Most chord progressions follow or harmonize with bass lines which are often straightforward and easy to decipher. Even in songs that might sound complicated, with tricky rhythms or lengthy melody lines, bass lines will typically be easy and made up of only a handful of notes, thus forming the underlying chord progression. Boiling a song down to just chords leaves us with short and simple progressions like G, C and D or E, A and B. This means that as beginners, if you learn some of these chords, you'll be able to play a lot of easy songs. In this article we'll cover the guitar chords that are most useful to beginners while discussing some basic and necessary music theory along the way.
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First, you can certainly take the charts and tabs, read from them and ignore the music theory. Just keep in mind that understanding guitar chords in a structural sense should involve basic theory and some familiarity with the following terms:
- Whole tone
- Root note
Even if you're a beginner, it's okay to start learning this stuff. It's helpful, even.
If you struggle with these concepts, it's also okay to learn the chords by pattern memory and then come back to the theory later. I've included some theory in this piece because without it you're not getting a full explanation.
On the other hand, if you want help with the theory, here are a few resources I can refer you to where I've covered these topics in full:
- The Ultimate Guide to Intervals
- Designing High-Register Chord Progressions
- Music Theory for Guitar Players (Chalkboard Book)
- The Ultimate Guide to Online Guitar Lessons
How will this help me learn songs?
The path to get from knowing zero chords to playing full songs is actually quite short. Even beginners with no guitar experience can build a chord vocabulary that gives them rhythmic command over a lot of different music.
When so many songs are four chords or less, learning the right guitar chords means we can play songs quickly. However, we need to know what those chords are and what type of chords we should be focusing on.
In this lesson I'll cover three categories of chords and specific chords within those categories, while incorporating some basic music theory.
Here are the three chord categories:
- Open chords
If these terms don't mean anything to you, rest assured we'll define each of them clearly and give you specific chord diagrams and tab sheets to work off of. You don't need to know or "get" the theory to burn through the chords.
View Basic Guitar Chords or the Full Lesson
- FULL Lesson
- Chords Only (Beginner Open Chords)
Understanding Open Chords
In the context of guitar (both acoustic and electric) open chords are some of the first and most basic chord voicings (voicing means a variance or type of a chord) you'll learn. They can be most easily understood as chords that contain at least one open note. As a result, they are typically located near the bottom of the fretboard, between the first and third frets. For example, here's a diagram of an open C major guitar chord.
This is true of all common open chords and in some cases will be called the CAGED system, which refers in part to the common open chords of those same letters. In this section, we'll cover the following open chords:
- Open A Major
- Open A Minor
- B Minor
- Open C Major
- Open D Major
- Open D Minor
- F Major
- Open G Major
- Open E Major
- Open E Minor
These are all the open chords that are most crucial, easy to learn and helpful to the beginner. For each section I'll provide a vertical chord diagram, a tab sheet and audio with an arpeggiated pattern and unison chord. An arpeggio simply means you take each note of a chord and play it one at a time. Thus, for the C major diagram above, an arpeggiated tab would look like this:
I'll also provide some explanation and background on each chord or at least each chord type. Simple enough? Let's get to it.
1. Open A Major
The Amaj or simply "A" chord uses the open fifth string as the root A note and adds three additional notes (intervals), the third of which can be omitted in favor of an open second string, if you so choose. This slightly changes the musical makeup of the chord. However, you can use both versions interchangeably as two Amaj chord shapes.
2. Open A Minor
We can get from Amaj to the Amin chord rather easily by dropping that highest note down one fret or "semitone." This drop gives us the following chord shape:
3. B Minor
In some cases, the Bmin chord is not played with any open notes.
However, I often play it while allowing the high E string to ring as an open note and since it's such a basic beginner's chord, I included it in the "open chord" list. There's also a second version that allows the third string (G) to ring as an open note as well.
I've included both diagrams here.
