Understanding secondary chords and how to apply them on guitar

Last updated on October 2nd, 2023

If you’re interested in diving deeper into music theory and harmony, you’ll want to understand the concept of secondary chords. Secondary chords allow you to expand your palette of harmonic possibilities to create richer chord progressions for composition or improvisation.

This lesson covers the music theory on secondary chords and how to apply them in a chord progression. The examples at end include guitar chord charts but can they also apply to other instruments. Let’s get started!

What are secondary chords?

Secondary chords are chords that function as a 5 chord to resolve to any chord other than the tonic (1 chord). For example, in the key of C Major, the secondary chord to the 3 minor chord (E minor) would a B Major chord.

secondary chord example in C Major

You can add a secondary chord before any other chord. To do this, simply think of a Major chord which is a 5th interval above the chord you’re landing to. For example, here are some secondary chords in the key of C Major:

  • A Major is the 5 of the 2 chord (D minor)
  • B Major is the 5 of the 3 chord (E minor)
  • C Major is the 5 of the 4 chord (F Major)
  • D Major is the 5 of the 5 chord (G Major)
  • E Major is the 5 of the 6 chord (A minor)
  • F# Major is the 5 of the 7 chord (B diminished).

Most secondary chords do not belong to the diatonic chords of a scale, which is why they add tension or suspense to create a much more interesting chord progression. However, these chords make sense within a progression because they have a specific function of resolving to the next chord.

If needed, see this other post to learn the related chords in Major and minor key signatures, also known as diatonic chords.

Secondary chords in Major keys chart

Key center5 of 2 chord5 of 3 chord5 of 4 chord5 of 5 chord5 of 6 chord5 of 7 chord
C MajorA MajorB MajorC MajorD MajorE MajorF# Major
D MajorB MajorC# MajorD MajorE MajorF# MajorG# Major
E MajorC# MajorD# MajorE MajorF# MajorG# MajorA# Major
F MajorD MajorE MajorF MajorG MajorA MajorB Major
G MajorE MajorF# MajorG MajorA MajorB MajorC# Major
A MajorF# MajorG# MajorA MajorB MajorC# MajorD# Major
B MajorG# MajorA# MajorB MajorC# MajorD# MajorF Major
Db MajorBb MajorC MajorDb MajorEb MajorF MajorG Major
Eb MajorC MajorD MajorEb MajorF MajorG MajorA Major
Gb MajorEb MajorF MajorGb MajorAb MajorBb MajorC Major
Ab MajorF MajorG MajorAb MajorBb MajorC MajorD Major
Bb MajorG MajorA MajorBb MajorC MajorD MajorE Major

Secondary chords in minor keys chart

Key center5 of 2 chord5 of b3 chord5 of 4 chord5 of 5 chord5 of b6 chord5 of b7 chord
C minorA MajorBb MajorC MajorD MajorEb MajorF Major
D minorB MajorC MajorD MajorE MajorF MajorG Major
E minorC# MajorD MajorE MajorF# MajorG MajorA Major
F minorD MajorEb MajorF MajorG MajorAb MajorBb Major
G minorE MajorF MajorG MajorA MajorBb MajorC Major
A minorF# MajorG MajorA MajorB MajorC MajorD Major
B minorG# MajorA MajorB MajorC# MajorD MajorE Major
Db minorBb MajorB MajorDb MajorEb MajorE MajorG Major
Eb minorC MajorDb MajorEb MajorF MajorGb MajorAb Major
Gb minorEb MajorE MajorGb MajorAb MajorA MajorB Major
Ab minorF MajorGb MajorAb MajorBb MajorB MajorDb Major
Bb minorG MajorAb MajorBb MajorC MajorDb MajorEb Major

Secondary dominant chords

Since secondary chords function as a 5 chord of any chord, this means that you can also use them as dominant chords. Dominant chords have the chord tones 1, 3, 5, and b7. This is essentially a Major chord with an added b7 tension. If needed, see this other lesson to learn more about 7th chords.

For example, here is a progression in the key of C Major using a secondary dominant chord below. The D 7 chord acts as a 5 of the 5 chord here.

Secondary dominant chord example

You can also add chord tensions to secondary dominant chords, which we will cover in the application examples at the end.

If you want to be able to improvise over dominant chords, a good place to start is by learning how to play dominant arpeggios on guitar.

Secondary diminished chords

We can also use diminished chords as secondary chords because they have a similar function to dominant chords. For example, a B diminished 7 chord has the notes B, D, F, and Ab, which are the 3rd, 5th, 7th, and b9 of a G 7 chord. Instead of thinking G7 to C Major, we can think B diminished 7 to C Major.

This means that we can use any diminished chord a half step below any chord you’re approaching. For example, here’s the same chord progression in the previous section except we replace the D 7 chord with an F# diminished 7 chord.

Secondary diminished chord example

Secondary chord application examples

Now, let’s look at more examples of secondary chords in different keys with chord charts for guitar. The first three examples are secondary chords in triad form, and the last three examples are secondary chords in dominant chord form.

The examples include a chord analysis above the staff to explain how each chord is functioning within the progression.

Example 1: Key of C Major

The chords for the first example are A minor, D Major, G Major, and C Major. You can click on the chords with links to learn other ways of playing that chord.

Secondary chord example 1

Example 2: Key of D minor

The chords in example 2 are D minor, D Major, G minor, and A Major.

Secondary chord example 2

Example 3: Key of G Major

The following chords are G Major, E Major, A minor, and D Major.

Secondary chord example 3

Example 4: Key of F Major

The following progression uses shell chords, meaning we’re only adding the root, 3rd, and 7th of each chord. The chords are A 7, D 7, G 7, C 7, and F Major 7.

Secondary chord example 4

Example 5: Key of A minor

The following chords are F# 7 (#9), B 7 (b13), E 7 (#9), and A minor 7. To learn more about chords with extensions, check out this lesson on jazz chords on guitar.

Secondary chord example 5

Example 6: Key of E minor

This final example uses a secondary diminished chord. The chords are E minor 7, A minor 7, D# diminished 7, and E minor 7.

Secondary chord example 6

Wrapping up

To summarize what covered in this lesson, secondary chords function as the 5 chord that resolve to any chord within a Major or minor key. Because these chords don’t typically fit within the related chords of a key signature, it adds an element of surprise and interest within a progression.

Experiments with these chords as Major triads, dominant chords, and even diminished chords to create more depth to your compositions or improvisation.

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All the best, 
JG Music Lessons

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