So, you’ve just picked up your first guitar and are itching to play a little something. You may already be able to pick out a simple melody, but what you really want is to play that rich sound shaped by multiple notes at once – also referred to as chords. In this blog, I’d like to help beginners on their way to learning, reading and playing their first guitar chords.
- How are chords notated?
- Open chords
- Translating a chord diagram to the neck of your guitar
- Open chords: major and minor (‘m’)
- Making music with chord progressions
- The next step: open chords with a 7th note
- Blues progression bonus challenge
- Barre chords
- What’s a barre chord?
- Overview of the most-used barre chords
- Why learn these two barre chords?
- On which part of the fretboard are barre chords played?
- How about minor, 7 and m7?
- A handful of alternative chords
- Practicing barre chords: a little help
- Get to grips with your thumb underneath
- Get your fingers in shape to play bar chords
- Black and white dots
- Why these help
- Open chords and barre chords in practice: 4 progressions
- Practicing longer chord progressions
- Let the real deal begin!
- Well-Known Guitar Chords
- Right-Handed Guitar Chords
- Left-Handed Guitar Chords
- For the inquisitive string-picker
- See also
How Are Chords Notated?
Chords are generally notated with chord symbols: a letter, possibly followed by a combination of a special symbol and/or a number (e.g. G, C7, D#, Bb6). Songbooks often include chords inside chord diagrams (or chord boxes), which show you exactly where to put your fingers. When there are no diagrams and only chord symbols, it’s up to you to figure out which symbol matches which chord grip. Fortunately, each chord comes in handful of often-used variations. I remember that as a beginner, I started out with the easiest way to play the C-chord, just to learn my very first chord. In this blog, I’ll focus mostly on the basics and start things off with open chords.
If you’re a beginner, the best way to start would be by learning to play open chords. Uniquely-shaped, open chords are played on the first three frets (those metal strips lined across the fretboard) and include one or more ‘open’ strings – strings that are deliberately left untouched by your fret hand. Since there’s no need for any crazy finger-flexibility or superhuman strength yet, open chords offer a great way to quickly learn a bunch of chords and have fun while you’re at it. While there are other frequently-used chords like the F-chord that do not have an open version, there are still truckloads full of songs that you can play using only open chords.
Translating a Chord Diagram to the Neck of Your Guitar
To start you off with the most used open chords, we’ve compiled eight of them and have included them just down below. Here’s how to read them:
- Place your guitar on your lap with the neck up and the strings facing you. This is basically the same as the way you’d look at chord diagrams; the thickest string closest to you and the thinnest is furthest away.
- White dots represent strings you don’t press down on but do strum. Strings with an ‘x’ are skipped altogether. Keep in mind that it’ll take some practice before you’re able to play only the correct strings.
- Look at the numbers to learn which finger should press down on what string.
- If you’re a left-handed guitarist with a right fret hand, you’ll have to mirror the chord diagrams.
Open chords: major and minor (‘m’)
Using Chord Progressions to Make Music
Once you have your first couple of chords down, it’s time to put some together and make them sound like music. This is where chord progressions come in. To start off nice and easy, there’s a beginner progression included below. This particular combination of chords, or progression, is actually used in many of today’s pop songs.
G | D | Em | C |
Each bracket is four counts, so count from 1 to 4 before moving on to the next chord. Start by only striking each chord on the first count, either with a pick or your thumb. After four times of counting to four, you should have played all four chords once. If this is too easy, try playing each chord on the first and third count. Once that becomes too easy, go for all four.
- Don’t wait for the very last moment to place your fingers down.
- Metronomes can be really helpful when you’re learning an instrument. There are (free) metronome apps available or you can pick up a real one. Metronomes teach you to play in time, but make sure you start out at a slower pace so there’s more time to get your fingers ready to play the next chord.
The Next Step: Open Chords With a 7th Note
To spice up the sound, here’s a collection of open chords with a 7th note that you can practice and play:
Note: If you ask me, the B7 chord isn’t a genuine open chord because it doesn’t have a unique shaped: it’s based on the C7 chord. Either way, it’s a popular chord that’s not at all hard to learn, so it definitely deserves to be up here.
