Essential Beginner Guitar Chords
Some of the first things any beginner learns after the parts of the guitar and the string names are the first few chords. Some of these are easier to grab than others, but with a bit of practice, it will come together within the first few months. In many cases, this is all it takes to start playing some of your favorite songs.
The very first chords I learned were, of course, open position chords. These chords are played using the first three frets of the guitar and open strings. It was too far back in time to remember exactly which chords I learned first, but I will go over what I consider some of the most useful and easiest to grab for a beginner. For this lesson, we will mostly stick to chords belonging to the keys of G major and C major. If you can get your hands on a capo, you can move these open position shapes around to any key.
Note: It is extremely important to use proper posture and form when learning these shapes. Bad posture can not only cause pain, but it can also cause unwanted muting of certain strings.
In order to avoid unwanted string muting and bad posture, we should address these topics briefly before moving on. Here are a few guidelines:
-It is always a good idea to sit up straight to avoid having your wrist bend unnaturally.
-Try to avoid hyperextending the DIP joint (joint closest to your fingertip) unless you run into a barring situation, which is not being covered at length here.
-With regard to your left hand shape, try to think of it as if you were holding a tennis ball. The tips of your fingers should be doing the fretting.
-If you are noticing muted strings, this is normal. It will take some practice to correct this problem, but try to see which parts of your other fingers are interrupting or muting notes that you would like to ring.
It might be best to start out with Em and Am, then add G and C. Practice switching back and forth with either pair using a metronome at a very slow tempo. One habit I’ve noticed among many beginners is that they’ll try just getting the switch without worrying about doing it in time. That’s not really how things work in a live setting, so it’s good to have something helping you reinforce the time early on.
Moving on, once you’ve got these shapes down, I’d recommend adding the following chords:
Although this F shape is technically no longer an open position shape, it is close enough to the open position that it’s still a useful addition. You also might have noticed the barring of the two notes on the 1st and 2nd strings. It is a good idea to become familiar with the concept of barring now as you will definitely run into barre chords very soon. I have deemed barre chords slightly too difficult for this lesson, but once you feel comfortable with this material, it would be a good idea to look into them.
I won’t go over the theory aspect of these chords as that would require its own lesson(s), but suffice it to say that these shapes will cover almost all the bases for most basic pop/rock songs.
In the same way, add these shapes to some of the previous shapes we’ve covered and practicing switching around in different combinations. After you’ve spent some time doing this, you might notice that you like the way certain chords move to other chords. This exploration can – and often does – lead to writing new songs!
Let’s add two more open position chords that you will run into quite a bit:
Once again, the theoretical justification for these chords is beyond the scope of this lesson, but you will certainly run into these chords in many songs and it’s good to be ready.
Now that we’ve got a good collection of chords under our belts, let’s try a few progressions that are tried and true. Take a metronome and start at a very slow tempo. Try to find what’s comfortable for you. Remember, there’s no rush here. It’s more important to get good tone and clarity from each chord than it is to get through them quickly.
- C Am Dm G7
- G Em Am D7
- C G Am F
- G D Em C
Try cycling through these about, say, 4 times each progression. Strum each chord for two beats before moving onto the next chord. If these progressions sound familiar to you, you are not alone. They have been used in an endless number of songs and will probably be used for years to come.
Lastly, we will go over every punk rocker and metal head’s favorite toy: the power chord.
This is not a particularly dense chord, and for that reason it lends itself to high-gain situations.
In addition to being a very simple shape, it is also very easy to move around, making it an ideal shape for any beginner to know.
Here’s the shape:
POWER CHORD 5th string
POWER CHORD 6th string
You probably noticed I only have it coming off the 6th and 5th strings. This is simply for the sake of practicality since this is how it’s most commonly used. As with the open position chords, it’s good to practice moving this around. It’s very easy to find songs making use of this so as always, it’s a very good idea to learn different songs and see how these chords are used.
As always, doing some work on this each day is far more effective than trying to cram everything into an 8-hour session and not touching the guitar for the rest of the week. This is about patience and diligent practice. Lastly, remember to never “play through the pain.” If it’s hurting, take a break. Consider stretches and take a look at your posture. See if you can notice where you are straining.
About the Author
Marc-Andre Seguin is the webmaster, “brains behind” and teacher on JazzGuitarLessons.net, the #1 online resource for learning how to play jazz guitar. He draws from his experience both as a professional jazz guitarist and professional jazz teacher to help thousands of people from all around the world learn the craft of jazz guitar.