If you’ve always wanted to learn the guitar but get overwhelmed by the complex chord charts that seem to require you to contort your fingers into unnatural shapes, you’re not alone. Countless aspiring guitarists put off the first steps on their rock and roll journey for this precise reason.
Anyone who’s in this boat should know that there are some basic chords that are easy to start with and will build up your skills to enable you to move on to the harder, more nuanced chords when you’re ready. Read on for a step-by-step guide to jump-start your guitaring experience.
Before You Chord
Starting off, you should know that the first days – and weeks – of guitar playing are the hardest it’s going to be. While this might sound off-putting at first, it can actually serve as a strong motivator to push through and work your way to a more satisfying strumming experience. This is also helpful to keep in mind for reassurance whenever you feel like you’re not advancing quickly enough. Patience is a key element of picking up any instrument, and you’ll enjoy the experience so much more if you go in with realistic expectations for yourself.
Before we get into it, let’s review how to read basic tablature. (If you’re already familiar with tabs, feel free to skip ahead to the next section.) Since we’ll just be laying out the fingerings for individual chords, you won’t have too much tab material to take in, but it’s still important to make sure we’re all on the same page so that you learn the chords right the first time – and don’t have to unlearn an incorrect fingering after being confused as to why it sounds so bad.
Tablature – called “tabs” for short – is the most common way to write out guitar music. It’s preferred by most guitarists for its simplicity, communicating finger patterns in a visually intuitive way. You’ll see the string names laid out in a column on the far left to start a tab, organized from high to low in tonality, which looks like this:
Notice that there are two E strings, and the high E is differentiated by using a lower-case character. This will help you keep track of which end is which when reading tabs. That’s something to be careful you don’t get confused about: Instead of having the string closest to the ceiling on top of this column, it starts with the one that’s closest to the floor. If this seems nonreflexive at first, just know that it makes the most musical sense because it puts the higher notes on top of the tabs instead of the bottom. Don’t worry; it will become more natural the more you look at this type of notation.
The only other thing you have to know about tabs is what the numbers mean. As you might’ve already guessed, this refers to the fret where you should put your finger. Frets ascend one by one from the headstock – the part with tuning pegs sticking out of it. Most guitars have helpful dots to indicate the third, fifth, seventh, ninth, and twelfth fret; consider taking a little time to memorize these numbers to make navigating more complex tabs much easier. For now, though, we’ll be sticking to the lower digits for these chords.
When a string is played without any fret at all, it’s denoted with a zero. Strings that aren’t meant to be played at all are marked with an “x.”
Just one more thing…
Don’t Forget to Tune!
It doesn’t matter how perfect your finger positions are if you’re playing on an instrument that’s not even in tune with itself. If you have a hard time hearing when a string is sharp or flat, there are countless free apps to try that make the process much easier. You might even find it worth it to buy an inexpensive tuner, which tends to be more precise and reliable.
Also, double-check that you’re using standard tuning! You don’t want to get halfway through learning a new chord progression only to find out that it sounded off the whole time because you’re tuned to the wrong notes.
Now, without further ado, let’s play some chords!
The first type of chord we’ll be learning is great because once you have the pattern down, you can play it anywhere up and down the fretboard – and you only need to strum three strings to do it.
Later, we’ll be discussing the difference between major chords and minor chords, including how to tell the difference the moment you hear them. But for these first chords, you won’t even have to worry about major and minor because the element that designates a chord as major or minor – the third – isn’t present in a power chord. Don’t worry – we’ll cover that later.
All you need to know for the basic power chord is the first and the fifth. These numbers refer to the steps in a scale – think “do re mi fa so la ti do” – with “do” being the first, “re” being the second, and so on. For the moment, we’ll assume that we’re dealing with a major scale.
Power chords are what you often hear rock and rollers or punk rockers jamming out on, and there’s a good reason for it: They sound cool. Composers and musicians have known for centuries that there’s something special about this particular interval, called the perfect fifth. There’s something powerful in the sound – hence the name, “power chord” – which is why the interval was historically associated with the Divine. It’s also perfect for beginners because it’s one of the easiest chords in the book.
Let’s start off with a G power chord. First, take a look at it in tab form, and then we’ll break down how to get your fingers there.
G Power Chord
Put your index finger on the third fret of the low E string. Then put your ring finger on the fifth fret of the A string. And then – you did it! That’s it. That’s a power chord. Simple, isn’t it?
Now you can practice strumming just those two strings without letting any of the other four ring out. To prevent the D string from joining the mix, try to get your ring finger to mute it as you’re fretting the A string. As you continue to practice, this will become more natural until it’s something your fingers just automatically do.