Blues Progression Bonus Challenge
If you’re up for a challenge, check out the blues chord progression below and follow the same steps as before.
| A7 | D7 | A7 | A7 | | D7 | D7 | A7 | A7 | | E7 | D7 | A7 | E7 |
Like we said, using the open chords listed up above, you can build quite a repertoire of campfire songs. You might be aiming for more, and may have already looked through a songbook of your favourite artist but only to come across chords like Bb7 and G#min7. Don’t worry, these look scarier than they are. Let’s dive into some of the most used barre chords.
What’s a Barre Chord?
Barre chords require the pressing down of multiple strings across one fret – or barring them and, as such, require more strength than it takes to play open chords. As it’s a matter of daily practice, don’t expect it get it right on your first try. Barre chords can take a little time to master.
Overview of the Most-Used Barre Chords
Let’s start with the two most common barre chords: the ‘E-shape’ and the ‘A-shape’. These are major chords and can be seen in the image below (#4). I’ve gone with these names because these barre chords closely resemble the open E and A chords you’ve seen before. The only difference here is that you now have to press down, or ‘bar’, five or six strings with your index finger.
Why Learn These Two Barre Chords?
Once you get the hang of the E-shape and A-shape chords, you can play a whole bunch of other chords. The beauty of barre chords is that they can ‘slide’. If you can play the E-shape barre chord, that means you can also play the F, F#, G, G#/Ab, etc. All you have to do is move your hand one fret up (or down) the fretboard. The same goes for the A-shaped barre chord. It lets you play a Bb, B, C, etc. Check out image #5 to see what’s possible.
Which Fret Are Barre Chords Played On?
- Image #5 represents the fretboard and frets of a guitar, with the thick line on the left being the string nut; the part sits between the neck and the headstock to guide the strings to the machine heads. If you play the E-shape with your index finger across the third fret, you’ll hear the G chord. Move up a fret, and you’ll hear the G# or Ab chord (we’ll explain the different names some other time), and so on. The Roman numerals are just a visual aid and match the position markers found on many guitars.
- Image #6 includes an example. The Roman numeral on the left indicates that the index finger (1) must press down on all strings in the third ‘box’. The horizontal line means it’s a barre chord, so start by placing down your index finger before the other three to make a G chord. Always pay attention to the Roman numeral: had the III been an IV, it would’ve been the G#/Ab chord. The same goes for the A-shape which, as image #5 tells you, would’ve been a C.
- As you might’ve noticed, you can use barre chords to play the same chords as can be played using the simpler, open chords explained earlier, and each version of a chord has its own timbre. This means that if you need to play a C chord for a song, it’s up to you to decide which version of it you want to play: barre or open. It is, however, not recommended to make ‘big leaps’ between chords. The transitions often aren’t as smooth and you need to be really fast to play in time. My tip: go for chords that are ‘close’ to each other.
Image #6 – G-Chord played as E-shape barre on the third fret
How About Minor, 7 and m7?
As you can see in image #4, there are chords like Em, Am and E7, which actually all stem from the E and A chords. For example, all it takes to go from an E to an Em is lifting your first finger away from the third string. Once you’re able to play the E and A major, you’re within a literal inch of being able to play minor, 7th and minor 7th chords. Also, since the maj7 version of the A is pretty easy to play, I took the liberty of including that one as well.
A Handful of Alternative Chords
- In image #4, I’ve included an alternate version of the A shape for the higher frets. The regular version is best played on the first half of the neck, where the space between the frets is relatively big and there’s more room for your fingers. The higher up the neck you venture, the narrower the frets become. At one point, it might be easier to use the alternative version, especially if you have large hands. You will have to slightly bend your ring finger the ‘wrong’ way to be able to press down on the three strings, and mute the highest (thinnest) string by lightly touching it with middle part of your ring finger. Practice makes perfect.
- If you’re struggling with with the E-shape barre chords because you haven’t got enough strength in your fingers yet, you can use the easier alternative included in image #4. To play the alternate version, all you need to do is lay down a tiny barre on the two highest strings.
Practicing Barre Chords: A Little Help
Once you literally get to grips with the barre chords laid out above, it’s safe to say you’ll have made a huge jump forward when your comes to your chord game. Since all things are hard before they are easy, I’ve listed a few tips below.
