One of the first challenges faced by the advancing guitar player is learning a core group of basic guitar chords. Why is it so important to learn these basic chords? Chords form the backbone of most rock and pop songs, and provide the harmonic accompaniment to the melody and instrumental solos.
Rhythm guitar based on basic chords provides many of the most memorable rock riffs… think AC/DC’s “Back in Black” or The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. What’s really amazing is that by learning no more than 10 to 15 basic guitar chords, you will be equipped to play thousands of rock and pop songs!
First let’s establish the definition of a chord. A chord is three or more different musical notes played together. In the case of the guitar, this means that at least three strings are strummed or plucked simultaneously to sound three or more notes. Since the guitar has six strings, the maximum numbers of notes in a guitar chord is six. All chords can be placed in one of three groups based on the musical structure of the chord: Major, Minor, or Seventh. Each of these chord groups has its own “sound” or “feel”. Major chords sound stable and complete. Minor chords can evoke a more somber or pensive mood, and Seventh chords are jazzy and somewhat incomplete sounding.
There is no standard list of “basic guitar chords” that every one agrees to. However, there is general agreement that there is a list of somewhere between 8 and 18 basic guitar chords (open string) that every guitarist must know cold. These chords are used in all musical styles from rock and pop to country, jazz, and classical. No matter where you are on your guitar-playing path, you should take the time to learn and master the basic chords. Getting these right will ensure you have the basic tools and skills to learn many songs and increase your playing enjoyment.
So what are the basic guitar chords? Our basic stable includes the major and minor chords from four common musical keys, A,G,C, and D. They are played as “open chords”, that is at least one string in the chord is not fretted (pressed down with a finger). Open chords are easier to learn and play than more advanced chords such as Barre chords, or complex chords further up the guitar neck. Our list of basic major and minor chords is:
A Major (or A), A Minor (or Am), C, D, Dm, E, Em, F, G
These chords can be best learned as chord “families” (by key) that can be combined into great-sounding chord sequences that make up lots of popular songs. Using this chord family approach is much more interesting and useful than just memorizing a bunch of chords in random order!
These chords grouped by chord family (key) are as follows:
A Family (Key of A): A, D, E
D Family (Key of D): D, Em, G, A
G Family (Key of G): G, Am, C, D, Em
C Family (Key of C): C, Dm, Em, F, G
Tips for Learning the Basic Chords:
1. Pick a Chord Family and master it. This will give you quick success and let you play great sounding progressions right away.
2. Use a Guitar Chord Chart as a reference tool. A chord chart shows each chord as an easy to read “chord diagram” with exact finger positions. See this example of a chart of basic guitar chords.
3. Find the chords and lyrics for an easy song that is based on the chord family so you can apply your skills. Many great songs are based on only three chords!
4. Ensure each string sounds right. Take care to make sure that each string is sounding clearly, and that only the strings that should be played are played.
5. Practice, practice, practice! Every day, practice continually change from one chord to another until you can do it rapidly. Learn the chord families one at a time.
6. Master all the basic chords first. Only then move on to Barre chords and other more complex chords. First things first!
7. Expand with 7th chords. As a next step you can easily expand on your basic chord knowledge by adding 7th and minor 7th chords based on the nine basic major and minor chords.
8. Have fun using your new skills! Enjoy your musical ability by applying it to learning a small set of 5-10 songs you know really well and can confidently play at any time.