The process of learning guitar chords for beginners can be tricky. They’re so eager to play their first song but learning the necessary chords can be a stumbling block. We’re here to help you:
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Guitars have six strings. But, contrary to what most beginner guitarists assume, you do not need to use all six strings to play every single chord.
Six-string chords (for example, the G major chord and the E minor chord) require the coordination of multiple fingers and are usually too complex for most beginners to master within the first few months.
A much better approach is to simplify things with a different set of guitar chords for beginners.
This means our beginner guitar students can quickly start playing their favourite songs using easier chords without the frustration of attempting so-called ‘basic guitar chords’, open chords, and barre chords.
Most of the songs we hear on the radio and on records use open chords and barre chords, so it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that these sort of chords will be easy to play. But then when we attempt to play along, we can’t. They’re too hard.
What we need to remind ourselves is that the recording artist will have had had years (maybe even decades) of guitar-playing experience. You cannot expect a beginner guitarist to be able to play at the same level as a professional musician.
Similarly, you wouldn’t expect someone who’s had six months of basketball training to be playing as well as Lebron James.
This analogy seems silly, but you get my point.
You need to help your beginner guitar students change their expectations of trying to sound exactly like the original recording. Instead, help them learn a different (and easier) set of guitar chords that they will enjoy playing without getting frustrated.
These days, more and more people are turning to YouTube for help with learning the guitar.
One on hand, this is great. It means more and more people are being introduced to the hobby and finding the love and appreciation for guitar playing.
On the other hand, learning purely from YouTube can be a problem:
Now some teachers are better than others and will recognise that many beginners will struggle to play a barre chord. So what do they do? They simplify a song like Hotel California and give them different guitar chords to the ones on the recording.
Usually, they go from barre chords to playing open chords, but even this is too challenging for most people starting out.
Again, it’s going to take months for our beginner students to develop the ability to switch between open chords and barre chords smoothly.
And most people have the attention span and discipline to practice chords for a week before they give up and decide guitar isn’t for them.
So if we want our beginner guitar students to be successful, we need to ditch conventional basic guitar chords altogether in favour of some easy guitar chords.
We’ve already talked about how traditional basic chords are too difficult for most beginners.
What we need to do is give them a new set of guitar chord charts with some new easy guitar chords.
To create these new guitar chords what we are going to do is reduce the amount of strings that we use, and subsequently, the numbers of fingers that the student needs to use.
With less to memorise and co-ordinate, they should have a much easier time developing the muscle memory needed to switch chords when going through a chord progression.
This in turn will allow them to play along to many songs in a much shorter period of time, resulting in happier guitar students who don’t hate chords.
A chord is made up of the root note, third and fifth.
Power Chords are a set of easy chords that are unique to guitar and have been used in many a great song.
Everything from ‘Master of Puppets’ by Metallica to ‘Bad Moon Rising’ by Creedence Clearwater Revival uses and can be played with power chords.
In fact, most of hard rock, grunge and pop music post-1980 uses power chords.
Now a Power Chord is neither a major chord nor a minor chord. As it only contains a root and a fifth it’s actually a dyad.
But when it’s played on a distorted guitar they sound truly big and powerful. Just listen to many songs by AC/DC, Bon Jovi and any other hard rock or heavy metal band and you will hear this type of chord in action.
Check out the chord diagram below to see how to play a power chord.
A power chord is a special chord because it is a single shape that can be moved up and down the neck of the guitar to play any chord.
Because it’s neither a major chord nor a minor chord it can be substituted in place of those chords.
To play a power chord (we’ll play the A Power Chord) put your first finger on string 6, fret 5. Then place your third finger on string 5 fret 7.
Strum both of these strings and voila! You have a power chord.
If you know where the notes are along the high E string then you know the location of the notes on the low E string.
If you want to play a D chord but you can’t make the shape, just go to fret 10 where the D note is and play the power chord shape. This will give you a D power chord.
If you really struggle to play the F major chord, never fear. You can put your index finger on first fret of string six and your ring finger on fret 3 of string 5 and use this shape to play an F Power Chord.
If you need to play and F Sharp Chord then just move the shape up to start on the second fret and you now have the F# chord.
You can play along to countless songs using power chords. They sound especially good on electric guitar when you crank up the distortion and get that authentic rock sound.
In addition to trying to coordinate multiple fingers when playing open chord shapes, the fact that you need to memorise multiple chord diagrams makes the process even harder.
If we borrow the concept of movable chord shapes from power chords then we can use a single chord to replace learning multiple open chord shapes.
So instead of learning twelve different major chords (five of which can’t be played with traditional open guitar chords) we can learn one shape and use it to play every major chord.
See the chord diagram below for a special movable major chord shape that we can use to play all of our major chord shapes.
To play this shape, simply bar your index finger across the same fret across strings 2-3.
You can move this shape up and down the fretboard horizontally and it will allow you to play any major chord.
All you need to do is take a single shape and move it around. If a song has four chords, you just play each of those chords using the same shape in different positions.
Many of us learn E minor as our first chord because of how simple it is.
The E minor chord I am about to show you will be even easier!
To play this E minor you can strum the high E string, the B string and the G string together with no fingers.
These three notes make up the E minor. If we take this same shape and play it one fret higher then we get the F minor chord.
You can move this chord shape to any note along the E string and it will give you the minor chord that matches the note your first finger is on.
Check out the chord diagrams below to see how to play these new minor chords
So to summarise, you’ve learned three new chords today.
Learning chords like this is a great way to get playing with your first guitar right away!
You’ll find it much easier to nail your chord changes too as there are far fewer fingers to have to coordinate.
Now, some of you might be thinking, “But isn’t that cheating? That’s not the proper way to play a guitar chord!”
Well actually, many songs feature these simple three-string shapes.
In fact, if you listen to Bob Marley and other reggae artists you’ll hear that they use different inversions of the guitar chord shape I showed you almost exclusively when they play guitar.
So before you worry about the traditional way of playing a C major chord, D major chord, or G major, try learning some of the simplified chords I presented to you today.
When it comes to learning guitar we have the benefit of three different systems which we can use to read guitar music.
The first is reading guitar tabs, the second is reading a chord chart, and the third is standard music notation.
Just in case you’ve gone through this entire article not knowing how to read a chord diagrams, let’s quickly learn so you’ll never have trouble learning a guitar chord ever again.
When reading chord diagrams, the horizontal lines represent the frets, and the vertical lines represent the strings. The right side is string one and the left side is string six, you can see the lines get progressively thicker.
The dots represent where to put your fingers. The numbers in the dots tell you which finger to use. We strum all strings with a dot or a circle on them. Avoid strings that have an X.
Lets take a look at a diagram for a G major.
The chord diagram shows that we use the following fingers
Now that you know how to read chord diagrams, use your newfound knowledge to learn a C major depicted above.
Learning how to play guitar is challenging enough without guitarists being set up for failure with chord shapes that are too difficult for them.
Hopefully, this article opened your eyes to the idea of using much simpler shapes in place of traditional chords.
Try these out with your students and watch their confidence grow as they quickly master changes and start playing along to their favourite songs with ease!
Michael is an expert guitar tutor and music educator from Melbourne, Australia. He is the owner and head teacher Melbourne Guitar Academy (the #1 provider of guitar lessons in Essendon) and creator of the Guitar Ninjas Curriculum which is licensed by guitar tutors and music studios all around the world.
Michael is also the Head of Guitar at Topmusic and has the personal mission of raising the standard of guitar education globally so that guitar students the world over have a better quality musical education.