4. Open C Major
We've already seen and discussed this chord in the opening paragraphs, though I'm including it here for those who may have skipped the opening section.
5. Open D Major
Once again, our root note is open as the D major chord uses the fourth string which rings open as a D. The last interval (highest note) in this chord is written as an optional ghost note. Personally, I'd rather play the D major chord without that interval in favor of simply muting the high E string. It's your call.
6. Open D Minor
Just like we did with the A minor chord, the D major can be made minor by dropping that last interval down one fret. In this case, that interval is on the high E string, which you can see we've dropped one semitone to the first fret giving us the minor D chord shape.
7. F Major
As with B minor, this version of the F major chord isn't technically "open" as there are no open notes. Yet again, I believe it's fundamental enough that it should be included in this early list for beginners. Moreover, it's anchored on the first, second and third fret, following the same cadence of the C major chord. We'll revisit this shape again when we look at triads and upper-register chord patterns.
8. Open G Major
I'll list two versions of the open G major chord. One is the "formal" version that you've probably seen in chord books. The other is a variance I prefer to use and have often taught in place of the formal open G chord. They both serve the same purpose and are similar enough to be used interchangeably. However, I prefer the second voicing over the first.
9. Open E Major
This is the most "open" of our open major chords, with half the strings ringing free. The open E major utilizes the low and high E strings as well as the open B string to complete the most common E chord known to man.
10. Open E Minor
To get our E minor, we simply drop that last fretted note to an open third string (open G) and we now have four open notes in the chord, giving us the E minor shape.
Common Dyadic Chord Shapes or Dyads
Dyads or "dyadic chords" are chords made up of only two notes or tones. In some circles the formal definition of a chord dictates that at least three notes must be present, sounding in unison, in order to be considered a chord. In the first volume of Music: In Theory and Practice, authors Bruce Benward and Marilyn Saker provide the following definitions:
"A chord is a harmonic unit with at least three different tones sounding simultaneously." "A combination of three or more pitches sounding at the same time."
This definitions are established primarily in respect to triads, which we'll get to in the next section. I prefer to make room for two-note chords as well, partly because of how often you'll use them in real playing scenarios and how easy they are to handle on the fretboard.
The music theory involved is quite simple and includes the following terms:
- Root note
- Single interval
An interval is simply a note that is a certain distance from the root, which is measured in semitones. For example, if you have a root note at the third fret and an interval at the fifth fret on the same string, we'd call that a "major second," based on the distance between the two notes, via the following chart:
View the Interval Chart
The Guitar Interval Distance and Naming Chart
Two semitones (two frets) equal a major second interval. One of the most typical dyads utilizes an interval that is seven semitones above the root making it a "perfect fifth." On a chord chart, here's what it looks like:
Here's another example that utilizes the major third interval instead of the perfect fifth, though keeping with the root G.
These create a lot of useful chord shapes that you'll use regularly, regardless of your skill level. In this section we'll look at the most common dyadic chords. Keep in mind that all these chords are "moveable" meaning they have no open notes, therefore are not committed to a particular fret position. Be aware that you can move them however you'd like to various fretboard locations.
11. Power Chord Dyad (root on sixth string)
This is the example we've used in the opening paragraphs of this section. The reason I'm calling it a "power chord" is because its root is placed on the sixth string which gives us that low booming power chord sound. This is a good shape to use with distortion and is frequently found in popular rock chord progressions. Keep in mind, while we have the root anchored at the third fret, effectively making this a G chord, it can be moved to any fret on the sixth string.
12. Power Chord Dyad (root on the fifth string)
The same rule applies to dyads with their root note on the fifth string. We can once again use a perfect fifth interval giving us a second dyadic power chord that is still fairly "low" in terms of pitch.
13. Dyadic Major Power Chord (root on the sixth string)
Again, I made reference to this chord in my opening paragraphs about dyads (the major third example). The easiest way to play this one is to tuck your pointer finger down (to play the interval on the second fret) while your middle finger players the root note on the sixth string at the third fret.
