This ultimate guide to learning guitar chords will cover over 20 different beginner chords, but we only need a few of these to do the things that the average guitar player does, including writing hit songs!
I will give you the knowledge of how to read and understand them in this guide. I will then put the information together and show you how to use it to create your own compositions or exercises.
In this guide we will cover;
- What are chords?
- Reading chord diagrams
- how to read chord names
- Open chords
- Barre chords
- Chord progressions
- Breaking chords down
- Power chords
- What to learn next
- Chords in practice
Remember, All the information given in this guide could keep you busy for many years. There are enough chord shapes, inversion and ways of doing things here that you can expand upon this in many directions. I still learn new tricks and caveats around these chords to this day, 20 years after I started playing!
So, What are Guitar Chords?
Chords are the result of playing three or more notes at the same time. When we do this harmonically, or in key, we can create many different textures and sounds.
We can use these different textures and sounds to create happy music, sad music, upbeat music and any other style and genre you can think of!
On guitar, we have the option to play single notes and chords. We use single notes to create melodies and sounds. Chords are used to make bigger sounds. We can use them to write song structures, and if we choose the right chords in the right keys we can create many different songs and pieces of music.
We can write chord sequences down, which is really simple and much easier than writing the actual music down. If I wrote down Am, C, Dm, E7 and gave it to a musician, they would be able to play that progression. This is much easier also when learning guitar chords.
There are many different ways to play the same chord all over the guitar neck. It’s actually simpler than you think to learn this. And for this reason, we guitarists sometimes use chord diagrams to show us which version of a chord we are using.
Understanding Chord Diagrams
Diagrams are used often when looking at guitar music. They are usually displayed at the beginning of a piece of music and allow you to see which shapes are to be used. Learning how to read them is fairly simple and won’t take you too long to get to grips with.
You can think of the diagrams as a snapshot of the guitars fretboard and strings, which covers a just a few frets. The below diagram shows an E;
- The vertical lines represent the strings.
- The horizontal lines represent the frets.
- The red circles are where the fingers are placed.
- The ‘O’ means play that string open.
- The ‘X’ means don’t play that string.
- The numbers at the bottom show which fingers to use.
The picture above is an open chord played at the start of the guitar neck. On these diagrams we can also show chords further up the guitar neck. You can see a line of three notes on the first fret for the shape below. This will be your index finger barring down and acting as an anchor for the chord.
Note that the number to the left of the diagram indicates which fret the chord will start on.
Some chord diagrams and tabs will also use a capo. This is usually represented as a thick black horizontal line. The piece of music should tell you at the beginning what fret the capo should go on!
For the sake of this article I will mostly use diagrams as we are just learning basic guitar chords. Guitar tabs will also be used as well so that you can see the diagrams in tablature format too.
How To Learn Chord Names
I will be honest with you and tell you that I have no idea how many guitar chords there are in the world, but I know that there is a ridiculous amount, and luckily for people learning the guitar, we don’t need to know most of them.
It doesn’t actually take that much time of learning music theory to learn how to find all of the chords should we need them though. Although the amount available is vast, the methods to finding them is the secret to mastery!
Start with the note name
Chords are named with the note first, such as; A, B, D, G. We never go past G, There is no H in music! We call the first note the Root note, as it tells us the base note of a chord or key. The root note of a C chord is C, the root note of a Gmin7 chord is G.
We can also have sharp (#) and Flats (b). I won’t go into detail about music theory in this article, but just know that these are the symbols for sharps and flats, and they come after the letter. So now we could have A, B#, Db, G#.
Major or minor?
After the note’s letter is specified we usually say whether it is a Major or Minor chord, such as; Amaj, Bmin, C#maj, Gbmin etc. This is also usually shortened by guitarists: instead of Amaj we would just say ‘A’. So the above chord sequence would be; A, Bmin, C#, Gbmin.
As a further note, Minor can be shortened to ‘m’. So, the above chord sequence becomes; A, Bm, C#, Gbm instead of; Amaj, Bmin, C#maj, Gbmin, which is much harder to read.
With guitar chords for beginners, this is as much as you initially need to know. You can play pretty much every song with just major and minor chords. There are more chord extensions that you may come across as you continue to learn. These may include suspended chords, add chords and 7th chords. These are usually written like;
The last chords listed are more advanced and aren’t as common as the basic Major and Minor chords. These tend to be used in genres such as Jazz.
Now that we can read chord diagrams and know what the chord names mean, we can grab our guitars and start looking at two different types of chords; open and barre chords.
Learn Beginners Chords – Open Chords
Open chords can be the best place to start when learning the guitar. Once you learn a few of them you can start to play along to songs and have lots of fun. Actually, you can even play along to many popular songs with just two chords!
Two Chord Songs;
The Beatles – Paperback Writer
Paperback writer uses the G and C chords throughout the song!
Bruce Springsteen – Born In The USA
Born In The USA uses the B and E chords!
Nirvana – Something In The Way
Something In The Way uses the Em and C chords!
What does open mean?
