From the Factory | February 16, 2022
How to Get Started With Guitar Chords
by Kristi Bronico
Learning to play the guitar can be very exciting yet daunting when you are first starting out. You’ve been watching your favorite guitarists strumming away on stage, and they make it look so easy. And it IS for them. But it wasn’t always. They were beginners once, too. Early on in their journey, they had to figure out how to hold the guitar, feeling awkward, trying to form chords, wondering where to begin.
I remember all those feelings so well. And then I met Val, my fantastic guitar teacher from New York City who developed a system of teaching her students to play the guitar through a carefully selected progression of songs.
When I first walked into Val’s tiny upper west side apartment and sat down on the chair across from her, she said, “You're going to learn how to play three songs today.” And I looked around and said, “Me? I can’t even play chords well yet.” She simply said, “Trust me.” And luckily, I did because it was one of the best decisions I made during my time in New York.
Now, I’m not a guitar teacher like Val, but I hope to point you in the right direction today as you get started on your journey.
First off, did you know that you can play hundreds of songs with just two chords? And that you can play thousands of songs with just three chords? It’s true! Now you might not be playing those songs with all the fullness and verve as the recorded version, but you will be playing them and, if you practice enough, they’ll sound great! This will motivate you to keep going.
So, where do you start? What are the five best chords for beginner guitar players to learn? Without getting into the nitty-gritty of music theory, keys, and scales, I recommend mastering G major, C major, and D major first. These three chords will allow you to learn a variety of songs using chord charts that you can find online. For a point of reference, you can find chords and tabs for over a million songs on www.ultimate-guitar.com.
When reading a chord diagram, the vertical lines represent the strings (E, A, D, G, B, E) from the top of the fretboard to the bottom when holding the guitar in playing position. The horizontal lines represent the fret bars (1, 2, 3, etc.) that separate the fret positions. The number in the green dot refers to the number of the finger on your fretting hand (your non-dominant hand) that you push down on the string just before the fret bar at that fret position, as shown.
Across the top of the chart, you may see an “X” or an “O” above some of the strings. An “X” means you don’t play those strings. An “O” means that the string is played “open”, meaning you don’t fret that string, but you do play it. Start by getting a feel for the chords by placing your fingers in the proper position and gliding the pick downward across the strings from the first string that doesn’t have an “X” above it, to the bottom string until you can hear each note ring clearly.
Once you have the proper finger placement down for each chord, you can begin to practice strumming those chords. I recommend starting with strumming vs. picking because it is easier for most beginners to master strumming with their dominant hand while learning to form chords with their non-dominant hand. Have a look back at our blog post on Picking vs. Strumming for a refresher on the two playing styles. You can start by strumming a simple down-up-down-up pattern.
Once you’re comfortable with your finger placement and the simple strumming pattern, the next step is to practice switching between the three chords while you strum the simple down-up-down-up pattern. This is where you might find it helpful, like I did, to try playing along with a song that contains those three chords. It will help with your timing and keep you on pace.
Some examples of songs that can be played using G major, C major, and D major chords are:
- Sweet Home Alabama by Lynyrd Skynyrd (D-C-G)
- Brown Eyed Girl by Van Morrison (G-C-G-D)
- Leaving on a Jet Plane by John Denver (G-C-D)
Once you’ve mastered G major, C major, and D major, you can add A major and E major to open a new catalog of songs to try.
Here are a few examples of songs that use the A major and E major chords:
- Twist And Shout by The Beatles (D-G-A)
- The Gambler by Kenny Rogers (D-G-A)
- Chasing Cars by Snow Patrol (A-D-E)
- Three Little Birds by Bob Marley (A-D-E)
One thing to note… in addition to learning the chords in a song, you must also learn the strumming pattern for the song if you really want it to sound like the original song. Most chord charts for a song will also give you the strumming pattern.
While this isn’t meant to be a guitar lesson, I hope you’ve found the information helpful and wish you the best of luck in your guitar-playing journey. Stick with it. It’s worth it!
For your reference, here are a few sources for online guitar chord charts:
Follow along for more tips and tales from the Martin Guitar blog.
Other Guitar Tips: