Any beginner guitarist has to face the daunting task of learning a huge bunch of chords in order to familiarise themselves with the guitar, help them play their favourite tunes and enable them to write and play their own compositions.
But as there are tens of thousands of songs out there all using different chords, keys and scales, where should you start ? What chords should you learn first and why ?
After learning and playing a large number of popular and iconic rock and pop songs that have hit the charts over the last couple of decades, it becomes apparent that a certain fundamental group of chords and shapes appear time and time again in literally thousands of popular songs.
It’s pretty obvious that learning 10 – 15 of the basic open chords that every guitar tuition book on the planet advises you to learn is going to give you a good start but there are a few things the books don’t bother to tell you and many useful chords they seem to miss out.
Below I’ve complied a list of chords and shapes that I think you will find most useful to learn in the early stages of playing the guitar. Once you have learned the few basic patterns that stretch across most of these chords you will find they get you through a large range of popular songs written by modern musicians.
It might seem daunting knowing you have to learn 15, 20 or even 50 or so different chords but there are certain short cuts you can take to make life much easier.
The best way to learn is to take it slowly, concentrate on one or two chords or shapes at a time and over a period of a few days or weeks depending on how eager you are to improve your skills. You will eventually find that fingering these chords will become automatic and almost second nature.
A good thing to bear in mind is that when you learn a chord shape, you unwittingly also learn many more chords that use exactly the same shape but are just played in a different position on the fret board.
Ideally you should learn the shape and name of each separate chord you encounter but if you can’t be bothered to learn all these different names then simply concentrate on the shapes. The more familiar you become with the various shapes of these guitar chords, the more you will recognise them when they crop up time and time again in different places on the fret board.
I know literally hundreds of chords and shapes but the fact is, off the top of my head, I can probably name less than 5 % of them. If I need to find a chord I can work it out using simple methods and easy reference chords on the fret board.
Just relax, go and learn as many shapes as you feel comfortable with. Start with the easier major and minor chords and worry about the sus4 this, add9’s and minor 7ths etc. later.
There may seem like a lot of chords shown in the diagrams below but in actual fact most of the chords you see are created from only a few main patterns.
Start by learning the first shape in each group and create the other chords by simply removing one or two fingers in the pattern to reveal the others.
One more quick note. Ideally you are not supposed to strum the strings marked with a cross as they are not included in the chord but don’t worry about this too much. Remembering all these chords is a big enough chore without having to worry about hitting and missing different strings for each chord.
It is important to hit the correct strings to get a clear and correct sounding chord and I’ll probably get moaned at by all the technically correct guitar teachers out there for saying this, but to begin with, don’t get to hung up on it. As you get more familiar with the chords and more accurate with your playing you can polish up on the finer points such as which strings to hit or miss later. For now, concentrate mainly on learning the shapes and names.
Here is one of the easiest and best sounding chords to start with. Use your 1st, 2nd and 3rd fingers to create these open chords.
Just remove a finger or two to get these chords below.
A min7 A sus2
Just move or remove a finger to get these chords.
A7 A Maj7
The bar chord shapes in these B minor and B major sections are incredibly important and will be used time and time again in every other chord in every key you play. Be sure to learn them well.
Notice these bar chords have the same shape patterns as the A minor chord shapes we started with but these use the first finger as a bar across strings 1 to 5 and your 2nd, 3rd and 4th fingers create the rest of the chord.
Again simple variations of the above shape create
Below is the open B7 chord. This one is more difficult to finger than the bar version shown above but comes in very useful especially in jazz chord progressions.
C Maj open
Keeping your first 3 fingers in the same position as above, just add your 4th finger to create these two chords.
The version of the C add9 shown below is one of the most useful and frequently used chords in popular music. It’s fingering is very similar to that of the G Major (advanced version) and this makes it easy to hit from many other chords such as Dsus4, A7 sus4 and the advanced versions of Em7 and G by simply moving your first two fingers around the fret board whilst keeping your 3rd and 4th fingers on the 1st and 2nd strings. These chords combine to give you the Oasis hit Wonderwall (when played with a capo placed on the second fret).
You will find this version of the C add9 chord extremely useful and you’ll hear it in hundreds of great songs.
C minor and Major Bar Chords.
The C minor chord can be played as an open chord but it is extremely difficult to get right especially from a beginners point of view, so for ease we generally go for the much easier bar chord version as shown below.
You will notice that it is exactly the same as the Bm bar chord but played one fret higher.
The same goes for C min7, C sus2, C sus2sus4, C Maj, C7 and C Maj7 bar chords.
Notice they are all exactly the same as the B Maj, B min7, B sus2, Bsus2sus4, B7, B Maj7 bar chords but played one fret higher. This process repeats itself across the board for all bar chords from A to G. So all you have to do is learn a few bar chord shapes in a key of your choice and just move them up and down the fret board to play these chords in different keys.
