We're going to cover a simple question:
How many guitar chords should you learn in total?
When is enough, enough?
Understanding this in full might require reforming how you think about guitar chords and how you learn them. Because you shouldn't just be memorizing new chords, but should be able to build and construct your own chords from a single root note.
However, we'll also discuss some practical advice about how many and which chords you should memorize note for note.
Let's get started with the chords you should memorize first.
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How many guitar chords should you learn? The Simple Answer
There are several different categories of chords that you should learn first, with several specific chords in each one. They include the following:
- Basic, open chords: A, Am, C, D, Dm, E, Em, F, G (9 total)
- Sixth string form barre chords: Major and minor on first 12 frets (24 total)
- Fifth string form barre chords: Major and minor on first 12 frets (24 total)
- Simple power chords: Sixth and fifth string form on first 12 frets (24 total)
This gives us a grand total of 81 guitar chords. These are chords you should be learning, at a minimum. And that sounds like a lot, but it's really simple if we break things down, especially the barre and power chords.
This gives us a grand total of 81 guitar chords.
Understanding the Number of Barre Chords
This is one of the most common forms of a major barre chord with its root on the sixth string, positioned at the third fret:
A barre chord takes the same form at each fret position, but its note value changes depending on which fret you're playing it on. Here's another simple example of a barre chord, this one being positioned at the third fret on the fifth string:
This means that learning a single form of the chord gives you 12 new chords.
Combining the major and minor version give you 24 chord variations with the root note of your barre chord on the sixth string.
Understanding the Number of Power Chords
The same is true of power chords.
If you learn a power chord at the first fret position with a root note on the sixth string, that's one chord - an F, in this case. When you move the root note to, say, the third fret on the same string, that's now a G chord.
The pattern continues up the neck until the notes repeat, after the 12th fret.
Understanding Basic Open Chords
What about the open chords we mentioned?
While there are other open chords you can learn, the nine I've listed are the most common and the easiest to play in an open form. This just means that you use an open string (not fretted) as one of the notes that make up the chord.
Chords that have been left out, like B and Gm, are better handled as barre chords.
Understanding Chord Construction Instead of Only Memorizing
It's important to understand that it's not always necessary to simply memorize new chords, but you can actually learn how to build chords by understanding intervals. How intervals work in a guitar context is beyond the scope of this article, but I'll cover the basics and then list some resources for more extensive study.
First, every chord starts with a single root note. As notes are added to that root (each note added is an interval), the chord gets more complex.
For example, if you have four notes in a chord you might have the following:
- Perfect Fifth
- Major Third
These are the notes that make up the barre chord pattern we mentioned earlier. However, there are several combinations that only involve two or three notes that could also be viewed as potential chords, made up of three or even just two notes.
For example, the root and perfect fifth form the following power chord when the root note is on either the sixth or fifth strings:
Adding the third note - perhaps another octave - would give you a thicker power chord, shown in the following tab:
If you understand this construction process, your job becomes less about memorizing chords and more about building them when and if you need them.
Sometimes, you don't need a full four-note barre chord to fill in a progression. Two or three notes might be plenty, in which case you can modify chords and construct them to suit whatever situation you want to use them in.
For those that want to study this concept further here are some resources on chords that we've published that go far deeper into this concept:
It's smart to learn the basic open chords, along with the barre and power variations I highlighted earlier. But you should also take time to understand how chords are built and how the notes fit together on the fretboard. Once you do, it'll get you into applying chords in music as opposed to memorizing them off a chord sheet.
If you have questions about how many guitar chords you should learn, disagreements, or other thoughts, feel free to share them in the comments section below.
I'll respond there directly, and help out as much as I can.