Don’t forget about your right palm either – if you can – keeping it sprawled across the bridge of your guitar to mute all the inactive strings to prevent them from ringing out. This is something that electric guitar players have to be extra careful about, particularly if they’re playing face-melting lead solos with heavy distortion and effects.
Does this seem like a lot to think about at once? Don’t worry, and try not to get overwhelmed. Just take it one step at a time, and gradually, it will all become easier.
Adding the Octave
Once you’re feeling confident about your power chord, you can add even more power by adding what’s called the octave on top. Going back to the scale, an octave is simply the note at the bottom of the scale and the one at the top: Both are the same note, but one is higher and one is lower. If you can add the octave on top of your power chords, it makes them pop all the more.
Your G power chord with the octave added looks like this:
As you can see, the extra note that’s needed is on the same fret as the note on the A string, simply moved up to the next string, so it should be easy to find. Fret this note using your pinky; it might take some work to get your pinky strong enough to hold it down all the way, but it’s worth it to build up that strength so you can use your smallest finger to add big flavor to the more intricate chords.
Now that you’ve got one power chord in the bag, here’s something you’ll love to hear: These chords can be moved anywhere up and down the fretboard! Not only that, but you can also start them on the A string and follow the exact same pattern. Congratulations; you can now play every power chord in existence.
Let’s move on to something a bit trickier but still at the beginner’s level.
Here’s an excellent primer on power chords:
Sometimes called “cowboy chords” because of their widespread use in country music and related genres, these chords are nice for beginners because they tend to be easier on the fingers. The reason is that they are – as the name suggests – open, meaning some of the strings involved are played without holding down any frets.
If some of these chords sound familiar, you’re probably right: They’re used so much in popular music that you might hear the start of one of your favorite songs in them. With just a little bit of practice, you’ll be using these simple patterns to rock out on the same type of tunes that you hear on the radio every day.
This is a great open chord to start on – it has a nice full sound that’s probably quite familiar. Using the full range of the open strings, E major will help you get acquainted with the natural sound of your guitar.
Start with your middle finger on the first fret of the G string. Make sure you’re in the right place by checking that you’ve skipped over the top two strings. Now put your pinky one fret higher, on the second fret of the D string. To finish the chord, put your ring finger on the same fret, but one string down – on the second fret of the low E string. You can now play a beautiful and versatile open E major.
Place your middle finger on the second fret of the high E string, ring finger on the third fret of the B string, and index finger on the second fret of the G string. Make sure to strum the open D string for the full sound – your D string will provide the root of the chord that makes it sound complete.
Another full-bodied open chord that’s any musician’s staple, start your G major with the pinky finger on the third fret of the high E string and your ring finger on the third fret of the B string. Skipping two strings, put your index finger on the second fret of the A string and your middle finger on the third fret of the low E string.
This one is a little tricky to wrap your fingers around at first, but once you get them all placed on the correct strings enough times, it becomes a fairly simple chord. What tends to trip people up is the string you have to skip rather than the ones you’re actually fretting; it’s helpful to keep this in mind so you naturally anticipate the extra space that’s needed.
Start with your index finger, placing it on the first fret of the B string. Next – and here’s where that skipped string comes in – put your ring finger on the second fret of the D string. Finally, get your ring finger all the way up to the third fret of the A string, and there you have it! Strum everything but the low E string and you’ll have yourself a beautiful open C major chord, as featured in countless songs from pop to folk to country.
Moving open chords up and down the fretboard doesn’t work in the same way as a power chord. However, with the simple addition of a guitar player’s best friend and secret weapon, a capo, you can use these same chord patterns anywhere on your guitar. A capo is just a special type of clamp that bars all your strings on any fret you want, and from there, you can use the same open chord finger positions to play any chord in any key you want. This is helpful when you need to play in a particular key to accommodate for vocal range but want to keep that same open feel.
You’ve already learned some chords that can be easily modified to play their minor versions. The way to tell whether a chord is major or minor might be simpler than you think: If a chord sounds happy, it’s major, whereas the minor ones sound sad. As hinted at earlier, the relationship between major and minor chords lies in the third of the chord. To make a major chord minor, all you have to do is lower this note by a half-step. Let’s look at the easiest example of this.
To lower the third, all you have to do is lift up the fret from the G string and play it open, making it even simpler to play. Once you start noticing where the third is in other chords, you’ll be able to switch between major and minor practically effortlessly.
Though it takes time and patience, it’s possible for anyone to learn the guitar. If you keep playing these chords regularly, you’ll eventually start to notice yourself improving. But most importantly, remember to have fun along the way, so that you’re motivated to pick up your instrument and play at every opportunity.
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.