How to play an A chord on guitar

Here is your first chord to learn

Chords are the heart and soul of playing guitar. Many guitar players seldom do anything else, other than strumming chords. The chord is the basic building block of guitar music. A chord is simply a combination of two of more notes played simultaneously. Different combinations give you different chords. There are different classes of chords, such as Major Chords, Minor Chords, Suspended Chords, Diminished Chords, etc...We’ll go into these in future lessons, in this tutorial we're going to learn how to play an A chord.

How To Play an A chord

The accompanying video lesson is taught by Eve Goldberg, a talented folk-style guitarist from Toronto, Canada. She was born in the Boston area of Massachusetts, USA, but has lived in Canada since 1981. She has been performing since 1990 and has released several albums. She currently does a lot of musical work for Canada Amnesty International.

For now, you just need to know that a chord is based on the notes of a simple scale, which has 7 notes, and you finish on the original note, one octave up, for a total of 8 notes. A basic Major chord is made up of the 1st note in the scale of whatever key you are playing in, also called the root note, the 3th note, and the 5th note. We’ll get into that later, when we talk more about scales. For now, just remember that a chord is made up of the 1st, 4th, and 5th notes in a scale.

Since we will be working on a A chord, these notes will be A, C# and E. On the chord chart, the notes are E, A and C#. Notice that the root note doesn’t come first. This is perfectly all right. There are different ways to play chords, and we’ll cover those in future lessons. As long as all three of these notes are in there, it is an A chord. We’re starting with a A chord because it’s the first letter of the alphabet……not really (LOL). The A chord is a little problematic for some people because there is not a lot of room for 3 fingers all on the same fret. It is pretty cramped. If you learn to play an A chord well, the others will seem easy. For the purposes of chord diagrams, here is how your left-hand fingers are numbered:

chords fingers placement diagram

A Chord Diagrams

Guitar chords are usually represented by the name of the root note, and the scale it is based on, such as A Major, written as simply A. An A chord built on a minor scale is called A Minor, and written as Am. An A chord built with a 7th is called A7, and so on…. Diagrams are used to show how the chord is actually to be played on the guitar, with finger positions mapped out. For an A chord, the diagram looks like this:

a chord diagram

Most of the time, a chord diagram will not show you the finger numbers. They will leave that up to you, because different people sometimes play chords differently. Some people cannot play an A chord like this, because their fingers are too big, and this fingering is very cramped for them. Instead, they play an A like this:

a chord diagram tab

The bar between the dots means that you play both notes with the same finger. I bar my 1st finger across the 4th, and 3rd strings at the second fret, then place my 2nd finger on the 2nd string, second fret. This gives me more room between the frets, and also frees up my 3rd and fourth fingers to pick out melody and bass notes. It’s just a preference, you can play the chord how you prefer.

When Eve talks about shapes, this is a good thing. If you start thinking about chords as shapes, or forms, it makes it easier later on when you want to play the same "shapes" up and down the neck for different chords, as well as for finger-style techniques. Some "shapes" lend themselves better for some techniques, such as flat-picking, finger-style, and other applications.

Do your fingers hurt?

Unfortunately, she is right about your fingers hurting at first. We all went through it. It doesn’t matter what kind of strings you use. You will pay the price…. Think of it as a Right-Of Passage, or an initiation of sorts. If you think about it, everything in life that is pleasurable comes with a certain amount of pain that must be endured, whether it is financial, such as buying something you really want, emotional, as in love, or physical, such as building your muscles and playing sports. One thing is for certain, you will find few, if any, guitar players that will tell you the sore fingers weren’t worth it. A little temporary pain is a small price to pay for a lifetime of pleasure that goes right to your soul. In the meantime, there are a few things you can do to ease the pain somewhat. Soaking your finger-tips in apple cider vinegar after playing will help build callouses faster, and ease the pain considerably. Putting your fingertips in ice after playing also helps a lot. You can also put analgesic balms and sprays on your fingertips after playing. Good ones are Bio-Freeze, Ben-Gay, and Aspercreme. Tincture of Arnica is great for building callouses fast, and arnica tablets, or tea will help with the soreness.

