If you’re new to playing guitar, you’re probably interested in being able to play something musical as quickly as possible. Maybe you want to learn a song so you can serenade your sweetheart. Or maybe you want to be able to host a sing-along on your next camping trip. This blog is intended to help you along on your guitar journey and educate you on guitar chords for beginners.
Let’s start with answering some basic questions:
What is a Chord?
Simply put, a chord is the simultaneous sounding of three or more notes that create a harmony. And chords are musically universal, meaning they don’t only apply to playing guitar. Chords are equally important in making music on other instruments like a piano.
Can Any Group of Three or More Notes Make a Chord?
No, the group of notes in any chord are selected based on their ability to make a musically meaningful arrangement.
How Many Chords are There and How Many Do I Need to Know?
It shouldn’t frighten you to hear that there are hundreds of chords available to be played. The fact is that most of them are simply variants of a relatively small number of building block chords. Beginning guitarists could get by with knowing as few as five chords and they would be able to play literally thousands of songs. As you dive deeper into certain genres of music, you’ll learn some of these chord variants and they’ll help you to expand your sound. Trust me, many intermediate and advanced guitarists stick with the dozen or so chords they know and it offers them plenty of sonic variety.
How are Chords Named and What Do Chord Symbols Mean?
Chord names are made up of two parts: the root note and the chord quality. The root note is the note from the musical alphabet that starts the chord and is always the lowest note, in terms of pitch, within the chord notes. For example, when someone refers to a C Major chord, the first and lowest note of the chord is a C. The word after the root note, in this case the word ‘Major’, defines the chord quality. What this really means is the type of chord being played. While there are numerous chord qualities available to guitar players, the three that I’m going to focus on in this article are: Major, Minor and Dominant 7thchords. These are the most common guitar chords for beginners found in all genres of music, including rock, blues, country, etc.
What are the Differences Between Major, Minor and Dominant 7thChords?
In simple and practical terms, major chords sound firm/happy, minor chords sound soft/sad and dominant 7thchords sound bluesy/funky. I’ll provide a little more detail on the musical theory differences between chord qualities later in the article.
How are chord names and qualities written on sheet music?
Major chords are written using: “Cmaj” or just plain “C”
Minor chords are written using: “Cmin” or “Cm”
Dominant 7th chords are written using: “C7”
Did I Forget About Power Chords?
Not exactly. I haven’t forgotten them, I just chose to not include them in this article. Power chords are really useful for guitarists. Especially those who are into hard rock, heavy metal or punk music. It’s just that power chords are not traditional chords because they can be made up of as few as two notes and they don’t have a chord quality. In other words, they are neither major, minor or anything else. If you’re interested in power chords, I’ve written a separate blog about them and you can check it out here.
Which Chords Should I Learn First?
I’d definitely start with the five most common major chords for beginners: A, C, D, E and G. Below are images of each major chord in standard music notation, tab notation and chord chart formats. If you need a refresher on beginner music theory or how to read tab and chord charts, take a few minutes to get caught up. Note that the chord charts also include the most common fingering patterns to use.
Why Did I Skip Over B and F Chords?
Yes, I’ve intentionally skipped these chords for two good reasons. 1) They are used very sparingly in popular music going across most musical genres. 2) They are much more difficult to play for beginner guitarists. So rather than get frustrated about not being able to quickly learn something that you probably won’t need anyway, I’ll just skip right over them. By the time you’re advanced enough to really want to use them, you’ll be able to play them with no issue!
How Do I Get My Fingers to Land on the Correct Strings and Frets?
This is a very common issue for beginning guitarists. Many times, your fingers will feel like they’re playing Twister instead in playing music. To help you along, start with placing each finger one at a time. Start with your index finger, then move to your middle and ring fingers. When you think you have your fingers placed correctly, play each string one at a time. Did it ring out loud and clear or did it make a buzzing sound? If it’s a buzzing sound, your finger is not fully pressing the string down onto the fretboard or another finger is accidentally touching an adjacent string that it is not supposed to. To help mitigate the risk of the latter event happening, try to have your fingers come directly down on top of the strings, instead of coming at them at an angle.
Why Won’t My Fingers Move Where They Should?
Don’t panic, this is perfectly normal. Some chord shapes do require your fingers to be positioned in ways they’re not accustomed to. And this will take your fingers a little getting used to. For some, finger stretching exercises will help. For most others, the fingers will automatically start to become more dexterous the more you play. Believe me, in a couple of weeks, you’ll be playing these chords with ease and you’ll wonder why you struggled so much at first.
Which Chords Should I Learn After Major Chords?
I’d highly recommend minor chords as the next group of chords to learn. Like I did for major chords, below are the various ways to communicate minor chords.
And if you’re into the blues, then I’d highly recommend you learn 7thchords. In my opinion, they are the coolest sounding chords and like the blues, give your guitar playing a strong sense of emotion and feel. Below are the various ways to communicate 7thchords.
Am I Ready to Start Making Real Music Now?
Absolutely yes! If you’ve been able to get the five major and five minor chords to ring out clearly, you should feel very good about yourself. These ten chords could literally last you a lifetime of playing songs from virtually all musical genres. And the additional five 7th chords will help you to play your blues away!
Is Playing Guitar Really This Easy?
Unfortunately, not quite. Before you get too excited, you’re going to experience that whichever song you learn how to play, you’re going to struggle to switch between chords in time with the rhythm of the song. This is likely going to be another point of frustration for new guitarists. For example, you might be able to play the chords C, D and G on their own with relative ease. But if you tried to play the Bob Dylan classic “Blowin’ in the Wind” which uses these three chords, you will likely find it challenging to switch your fingers fast enough between chords to not lose timing with the song.
Trust me when I tell you that every single guitarist has been in this exact same position. And do you know how they overcome this seemingly impossible obstacle? Just by practicing. That’s really all there is to it. What you’ll discover is that your fingers will develop “muscle memory” so that switching between chords will become more automatic and less of a mentally and physically demanding activity. More specifically, if you focus on forming the chord shape with your fingers all at the same time and then basically placing that shape onto the strings, as opposed to individually placing each finger one at a time, you’ll be switching chords in time to the music before you know it.
Another useful technique to quickly switch between chords is to find cases where a string/fret/finger combination is common between two chords. Take for example a C Major chord followed by an A Minor chord. Both of these chords use your index finger on the first fret of the second string. When switching between these chords, rather than lift your entire fretting hand away from the guitar, keep you index finger pressing down on the B string and now you only have to worry about placing two additional fingers.
What Was the Extra Bit About Chord Theory Mentioned Earlier?
OK, so there are reasons why major chords sound happy, minor chords sound sad and 7th chords sound bluesy. I’ll still going to keep this top level, but introducing yourself to some music theory concepts will become more useful further down the road.
If you recall from my article on beginning music theory, you’ll remember that each octave has twelve notes. If we start with a root note of C, the twelve notes in ascending pitch are:
Major chords are made up of notes that align with the root note, the major third and the perfect fifth notes from the root. Major thirds are always four half-steps up from the root, which in the case of a C Major chord is an E note. Perfect fifths are always seven half-steps up from the root, so that would be a G note. Therefore, the triad of notes in a C chord are always C, E and G. Looking again at the diagrams covered earlier, you can see that all of the notes in the chord are C, E and G.
The only difference between a major chord and a minor chord is that it uses a minor third instead of the major third. The other two elements of the triad, the root note and the perfect fifth are identical. Because a minor third is three half-steps above the root note, you end up with an E flat note. So the triad of notes within a C minor chord are: C, Eb and G.
Dominant 7th Chords
Just like major chords, 7th chords include a triad of three notes; the root note, major third and perfect fifth. And then they add an extra note just to be cool. 🙂 The extra note added is always a minor seventh, which is 10 half step intervals above the root note. In the case of a C7 chord, the extra note is an A sharp.
Hopefully, you’ve found article to be useful in helping you understand guitar chords for beginners. Check out my other articles for beginner guitar players too!