We call them open chords because when you play them you are also playing open strings within the chord. Open strings are strings that you strum but don’t have any fingers on the fretboard for that string.
If you place a finger on the fretboard on a string then that string is not open anymore, you are playing a fretted note.
In the C Major open chord for example (usually just called the C chord), we place three of our fingers on three different strings, but we actually strum five strings. The open strings in the C Major open chord are in harmony with C Major!
The most common open chords on guitar are played using the first three frets, meaning that we can just concentrate on this area of the fretboard and learn many songs and techniques here.
The common open major chords for guitar are; A, C, D, E, G. Some guitarists use the CAGED method as a way of thinking about how these chords are related and fit together, and also for transposing the open chords to other areas of the fretboard; this method mostly requires barre chords which we’ll cover later on in this article.
Common Open Chords
There are also three open minor chords that are commonly played. They are; Am, Dm and Em.
After you have practices these chords a few times and wrapped your fingers around them, you can quickly start to learn new strumming and picking patterns, and even songs!
For beginner guitarists I recommend leaning some basic strumming patterns with the open chords as a means to practicing and improving upon them. By doing this you will be learning both chords and rhythms at the same time. In the beginning though, concentrate on one chord at a time.
BUNUS TIP: At first, aim to strum each chord smoothly and with all the right open notes ringing out. Then, learn a basic strumming pattern and apply it to one chord at a time; don’t worry about changing from one chord to another at the beginning. Rather, aim to make each chord sound good on its own first!
Once you become confident with the basic open chord shapes you can explore playing in different keys and move these chords around the fretboard, which will greatly expand your understanding of chord structures and scales and see how they relate to each other.
Here are five bonus chords that are played higher up the neck but that include open strings. N.B remember to look at which open strings are to be played on the chord diagrams.
Essential Beginner Chords – Barre Chords
Barre chords are different from open chords because we are using our index finger to barre across multiple strings on a particular fret. This is what allows us to move the open chords we have learnt so far all over the fretboard. The index finger is acting as a replacement for what the nut is doing when we play open chords.
Once you start to move the open chord shapes up and down the fretboard with barre chords, you will unlock many more sounds, tones and textures that guitar chords have to offer.
Strength And Dexterity
I definitely remember my early days of playing barre chords. My hands were small and my strength was poor, barre chords were hard!!! But within a short span of time it became second nature to me and the muscles in my fretting hand adapted. This will obviously happen to you too and you’ll be rocking around the fretboard in no time.
Strength will come with time and practice. Try to play barre chords every day alongside open chords, even if only for 2 minutes! This will quickly develop your strength, dexterity and muscle memory.
It’s important never to injure your hands when playing guitar. If you ever feel and strains or uncomfortable tensions in your body then you should take a brake. If this continues to happen then analyze your playing techniques and posture to see if there is anything that can be improved upon.
We can take all the open chords we’ve learnt so far (remember CAGED!) and transpose all of them into barre chords;
Can you see the open shapes within the diagrams above? We are now using our index finger to act as the guitar nut.
See if you can transpose the minor open chords into barre chords! Check bottom of this article for the correct answers for Am, Dm and Em!
Now, the above chords diagrams can be intimidating for a beginner guitarist, I get it, I was the same too once upon a time. If you want to learn them, then learn them. If not, don’t worry about it anytime soon, there are only a few chords in this article that you will use all the time, some of the above you may never use….or you may just use parts of the chords, which can be way more creative, but more on that later in the article!
The most common barre chords that most guitarists use are the E and A shapes (referring to the open chord shapes). If you can learn these two shapes, both major and minor versions also, you will have all the tools you need to start moving these nice sounding big chords all over the guitar neck.
Learning The Chord Progression
So now that we have learnt some chords and hopefully a good strumming or picking pattern, we can take our chords and build a chord progression out of them.
A chord progression is a group of chords that have been arranged in a certain order to be musically pleasing. Usually, the progressions repeats for a specific number of times before ending or moving onto the next chord progression in the song.
We can group any number of chords together, play them on loop and call it a progression, but usually we stick to a certain musical key. This is when we say “We’ll play in the key of E”. This means that we will play a chord progression in the key of E major.
With a little music theory knowledge we can learn which notes are in the E major scale and whether those notes can form Major or Minor chords. We can then build a progression and it will be in a key that musicians can understand and jam along to.
Common Chord Progressions
Below I have given you three common chord progressions that you should find musically pleasing and familiar. Many songs are written using simple progressions such as these, and when you combine them with different tempos, strumming and picking patterns you will realize just how versatile these simple and common progressions are! Below are examples of basic chords and picking patterns. They are not musically amazing, but are good for when practicing learning guitar chords.
I – IV – V Chords
In music, we also label progressions based on numbers. The Roman numerals I-IV-V refer to the 1st, 4th and 5th chords in a major or minor scale (scale has 7 notes usually). The I-IV-V chords are the basic chords of 12-bar blues progression. Many other songs in virtually every music genre have been written around these three chords.
With the open chords we have seen so far, we could play a I-IV-V progression using; G, C & D chords, or A, D & E chords, or even Am, Dm & Em. Playing these combinations will give us the I-IV-V progression and sound.
