12.27.2012

Building a Bigger Chord Vocabulary



As a beginner you're constantly learning chords and building that part of your guitar knowledge.

Building an adequate chord vocabulary takes time, but once you've established it and have those chords memorized, the amount of time you need to spend learning knew one drops off considerably.

Typically Used Chords

Every guitarist has a list of chords that they know by heart and can get them through most of the music they play.

That list typically only runs between 20 and 30 chords, thus we can assume that once you've established that list for yourself, you won't have to spend a great deal of time memorizing knew chords.

While you're never "done" with any guitar topic, you can move from learning knew chords, to polishing and improving the chords you already know, which is where you want to be as an intermediate player.

Chord Categories

While the chords you'll want to target are different for everybody based on musical interests and genre preferences, there are several chord categories that every player should know. I've covered most of them in prior lessons, so I'll link to them below and then cover each topic individually.
Between these five categories, you can probably learn every chord you'll ever need to use on a regular basis.

Now as I've already stated, other musical genres demand different types of chords and knowledge. However for the average guitarist, these chords will do just fine. You could even boil it down further to just open, barre and power chords.

Utilizing Barre and Power Chords

Once you learn a barre chord, you immediately have anywhere from 14-18 new chords at your disposal, simply because of the fact that you can play them on any fret, aside from the very smallest ones.

Once you learn a barre or power chord there are several things you need to do as a follow up.

The process should look something like this.

  1. Learn the barre or power chord.

  2. Learn the minor version.

  3. Learn the major version.

  4. Learn the simplified two-note version (barre and power chords can often be played with only two notes the root note and the major fifth).

  5. Identify the areas of the fretboard where they represent specific notes (G, E, C, etc.)

For example, in the Ultimate G-Chord lesson we cover the major, minor and power variations, as well as the G notes on the fretboard.

Check out that lesson for help in any of those areas.

It's also good practice to utilize your barre and power chords by making sure you know them in all five contexts.

Learning a chord in one spot and one form is like learning only one word for a verb in Spanish. It's like learning the present "I am" form of to play, or "jugar." The word is juego, and you've certainly learned something, but there are a whole slew of other forms that you need to know if you want to really know the word.

Same thing with barre and power chords on the guitar.

Setting a Strong Foundation of Open Chords

Your open chords are some of the first you learn, and you'll spend the rest of your playing career improving and polishing them. However the list that you need to know is relatively small and you can cover them in a matter of months.

It's a much simpler two-step process to deal with these chords.

  1. Learn and memorize the chords one-by-one.

  2. Continue to polish and improve those chords in terms of transition speed and clarity.

This list of chords is of course more than a few; however, I can list the most important ones here and you can find them around the rest of the site as well.

  • E major and minor

  • A major and minor

  • C major

  • D major and minor

  • G major

  • F and F#

  • B and B minor

Once you've learned these, you'll use them the rest of your playing days, and there will be little need to go back to the chord book unless you're looking to add depth to your knowledge.

The way actual playing improvement occurs is by improving and polishing the basic skills you've already acquired. That's the point that a lot of beginners miss. You don't have to cram your mind full of a lot of stuff. Rather you need to learn a few things and continuously improve them. Your chord vocabulary works sort of the same way.

Obscure Chords

Delving deeper into your chord book, even after you've learned and established most of what you need to know, is still a viable method by which you can expand your chord vocabulary.

However it shouldn't be your primary method until you've understood the above concepts.

It's a good way to shake up your playing and get yourself out of a guitar rut, should you find yourself stuck in one. Take your time with the more obscure and difficult chords and incorporate them slowly into your routine playing.

If you find that certain chords aren't fitting or getting used, then feel free to discard them. They won't do you a lot of good and will only take time away from other things you could be working on.




About Robert Kittleberger

Robert is the founder and editor of Guitar Chalk and Guitar Bargain. You can get in
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