Most new guitarists learn to play songs by strumming chords. As they soon discover, though, there are many guitar chords, and there are so many ways to play them that it can be very off-putting trying to learn them. If you are in that position, then what you need to do is learn to play those guitar chords that are commonly used in songs and that are not too difficult to get your fingers around. More exotic guitar chords can come later.
This article presents a selection of guitar chords that are easy to get to grips with. Some may not seem that way at first, but with practice, perseverance and patience, you’ll soon master them.
Standard Guitar Chords Diagram
First of all, and with apologies to left-handed guitarists, here’s the basic chord diagram designed for chord shapes played with the left hand (by right-handed guitarists). It shows the fretboard (upright and facing you) with the first string (the thinnest one) on the right.
Chord tones: E G B
The black discs are where you place your fingers and the numbers are the fingers that you should use to press down on the strings. That is, your first or index finger is placed on string 5 and your second finger is placed on string 4 just behind fret 2 in both cases. Some people use fingers 1 and 2, but most find 2 & 3 more practical.
Always place your fingers just behind and close to the fret as that ensures you get a good clean contact between the frets and strings, and good clean notes will ring out when you play them. Don’t get too close to the fret, though, or you’ll dampen the sound. The name of the chord, E minor, is shown above the nut, but you’ll usually see this abbreviated as “Em” in song sheets.
Play all six strings with a downstroke from string 6 to string 1. Strumming along to a song involves a combination of downstrokes and upstrokes. Downstrokes are strong and you can strum all six strings of this chord in a single stroke. Upstrokes are lighter and, typically, you’ll just hit three or four strings. The difference between the strong and light strums makes the strumming sound more rhythmically interesting. This applies to all chords.
As you can see under the chord heading, the chord tones E, G & B are listed. These are simply the notes that make up the chord. Even though there are six notes (strings) being played, they’re all just E, G or B notes – some higher than others. The chord E minor must have no notes other than those three. Sometimes we can miss out a note, and it will still sound like the chord, but we can’t add any other note unless it’s an E, G or B note. If we do, it will no longer be that chord but something else. Learning the chord tones isn’t essential for starting out with learning guitar chords, but understanding them makes it possible to construct a large variety of different shapes. Simply put, wherever you combine those three notes anywhere on the fretboard, you’ll have the chord E minor. All the following guitar chords also have their chord tones listed.
Chord tones: E G# B
E major is another very important chord, and you can see in this version that it’s very similar in shape to E minor. The only difference is that the third string, which for E minor was open and sounding the note G, is now played at fret 1 and sounding the note G#. That difference is what accounts for the difference in the names (major or minor). Any major chord will always have a note higher than its minor counterpart by one fret. Becoming familiar with these differences and understanding the names makes memorising chords a lot easier than trying to memorise a countless bunch of random shapes. Major chords usually omit the word “major” in music, so if you see a chord named just E, it means E major.
Chord tones: A C# E
Before we go into detail about this chord, do you know the names of the notes of the six open strings in standard tuning? If not, here they are from string 6 to string 1 (thickest to thinnest): E A D G B E. It’s important to know this because with this chord, it’s usually best to strum five strings only and miss out string 6. That’s because we usually want the lowest note of the chord to have the same note-name as the chord. Strumming from the A on string 5 makes the chord sound more balanced and stable. Try strumming from string 6 to hear the difference. When the lowest note of the chord has the same note-name as the chord (A in this case), the chord is in root position. If A isn’t the lowest note, then the chord is inverted. Inverted guitar chords have their place in music, but, in general, you should always play chords in root position unless you have a reason not to. With the two previous chords, E major and E minor, the issue didn’t arise as the open 6th string is E, which is the root of those chords.
Chord Tones: A-C-E
A minor is a very common chord and it’s easy to play. Again, you can see the difference between major and minor chords here. The only difference with A major is that one of the notes of A minor has been lowered by one fret (called a semitone or half step). It’s exactly the same as the difference between E major and E minor. Remember also, as explained above, to play it from the root note A on string 5, unless you have a reason to do otherwise.
Chord tones: D-F#-A
The first thing to notice with this chord diagram is the X above string 6. It means this open string mustn’t be played as the note E is not part of the chord. It’s not like the A chords where that E note is part of the chord but isn’t the root. In the D major chord it can’t be played because doing so would mean you’re playing a different chord.
The 5th string doesn’t have an x above it, which means it’s a chord tone, but it’s A and not D, so it’s not a root note. The lowest root is the open 4th string, D. So, basically, this is a four-string root-position chord. If, for some reason, you want A in the bass, then you can play it as a five string chord. In fact, when strumming the chord, you’re almost certainly going to hit that open A string, too, sometimes. It’s not a problem, and most people would hardly notice it unless you hit it every time. If you hit the open 6th string, though, everyone will notice as it’s a wrong note.
Chord Tones: C-E-G
C major is a very common chord because the key of C major in music is considered the simplest of keys due to having no sharps or flats. The chord, C major, is not quite as easy as the E or A chords above, but it’s still relatively easy as guitar chords go. String 6, E, is a chord tone that’s fine for fingerstyle playing, but when strummed, it makes the chord sound very boomy and unbalanced. It’s best to avoid it when strumming and stick with the five-string root position version.
Chord tones G-B-D
Ok, this isn’t an easy chord for beginners, and, in fact, quite a few beginners give up at this point. Stretching adjacent fingers between string 6 and string 1 at the same fret feels as difficult as it looks. For young kids learning guitar, it’s virtually impossible at first, so they can get away with not playing strings 5 & 6. Even without fretting those two strings, it still contains the required notes (G B &D). So it becomes a simple one-finger chord that they can use until their hand grows a bit. As an adult, you can’t get away with strumming on that shape. Apart from it not being in root position, your more advanced guitar-playing friends would laugh as it’s the equivalent of riding a bike with training wheels at the back. Don’t do it. Unlike small kids, your hand is big enough, and it just takes a few weeks of practice to get it. There is a slightly easier way to play the full six-string chord, which is to use fingers 2, 1 and 3 instead of 3, 2 and 4, but it’s highly recommended to use the fingering shown. That’s because, in the not too distant future when you can play it as effortlessly as the the E, A and D chords, your first finger will be free to fret some fancy add-on notes on other strings.
12 more guitar chords
To finish off, here are 12 more guitar chords that are important and need to be learned. The most difficult is F major as your first finger is used to cover two notes on fret 1. There are many more guitar chords than this, but with just these chords you can play literally hundreds of songs from song books or posted on the Internet.
All images in this article are created by chasmac.