Check out the below video to see how many songs you can recognise from one chord progression, in this case the I-V-II-IV progression, root note is D!
Use Parts of a Chord
If you are a beginner or new to learning guitar then this section may be too much information for you right now. Have a glance at what I’m saying in this section and by doing so you will start to notice parts of chords showing up in the different music you go on to learn.
The chords we have practiced so far I would call full chords. We are usually playing five or six strings at the same time and the lowest note is the root note of that particular chord.
Now, we don’t actually have to use all of the notes in the chords we have been learning so far. When given chord charts, you are free to use the whole chords or parts of them if you prefer to. If you are playing something very specific then you may need to play what has been given to you, but if you want to write your own music or improvise guitar along to other music you can experiment with using parts of a chord rather than the full chord.
Let’s take a look at two examples to show you where I’m going with this. The first is an open E chord and the second is a G barre chord with the root note on the 5th string (A). I will create new shapes out of what we already know!
E – three note chords
G – three note chords
As you can see, all that I have done is remove some of the notes from the chord, and by doing so we get slight variations on our original full chord! This opens up so much potential for us as musicians to create more sounds and dynamics from the one chord that we learnt, rather than just having to play the same full chords all the time.
This way of thinking of chords means that we can quickly come up with new variations without having to specifically learn and remember all of the variations. Instead, we can just think “Ah, I want to play just the high notes from the G, C, D chords in the verse, and then play the full chords in the chorus”.
The Power Chord!
Since we discussed parts of a chord we have to talk about the ultimate part of a chord that has been exploited; the mighty Power Chord. Used in Blues, Rock and Popular music among other genres for many decades now, the power chord is a staple sound and tool used by most guitarists at some point along their playing careers.
In fact, many bands only use power chords, or at least use them 80% of the time! Bands such as Green Day, Nirvana, Blink 182 and Iron Maiden use power chords extensively.
It comes from the E shaped barre chord and just uses the lowest two or three notes. A chord is actually defined as three or more notes being played simultaneously, but when playing power chords we can get away with just playing two notes from the original full chord, which is technically known as an interval.
Below is the two and three notes variations of the power chord deriving from the original full chord.
Many popular songs use power chords, such as;
- Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit
- Green Day – American Idiot
- Boston – More Than a Feeling
- Rhianna – Shut Up and Drive
- Black Sabbath – Paranoid
What Chords To Learn Next?
By now you will have enough knowledge to play most songs that are out there. And by this I mean that you will have the basic major and minor chord knowledge available to you to be able to strum the backbone chord progressions of many, many songs.
Many famous musicians and songwriters know about as much as is detailed in this guide and have gone on to become legends! You can too just by learning guitar chords!
So where do you go from here? It really depends on the genre of music that you are into and where you want to take your playing. You can certainly spend a lot of time breaking down the chords we have looked at in this article and really explore all the colors and textures they have to offer.
I’ll give some further suggestions for using these chords;
- Play in different positions on the neck in the same key, and then in different keys.
- Learn new picking and strumming patters to play with these chords.
- Learn every major and minor chord in a key and then write a progression in that particular key.
I certainly recommend learning the dominant 7th chord next though. This is a very popular chord and really helps to round off a chord progression. You will recognize its sound when you hear it and it does add more depth to your playing. It is usually written as; C7, D7, E7, G7 etc.
If you are into Jazz much then you will have many more chords to learn and should consider learning music theory at some point along your journey. If you are into pop, rock or country music then the major, minor and dominant 7th chords are as much as you need, although other chords can be used but are usually found through being creative or learning more chords and music theory.
When you come across any unusual or nice sounding chords that you hear in your favorite music, then Google the guitar tabs or chords for that particular piece of music. You now have the knowledge to read chord diagrams, they may be easier or more familiar then you realized! This is a great practice for learning guitar chords.
Many times in my own playing I have wondered how artists created such sounds, only to realize its based on something I know well but maybe don’t often use myself. This then educates me and forces me to expand my playing and musical awareness. The learning never stops!
Learning guitar chords is an essential part of playing guitar. Most of the common ones used in music are actually pretty simple to learn and play on guitar, as we have seen here with power chords and using parts of a chord. Although this is the ultimate guide to learning guitar chords, we have actually covered almost all of the essential chords for guitar as well. There really isn’t many more to learn, unless you would like to become more technical or explore jazz etc.
With the information in this guide, especially about using parts of a chord, you have some great tools to start creating your own pieces of music or songs. You can now even write a little three string progression and make your own picking and strumming exercises.
The more you play the better you’ll get, simple….but it’s true. You can never pick up a guitar and waste your time with it while you’re playing. Every time you are learning guitar chords or any other technique, you will get better. You will understand something in a new way, or you will think of a new idea etc. Time is never wasted with the guitar, it will always be a good investment in yourself when you pick up and play.
Answers – Am, Dm, Em Shapes
Here are the three minor open shapes that I asked if you could workout. Hopefully you got them all!