Fretting

When she talks about fretting, and where you should play behind the frets, she is relating a common misconception. Since I am also a guitar technician and a luthier (a luthier is someone who builds guitars), I probably have a little more insight into whats happening here. If your guitar action is set to optimum, then it doesn’t really matter how far behind the fret you finger the note. If this is giving you a problem, your frets are probably not seated deeply enough in the fingerboard, have begun to raise (it happens sometimes, usually from exposure to excess temperatures, like carrying your guitar in the trunk of your car….), or the action of your guitar is not optimally set. 75% of all guitar players, pros and amateurs alike, are playing on guitars that are not set-up as well as they could be. If your guitar is set up properly, then playing too close to the fret can actually cause fret buzz, or deaden the note altogether. Your guitar should be set-up to where the weight of your fingers, with almost no added pressure, should make a clean note. If your guitar is not set-up like this, take it to a technician and have it set up professionally. Few guitars come from the factory, or a music store properly set-up.

When she is demonstrating the finger positions, the reason her 1st finger is deadening the E-note is not because it is too far away from the 2nd fret, but because she is touching the first fret, killing the string vibration. This is a common problem with using 3 fingers to play an A chord. There is just not a lot of room between the 1st and 2nd frets for all three fingers. It will take some practice and positional adjustment to make a clean A chord this way. But, it can be done….

Thumb Position

Thumb position is a little quirky. The traditional method is to have the tip of your thumb near the center of the back of the neck, giving you the most flexibility in your other fingers. This is great for classical, flamenco, and finger-style players, but it can be a little tiresome for someone who mostly strums chords. For chords, you may want to use the ball of your thumb a little above the center, which allows you to use more of the muscles in your wrist (yes, your wrist muscles is what powers your grip strength, not the muscles in your fingers. Those muscles are just for curling fingers….), and gives you a bit more leverage, especially useful for bar chords. Many modern players use the first joint of the thumb against the back of the neck, and almost on the upper binding, sort of like gripping a baseball bat, so they can reach over the neck with their thumb tip to play bass notes on the E and A strings while picking melodies out with the other fingers. Tommy Emmanuel, and Andy McKee are particularly adept at this. You’ll need to experiment some to find what works best for you.

Your wrist should just curl naturally as you play. Too much, or too little will cause forearm soreness. It should feel good and natural, not strained. You upper arm should just hang naturally, not cocked out laterally, nor forced inward towards your ribs

On strumming, I highly recommend using a pick. Even pro finger-style players use a thumb pick, and their fingernails to play with. Using your fingers is bad for two reasons:

  • It puts more salt and acid from your fingers on the strings….not a good thing.
  • You will get blisters that will keep you from playing, if you play as much as you should. The ball of your thumb is not as tough as your fingertips. In a contest between flesh, and the metal of guitar strings, your flesh will lose. Picks also give you cleaner sounding notes and chords.

There are a few people who play with their fingers exclusively, but they mostly play on nylon-z' stringed guitars. Even they use their fingernails much of the time.

Basic Strumming

I can only add one thing to playing the song. The song is in 4/4 time, which means the count is 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, etc… If you want to sound better, and develop proper strumming technique from the first, do this:

  • On 1, just hit the open A string, and let it ring.
  • On 2, strum down from the A string.
  • On 3, just hit the E string and let it ring.
  • On 4, strum down from the A string.
  • Repeat for every measure.

This gives you a wonderful bass line, and will dramatically improve your sound, as well as helping you to develop a good rhythmic strumming style right from the first. Singing the song is a matter of timing. Listen to the song a few times and you’ll get it. It’s easier than trying to explain time signatures, and timing. You’ll know when you get it right. Just keep listening.

Useful links

Now that you know how to play the A chord on your guitar, it's time to learn how to play open chords.

learning A chord on guitar
first guitar song

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