14. Dyadic Major Power Chord (root on the fifth string)
The theory and structure all carry over to the fifth string, where we can use the same pattern at a different root position, this time at the root C, if you know the notes on the fretboard. Again, keep in mind this position is movable to different frets.
15. Dyadic Minor Power Chord (with root on the sixth string)
Remember how in our open chords we'd often move the major interval of the chord down one semitone in order to make that chord minor? The same rule applies when we have a major interval in a dyadic note pairing. We can drop that interval down one fret to get a dyadic minor power chord. I won't make a graphic for both the fifth and sixth strings, but just be aware that it applies when the root is on either of the two.
16. High Register Perfect Fifth Dyad
A lot of dyadic chord shapes simply repeat themselves at different locations on the fretboard. You can use that same dyad (the first one we looked at) with its root on the third or fourth strings, allowing you to achieve significantly higher-pitched sounds and chord progressions. Once again they're movable shapes with no "default" fretboard location, but it's a good pattern to memorize for when you want those higher chord tones. Note that the fret spacing is different depending on whether your root is on the fourth or third string. For a root on the third string, your interval moves up one fret.
17. Low Register Octave Dyad
An octave occurs when you have an interval that is double or half of its own frequency. In simpler terms, you have a high and low note of the same letter value, perhaps a low E and high E. On the guitar octaves occur every 12 frets (12 semitones) and can easily be identified in that manner. We get what I would consider "low register" octave dyads with roots at the sixth and fifth strings in the following shapes:
18. High Register Octave Dyad
We can build dyads in the same way on the higher strings and higher frets. These higher notes give us brighter chords and can lead to more melodic patterns as we learn the notes of the fretboard and get more comfortable with moving the shapes. As with the low register, we've got two common dyadic octaves with roots on two different strings.
Common Triadic Chord Shapes or Triads
Now that we've covered some basic dyads, we can further expand our chord vocabulary by making room for shapes with one more note. Technically speaking, a triad is a grouping of three notes that occur in successive third intervals. This means that a triad is made up of a root, a third and a fifth. In his book, Introduction to Music, Ronald Pen describes a triad like this:
"A triad is a chord consisting of three notes built on successive intervals of a third. A triad can be constructed upon any note by adding alternating notes drawn from the scale. In each case the note that forms the foundation pitch is called the root. The middle tone of the chord is designated the third, because it is separated by the interval of a third from the root. The top tone is referred to as the fifth, because it is a fifth away from the root."
Howard Hanson and Carlton Gamer, notable 20th century music theorists, have expanded the definition of a triad to include any combination of three notes, regardless of the intervals between them.
- Harmonic Materials of Modern Music: Resources of the Tempered Scale (Hanson)
- Some Combinational Resources of Equal-Tempered Systems (Gamer)
From a theory perspective, it's good to know the "proper" or formal definition of a triad. However, in practice, I would say it's safe to assume that a triadic chord is any reasonably consonant or harmonious grouping of three notes, which is more in keeping with Hanson and Gamer's assessments. In other words, if you have three notes played in unison and they don't sound completely awful, you have a triad.
Let's cover some of the most common triads that make up useful guitar chords for beginners. Since we've already covered dyadic shapes, some of these will look vaguely familiar.
19. Triadic Power Chord Shape
One of the most common triadic chords you'll see is made up of a root, perfect fifth and an octave of that root. It's basically the dyad we saw earlier plus the additional (and certainly optional) octave. This just gives us a thicker power chord that fills out a little better. Once again, your root note can be placed at either the sixth or fifth strings. Notice that since we're back to three notes per chord, I've added back in a tab sheet and audio example.
20. Major Power Chord Shapes
Just as before, we take our major third and add a corresponding octave. There are several different ways to do this and still stay on the low fifth and sixth strings for that "power" designation. Keep in mind, all the chords listed below can have their root on the sixth or fifth string and are movable to any fret position.
