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, Triads, Suspended Chords, Diminished Chords, etc...
Even if you gravitate towards playing lead, or bass guitar, you will still need to have an understanding of chords, and music keys. Chords are what makes all the other music parts come together. They are the glue that binds the different parts into music, rather than an unorganized cacophony.
To get you started on the right track, we’ll start with some easy chords for electric guitar that will allow you to learn a few songs that you may enjoy. Practice should not seem like work. It should be fun. If it’s not, you’re not going to practice as much as you should.
To show you how to read the chords diagrams above, let's use the A chord as an example. For the purposes of chord diagrams, here is how your left-hand fingers are numbered. As you will notice, the index finger is denoted with number 1 the middle with 2 the ring finger with 3 and the pinky with 4. These numbers are used on the diagrams to show you what fingers use for pressing the frets composing the chords.
The diagram on the left shows you the fretboard on the guitar, with the thickest string on the left, and the E high string on the right. The numbers over the frets tell you where to press the string. At the top of the chart, you see an X or a 0 in near the strings. The X tells you to mute the string (not play it at all), the 0 tells you to play it open, without pressing any frets. So, in order to play the A chord as shown in the diagram, you should:
- Do not play the E lowest string (as stated by the X above the E low string)
- Play the 5th string (A string) open, without pressing any fret (see the 0 above the A string?)
- Press the fret n.2 of the 4th string (D string) with the index finger
- Press the fret n.2 of the 3rd string (G string) with the middle finger
- Press the fret n.2 of the 2nd string (B string) with the ring finger
- Let resonate the 1st string (E high string) open, without pressing any fret
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 with a mini-barre, using the same finger for more frets. For example, I could 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 (see image on the left). 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.
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.
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 a complete overview about chord structure, check this guitar chords formula chart.
Here below some common problems that beginners face when learning guitar chords. Remember that with patience and practice you'll overcome any kind of problem, so take your time and practice. And have fun!
It's pretty common that your fingers hurting at first. We all went through it. It does not 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.
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.
In a short time, you will build callouses on your finger tips, and they won’t hurt any more. If the pain gets too much, then stop, and rest for a day or two...
maybe study fretboard theory, scales and listen to some good guitar music. Don’t overdo practicing at first, or you may be ‘burned-out’ and not want to play anymore. It’s not a race, and there is no time limit on learning guitar. It takes however long it takes.
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 electric guitar, 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 stringed guitars. Even they use their fingernails much of the time.
Chords in a song are arranged according to chord progressions, which are chord intervals that work pretty much the same as single notes in a scale. It’s very important for you to learn chord progressions for the various keys, because then, as long as you know what key the song is in, you can figure out the chords in it very easily. There may be times when you want to change the key of a song to one you can sing or play in better, and for this, knowledge of chord professions is critical.
Don’t worry about getting the strumming patterns down perfect. You will develop your own strumming style in time. Just try to stay in time. If you have to strum open strings in-between chords, while you switch from one to the other, that’s OK, too. In fact, sometimes, it’s even desirable. It’s what we call ‘style’. You’re main objective right now is learning the chord fingerings, and getting your changes smooth.
Let's play a simple song with only one chord, A major. You should already know the fingering for this chord, shown in the charts above on this page. The song is in 4/4 time, which means the count is 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, etc.. To 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.
You may wondering how these chord shapes has been constructed. 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.
A Chord is three or more notes played simultaneously at specific intervals (remember, an interval is a note in a scale) that work together to create the desired sound. One of the attributes that makes guitars (and pianos) so popular is that they are multi-timbral instruments, which means they can play more than one note simultaneously.
Woodwinds, brass, and similar instruments can only play one note at a time. To make a chord, they have to have a minimum of 3 players playing a single note in the chord at the same time. As you can imagine, this requires excellent timing and coordination between the players to make a clean chord. This is why orchestras have to have a Conductor to direct the music. With a guitar, you are the Conductor, and can make any kind of music you want, all by yourself.
There are all kinds of chords. The ones you will be dealing with most of the time are Major chords, and Minor chords. There are also 7th chords, Major 7th chords, Minor 7th Chords, Diminished Chords, Augmented Chords, and there is nothing stopping you from creating your own chords (but chances are, someone has probably done it before you).
Theoretically, there is an unlimited number of possible chords. In actual play, you can get along just fine for quite a while with only around 30 chords in your repertoire, and maybe even less depending on what type of music you want to play. There are bluegrass guitar players that have gone through entire careers never playing more than a dozen or so chords.
However, if you are willing to go deeper into music theory and learn how to construct chords combining intervals all along the fretboard, check our complete guide on guitar music theory
This ends our tutorial about playing chords on electric guitar. If you want to learn more chords shapes, you'll find useful our free chords ebook and the guitar chords for electric guitar online library.
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