Considering the fact that it’s going to take your fret hand some time to get used these (large grip) chords, it’s important to ease into playing barre chords the correct way. To play them with the least amount of force required, you have to make sure your thumb sits flat on the back of the neck, right behind where your middle finger sits on the fretboard (that’s one fret higher than the barre is made with your index finger). Don’t use the tip of your thumb or any other way; this will require more finger strength to get clean sound and your fingers will most likely not sit as perpendicular to the fretboard. Once your hand gets used to it, you’ll notice it’s a lot more efficient, and there’s a smaller chance of injury.
Get Your Fingers in Shape to Play Barre Chords
If you’re not able to hold down a barre chord for extended periods of time yet, it’s best to let your index finger get used to a full barre grip in steps.
- Place the first part of your index finger on the two thinnest strings with your thumb behind the neck and strum only these two strings. As soon as this sounds good to you, the easier alternative E chord in image #4 shouldn’t be hard to play and, since you’re so close to the F, F# and Gb chords, this quick little grip is a great one add to your arsenal.
- Now, remove your middle and ring finger but leave the index finger. Continue pressing down an extra string at a time until you’re able to press down on all six.
- Don’t forget to check if each string is able to resonate freely. If you spent a little time practicing barre chords every day, you’ll make strides.
- To make the above exercise a tad easier, you can try playing the chords on fifth, sixth and seventh fret. The string tension isn’t as tight here, give it a try!
Black and White Dots?
You’ve no doubt noticed I’ve used black and white dots for the chords in image #4. While this has nothing to do with the way the chords are played, it’s important to know what this means for future reference. A white dot indicates the root note of a chord, while the black dots show the other notes. The root note of a G-chord, for example, is simply a G. Take a look at image #4 and you’ll notice the root note appears at least once in every chord. In the example below, you can see that there are three G notes in a G chord.
Why Is This Useful To Know?
I mention this because it’s an easy way to learn where all the notes are hidden on a guitar. If you regularly play the G seen below, it won’t be long before you’re able to point out three G notes on the fretboard of your guitar. This can prove useful in the future when you start playing melodies or even improv.
Open Chords and Barre Chords in Practice: 4 Progressions
To get used to the different barre chords and to play them in different keys, I’ve got a couple of easy chord progressions for you.
- The first series of chords are the same as those in the open chord progression at the start of this blog. Combined with the two barre chords you just learned, there are multiple ways to play this progression. While you could play an open G, image #5 shows you that you could also opt for an alternative version of the E-shape or A-shape barre chords. Remember what I said, though, always try to go for chords that are close together so the transition is a little easier.
- The second chord progression sounds the same as the first but is lowered by a whole note (the G has become an F, the D has become a C, etc).
Easy chord progression:
G | D | Em | C |
Easy chord progression – lowered in pitch by a full note:
F | C | Dm | Bb |
Practicing Longer Chord Progressions
To introduce you to a few more barre chord shapes, I’ve included two slightly more advanced chord progressions below. Here, the second progression sounds the same as the first, except it’s been raised by a note and a half.
Extended chord progression:
D | Dmaj7 | D7 | G | Gm | D | A7 | A7 |
Extended chord progression – raised in pitch by a note and a half:
F | Fmaj7 | F7 | Bb | Bbm | F | C7 | C7 |
Let The Real Thing Begin!
With these chords ingrained in your system, you won’t have to skip the occasional chord and you should be able to play all basic chord progressions. Some guitarists even go as far as playing all chords in a given song in barre shapes because they feel it’s easier. After all, barre chords are essentially nothing but two simple chords played on different parts of the fretboard. While styles such as punk and rock can be cut out for barre chords, keep in mind that they can sound a little ‘choppy’ once your ears get used to them. In other styles, a smooth mix of open chords and barre chords simply sounds better. Either way, try to keep the ‘distance’ between the chords as short as possible. If the notes lie closer together, the transitions aren’t as clunky and sound a lot more natural. It’s worth the practice but in the end, it’s up to you to decide whether you want to slide up and down the fretboard with barre chords or create your own mix.
Already nailed the basic chords above? Then you should be ready to dive into this overview of the most well-known and most-used chords. Keep the sheet handy when you’re learning new songs and you’ll be able to quickly see all of the chords that you’ll need. If you come across a chord that you can’t find on the sheet, then just give it a google!
Right-Handed Guitar Chords
Click on the image below to download the PDF.
Left-Handed Guitar Chords
Click on the image below to download the PDF.
For The Inquisitive String-Picker
Let us know in the comments how long you’ve been playing guitar and what your favourite chord is!
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