These are two of the more common power chord triads with a major voicing:
21. High Register Major Triadic Chord Shapes
As we did with dyads, we can move our patterns up to the higher strings and frets for brighter chord tones and developing melody. We'll start with the major-sounding chords and then finish up with the minor chords.
22. High Register Minor Triadic Chord Shapes
All of the major triadic shapes I've shown you can be made into minor chords by dropping the major interval note one semitone. If you don't want to think of it that way and you'd prefer to avoid the theory aspect, here are two common minor triadic shapes that fit well in the high register of the fretboard.
Is there a difference in approach to these chords between acoustic and electric guitar?
I've noticed that in a lot of cases people will ask about "acoustic guitar chords" or "electric guitar chords." While I understand the curiosity, I need to point out that there is absolutely no difference between the two. They're just different variations of the same instrument. When you're within the realm of guitar, there are just a few things that can change or alter the composition of a chord:
- Number of strings (6, 7, 8 string guitars)
- Alternate tunings (drop tunings, open G, open D, etc.)
- Additional intervals, flats or sharps
All of these can change chords or ultimately require that chording patterns be different. However, they're not linked to whether or not a guitar is acoustic or electric. You can have a six string acoustic or a six string electric with different tunings. Just keep in mind that the chord diagrams I've provided are for six string guitars in a standard tuning.
Some conventions hold that acoustic guitars are more "friendly" to open chords while electric guitars are better-equipped to handle the upper-register shapes we've looked at. But again, that's not a rule.
It's simply the trend that each instrument follows.
Finger Placement, Stretching and Building Strength
If you find yourself struggling with the finger placement and the physical aspects of these chords, the follow two links lead to a couple resources that you might want to check out as pre-requisites to our chord material.
It doesn't take long to get your fingers "chord-ready" so even just a few hours on some guitar exercises should be helpful and adequate to prepare for tackling these shapes. For raw beginners even the chords themselves can serve as strength-building exercises for your hands and fingers. I'd advise resisting the temptation to spend a lot of time away from them, even if the physical aspect is challenging.
Open C Major
Open A Major
Open A Minor
Open B Minor
Open D Major
Open D Minor
F Major Chord
Open G Major Chord
Open G Major Chord (second voicing)
Open E Major
Open E Minor
If you have questions about these chords or would like to point out something I missed, feel free to leave it in the comments section below. Alternatively, you can also get in touch over at the Guitar Chalk Twitter page. Lengthy or specific content-related questions are better handled in the comments area on this page, since they can be more thoroughly discussed and future readers can benefit.
- Owens, Jeff. "Standard Tuning: How EADGBE Came to Be." Fender Guitars. N.p., 27 Oct. 2016. Web. 29 June 2017. (link)
- Corozine, Vince. Mel Bay Presents Arranging Music for the Real World: Classical and Commercial Aspects. Pacific, MO: Mel Bay, 2002. Print.
- "Open Chord." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 12 Apr. 2017. Web. 29 June 2017. (link)
- "Pitch Basics: Tones and Semitones." Theory of Music - Pitch Basics: Tones and Semitones. Harvard University, n.d. Web. 29 June 2017. (link)
- Shields, William. "UFL Projects." Major Chords. University of Florida, n.d. Web. 30 June 2017.
- Harnsberger, Lindsey C. Essential Dictionary of Music: Definitions, Composers, Theory, Instrument & Vocal Ranges. Los Angeles: Alfred Pub., 1997. Print. (link)
- "Classroom Acoustics." Classroom Acoustics | ASA. Acoustical Society of America, n.d. Web. 30 June 2017.
- "Full Text of "Harmonic Materials of Modern Music; Resources of the Tempered Scale"." Archive.org. Internet Archive, n.d. Web. 30 June 2017. (link)
- Gamer, Carlton. "Some Combinational Resources of Equal-Tempered Systems." Journal of Music Theory 11.1 (1967): JSTOR. Web. (link)