Once you have these bar chord shapes mastered you will find you are suddenly able to play a large number of chords in any position you like. The fret board opens up and your guitar playing becomes more efficient and much less restricted.
You are now free to express your self in any key you like.
Keeping the same finger position for the D Major, add or remove a finger for the following.
Keeping fingers in the same position, just remove your first finger again for the Dsus2
or add your 4th finger for the D sus4
Sorry, there’s no cheat for this open chord.
D Bar Chords
For the D Maj, D min, D min7, D sus2, D sus2sus4, D7, D Maj7 bar chords, just play the same shapes as for B Maj, B min7, B sus2, Bsus2sus4, B7, B Maj7 bar chords but start with your finger barred across the 5 th fret. i.e. With the root note of the chord on the 5th string D note.
Remove 1st and/or 2nd fingers to get
E7 E min
The E min7 version shown below is also an extremely useful and frequently used chord. It has exactly the same notes as the E min7 above but arranged in a slightly different combination. It sounds great and it’s fingering makes it an easy companion to many other chords such as Dsus4, A7 sus4 and the advanced versions of C add9 and G by simply moving your first two fingers around the fret board whilst keeping your 3rd and 4th fingers on the 1st and 2nd strings. Make sure you remember this chord.
E Bar Chords
For the E Maj, E min, E min7, E sus2, Esus2sus4, E7, E Maj7 ‘high’ sounding bar chords, just play the same shapes as for B Maj, B min7, B sus2, Bsus2sus4, B7, B Maj7 bar chords but start with your finger barred across the 7 th fret. i.e. With the root note of the chord on the 7th string E note.
F Bar Chords
Many guitar books show the open F as the F Major you should concentrate on learning first, but in my opinion the F bar chord below is way more useful and much more frequently used in modern song writing. Also as explained in the conquering bar chords article, learning to hit this chord from any point on your guitar will massively improve your playing ability. It will also help you hit bar chords across the rest of the fret board. Make sure that you master this one as soon as possible.
And again, from this position these chords come easily.
F7 F min7
This 7sus4 bar chord needs a slight finger alteration but is still easy to remember.
The F Open Chord
This open F has a lighter feel to it than the heavier bar F and by lifting your first finger off the first string you can easily create this open F maj7.
F Maj 7
High F Bar Chords
For the F Maj, F min, F min7, F sus2, F sus2sus4, F7, F Maj7 ‘high’ sounding bar chords just play the same shapes as for B Maj, B min7, B sus2, Bsus2sus4, B7, B Maj7 bar chords but start with your finger barred across the 8 th fret. i.e. With the root note of the chord on the 5th string F note.
This is the more advanced version of open G Major you should first become familiar with.
This version of G is used in the same way as the advanced versions of the E min7 and C add9 and sounds great played with these and many other chords such as Dsus4 and A7 sus4. Keep your 3rd and 4th fingers on the 1st and 2nd strings, whilst moving your 1st and 2nd fingers to different chords.
Many tuition books show this more simple G below as a good starting chord. It is easier to fret at first than the more advanced G above but not so frequently used in songwriting. Learn this but concentrate mainly on the more difficult G above.
G7 Open Chord
This G7 below is frequently used in jazz progressions along with loads of other 7th type chords.
G Bar Chords
If you use exactly the same patterns as with the F Major bar chords on fret 1 but bar across the 3rd fret, i.e. with the root note on the 6th string G note as shown below, you can easily create G bar chords.
Take off a finger or two for these chords.
G7 G min7
And a slight alteration for the G7 sus4
High G Bar Chords
For the G Maj, G min, G min7, G sus2, G sus2sus4, G7, G Maj7 ‘high’ sounding bar chords, just play the same shapes as for B Maj, B min7, B sus2, B sus2sus4, B7, B Maj7 bar chords but start with your finger barred across the 10 th fret. i.e. With the root note of the chord on the 5th string G note.
High G min Bar Chord
Using the above example as a guide you should now be able to easily find all the other ‘high’ G bar chord combinations.
A Few More Useful Chords
Below are a couple of really useful chords that also give you freedom across the fret board. The good thing about these chords is that they can be played in just about any position and will always sound pretty good. They also sound great when played together. Try alternating between them, playing the chords a couple of frets apart.
These examples are shown at the seventh fret but strum them anywhere you like.
Play all six strings and leave strings 1 and 2 open for both the chords below. For these two particular chord shapes, it is probably best to wrap your thumb over the top of the neck to fret the 6th string. You may find this awkward at first but stick with it and try and get the chords sounding clean. Your thumb and fingers will soon stretch to accommodate their new position.
Play these chords anywhere you like.
There are of course many other chords you will come across and generally the more you know the better, but once you have got the hang of the chords we have covered here you will be well equipped to tackle a massive amount of popular modern day music.
I’ll add a few more here as time goes on. If you have any favourite chords you’d like me to add to this page just use the comment form below and I’ll include them.
I hope you liked this guide. I’ll be posting an article on power chords in a few days so check back soon.
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