So a C7 is C – E – G – Bb.

You can apply this to the other dominant 7th chords here. D7 is D – F# – A – C (because the C# is lowered), and G7 is G – B – D – F.

The Minor Chord (Fm)

The next unusual symbol we see is the ‘m’ next to the F chord. That simply means ‘minor’. So this is an F minor chord.

You can watch the lesson mentioned earlier to learn all about minor chords. The only difference between a major and minor chord is that we lower the 3rd by a half step.

So here you have an F chord followed by an Fm chord.

So the F chord is F – A – C and the Fm chord is F – Ab – C.

The Slash Chord (G/B)

This is one of the more confusing chords because it LOOKS like two separate chords.

But it’s actually quite simple. Slash chords tell us two things. First, the main chord that we’re going to play — that’s the chord BEFORE the slash line.

Second, the note we going to play in the bass (left-hand). That’s the note AFTER the slash line.

So the example in Desperado is G/B.

That means we’ll play a G major chord in our right-hand, and play a B note (or octave) in our left-hand. Most of the time the bass note will be the 3rd note of the chord we’re playing.

Slash chords are often used to help ‘walk’ a chord progression down. You can see here the chord before the slash chord is C, then it’s G/B, and then it’s Am7. So in the bass we’ll only have to walk from C down to B, down to A.

That brings us to…

The Minor 7th (Am7)

This one is easy. It is simply a minor chord with a minor 7th added. Just like you can have a major 7th, you can have a minor 7th.

For the A minor chord, the notes are A – C – E – G. It’s important that all the notes are part of the minor scale. That’s why the C and G are both white keys, instead of C# and G#.

The Diminished 7th (Cdim7)

This chord is NOT in Desperado, but you might see it on chord charts, so it’s worth mentioning.

A diminished 7th chord is a stack of minor 3rds. That’s the easiest way to think about it.

So let’s take C as an example. We start with C, then a minor 3rd above that is Eb. A minor 3rd above Eb is Gb, and a minor 3rd above Gb is A.

Now I know what you’re thinking. How the heck is A the 7th of C?! But remember, we are stacking minor thirds. Technically the A is called a Bbb, so it’s still thought of as the 7th note.

And finally …

The Half-Diminished 7th (Cm7b5)

This is also called the minor 7 flat 5 chord because that describes exactly what it is!

Start with a minor 7. In the key of C that will be C – Eb – G – Bb.

And then simply flatten the 5th. That means lower it by one half-step.

So the chord is now C – Eb – Gb – Bb.

And those are most of the chords you can expect to see on chord charts.

There are others, like sus chords and 6ths, but those are for another time.

For now, learn and remember these complicated chords, and start playing Desperado!

Have fun.

Lisa Witt has been teaching piano for more than 20 years and in that time has helped hundreds of students learn to play the songs they love. Lisa received classical piano training through the Royal Conservatory of Music, but she has since embraced popular music and playing by ear in order to accompany herself and others. Learn more about Lisa.

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