If you’re new to guitar, the first thing you’ll want to learn, at least after you’ve learned the string names, is the basic chords. With these common (and easy) chords, you’ll be able to play most songs.
What is a chord?
In music, a chord is a set of three or more notes that are played at the same time to create a specific sound.
To play a guitar chord, you’ll need to strum all or most of the strings in one swift motion with your dominant hand while holding a chord shape with your off-hand.
Songs are made up of a series of chords. If you learn all of the chords in a song, you can play rhythm guitar for that piece.
The beautiful thing is, the vast majority of songs only make use of a few simple chords. We’ve selected thirteen of these; if you learn them you’ll be able to play almost any song you run across.
In music every chord has a “root note.” This is the note that the chord’s sound is built around, and is also called the “tonic.”
A chord is named after this tonic note. For example, if the tonic of a given chord is E, it’s an E chord of some sort.
Additionally, the most basic chords fall into one of two categories (called qualities): major or minor. In music theory, a minor chord is just a major chord with the third lowered a half step.
You don’t need to understand music theory to know the difference between a major and minor chord, though. The two can easily be distinguished by their sound; a minor chord has a sad or dark-sounding quality, while major chords are “happy.”
You can play the audio clip below to hear the difference. The first chord is E Major, while the second is E minor.
As you learn chords, you’ll learn to recognize a chord’s quality (whether it’s major, minor, or something else) by ear.
This chord quality is the other half of the puzzle, at least where basic guitar chords are concerned. These chords are named after their root note and their quality.
For example, an E minor chord is a group of notes where E is the root and the notes around it create a minor sound.
Lastly, some chords are variations on a basic chord type. For example, an E7 chord is a variation of the E Major chord.
We won’t get into what makes a seventh chord a seventh chord as that’s above the scope of this article, but you’ll hear the difference in sound. Below, you can listen to a recording of an E Major and E7 chord to hear the difference.
In short, each different type of chord has a different sound and feel. You’ll learn to recognize these different sounds as you learn more and more guitar chords.
How to read a guitar chord diagram
Before we get into playing guitar chords, it’s important to understand what a chord diagram means. If you can’t read it, you can’t play it.
The good news is, chord diagrams are very straightforward to read and use.
Let’s look at an example diagram: a G Major chord.
Each row represents a fret, while each of the vertical lines represents a string.
Each string is tuned to a specific pitch: In standard tuning the strings are, from left to right, E, A, D, G, B, and E. Since there are two E‘s the first is usually referred to as Low E, while the second is called High E.
In a chord diagram a circle is placed on every string that you need to press, on a specific fret. These circles often include a number, which tells you which finger to use (2 for your index finger, 3 for your middle finger, and so on).
It’s worth noting that some systems start at 1 for your index finger. We prefer to use 2, since this allows us to use 1 for the thumb when playing Hendrix-style barre chords.
To play a chord based on a diagram, simply press down the strings that are pictured, making sure that your fingers are all placed on the correct fret.
Looking at the example, we can see that for a G Major chord you need to press down three strings:
- Low E on the 3rd Fret with your middle finger
- A on the 2nd Fret with your index finger
- High E on the 3rd Fret with your ring finger
In addition to these, the circles above the fretboard tell us that the strings that aren’t pressed should be strummed even though they aren’t pressed down.
If you see an “X” above the string instead of an open circle, this means that you shouldn’t strum the string. An example of this is shown below, with a D Major chord. In this instance, you’ll only strum the bottom five strings.
Reading a chord diagram might not seem intuitive at first, but you’ll get the hang of it with practice. Once you perfect this valuable skill you’ll be able to learn any chord at will.
The 10 easiest guitar chords
Now that we’ve covered how to read and play from a guitar chord diagram, let’s look at the easiest guitar chords.
If you’re a beginner, these are the first chords you should learn They’re some of the most common ones you’ll run across in popular songs.
All of these chords are played “open,” meaning they’re played at the top of the guitar neck and not barred.
F Major (Simplified)
This variation of F Major takes the bottom two strings out of play, and is a good version of the chord to learn as a beginner.
Even so, you’ll have to barre the top two strings with your index finger. This is one of the most difficult beginner chords to learn, and if you master it you’ll be well on your way to perfecting full-on barre chords.
For a more advanced guide, see our guide to playing an F Major and its variations on guitar and piano.
F Minor (Simplified)
As with the simplified F Major chord, taking the bottom two strings out of play makes this F minor variation easier to play.
What guitar chords should you learn first?
While the above examples make up only a tiny fraction of all guitar chords, thirteen is still a large number to learn.
If you want to narrow down the selection even more, there are four chords in particular that are immensely popular.
These chords are C Major, G Major, D Major, and E minor.
Prioritize these four to maximize the number of songs you’re able to play.
How to learn guitar chords
As with most things in life, repetition is the key to perfecting your chord-playing skills.
The best thing you can do to hone your guitar skills is to practice playing these chords repeatedly. Especially focus on transitions, the process of switching from one chord to another.
Focus on playing chords cleanly
The key to playing chords well on guitar is to play them cleanly, where every note is pressed down all the way and you aren’t muting (dampening the sound of) any strings.
A good exercise to perfect this is holding down a chord and playing each string (note) separately, one at a time.
If a string sounds muted, there are two likely causes:
- You’re not pressing down on the string forcefully enough
- You’re accidentally touching a string that’s not part of the chord you’re playing. For example, if you’re playing a G Major chord and the D string (the 4th string from the bottom) sounds muted, it’s probably because your index finger is draped across it.
Whenever you come across a muted string, address the issue and play it again, making sure every string is played cleanly.
Give yourself time
As you get better and better, you’ll begin to know the chords by heart. You won’t need to look at a diagram anymore, and you’ll be able to transition between chords more quickly.
If you keep at it, at some point you’ll reach the level where you won’t need to think at all. You’ll be able to switch instantly from an A Major to a E Major, or from a G Major to an E minor.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking guitar comes instantly. While chords may seem basic, they’re the foundation upon which your entire musical knowledge will be built.
Sometimes it takes time to master these. Keep at it, though. It seems like most guitarists who quit are the ones who never got past learning the chords. If you can succeed at this, you’ll soon be able to advance to scales and playing lead.