After graduating from uni with a Bachelors degree I soon became jaded with corporate culture, banked some dollars and hit the road to write.
Chord Vocabulary: Building the Foundations With Open Chords
Watching players like David Gilmour, Mat Bellamy, and Jimmy Page create sonic bliss on the guitar (their fingers tearing up the fretboard as if possessed by a higher force) is an inspiring sight for guitar players.
However, it’s important to recognize that even major players had to start with the beginner’s chords or open chords. What led them to become famously brilliant guitar players (besides raw talent) was an intensely disciplined approach to practice, combined with creative fire and a passion to make music. In this article, the most commonly used open chords will be presented with diagrams along with some useful practice tips.
Getting to know the most common chords played in the open position (not barring) is the first thing a beginner guitar player needs to do. These chords, which are the basis for many popular songs, include the major, minor, and dominant seventh chords.
Major Open Chords
Let’s start with the triads (or simple three-note chords). A logical beginning point is to learn C, D, E, G, A, F, B—these chords have no sharps (#) or flats (♭) and are built from the seven natural notes: A-B-C-D-E-F-G.
The letter identifies the root—the first note in the scale of the chord. The fingerings for these chords are attached to the article in diagram form. The formula for the major chords is 1, 3, 5—this is simply the first, third, and fifth degrees of a key. For example, the C major chord is ‘spelled’ C, E, G.
Minor Open Chords
Next, the open position minor chords should be learned as follows: Cm, Dm, Em, Gm Am, Fm, Bm. Note how the major chord is altered to produce the minor chord. The formula for minor chords is 1, ♭3, 5. When you compare the minor with its parent major you can see how the third is flatted, or lowered by a fret for semi-tone. Note that the Bm requires a barre using the first finger.
Also notice the different sound produced—the major has a strong, exuberant tone while the minor is sadder and less certain. This is the essence of mood in music and is why music is such an incredibly popular phenomenon—we identify with the moods it reflects as we go through the ups and downs of life.
Dominant Seventh Chords
Dominant seventh chords (mostly referred to as just sevenths), have a character all of their own and are widely used in popular music. It’s hard to find a Beatles song that doesn’t include a seventh chord—Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band is composed entirely using sevenths and is a great song to learn to become familiar with the family of chords. It can be played using open chords but using the barre form of sevenths sounds best.
A discussion of barre chords is found in my article, Learning Guitar: Barre Chords. The above diagram shows the fingerings for C7, D7, E7, G7, A7, F7, B7 in the open position.
How to Fret Chords Cleanly
You can expect forming chords to feel a little awkward in the beginning so relax and keep at it until you can form the chords from memory and sound them cleanly. Ideally, you want to form the shape that is required for the chord that you want to play as you move towards that position rather than placing your fingers one by one on the correct frets/strings. This will be a work in progress of course—but do try to make a point of visualizing the chord shape and training your hand to get ready on approach when moving to a new chord.
It’s natural that the fingertips will become tender, but calluses will soon develop. When fretting chords, place your fingers pointing down on top of the string just behind the fret and support your fingers with the thumb angled against the neck, in the middle. Don’t be too self-conscious about this—your instincts should naturally adjust your movements towards efficiency.
Note that the strings marked with an X should not be played or should be muted (stopped from ringing by touching the appropriate string so it doesn't vibrate, but without fretting it) and the other strings should be fretted with just enough pressure that the note rings clearly.
It’s really important not to get too wound up when learning guitar—relax and keep breathing naturally. Practice, patience and persistence are the keys.
“Learning to play guitar is a combination of mental and motor skill acquisition. And to develop motor skills repetition is essential. Whenever musicians have trouble executing a passage, they generally tend to blame themselves for not having enough talent. Actually, all that’s wrong is they don’t know where their fingers are supposed to go…When you play, play it so slow that there is no possibility of making a mistake.”
— Albert Lee
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Practicing Chord Combinations
Once you are able to play the open chords relatively comfortably and cleanly, it is time to have some fun coming up with chord combinations and playing some of your favorite songs. To develop a sense of rhythm, you will need to get your strumming down so you can move between chords smoothly.
Start with moving between two, then three chords, and work on getting the transition between them as fluid as possible so there is no hesitation—this will take time and persistence so keep at it until your fingers beg for mercy. Practice downstrokes, upstrokes and combinations of up/down, all the time tapping out a beat with your foot.
Do yourself a big favor and use a metronome or drum machine to keep a beat. You will find that the certainty of a beat makes the entire process of moving between chords easier and much more fun.
Before you know it, something will start to come alive as you move between chords with a rhythm—it’s called music and is one of the greatest phenomenons on the planet. Remember to start with a slow manageable tempo and gradually try faster tempos. Day by day your hands will develop strength and you will be able to remember the chord form instinctively.
As you experiment with chord combinations you will notice that certain chords sound better together than others. Attached to this article is a chart with common chord progressions found in many popular songs. Pay attention to the key center of the progression for each combination by listening to the change in sound as you finish with a progression in one key and move to another.
Strumming, to a degree, is instinctive and comes easier to some than others. To generate a groove or rhythm, it’s important to fall into a steady fluid strum, alternating between upstrokes and downstrokes. Place accents on various beats by varying the attack on the strings from gentle to aggressive. Dynamics build mood; and just as human feelings move between intensity and calm, so should your playing reflect this in the context of the song.
The Magic of Guitar
The guitar is a very rewarding instrument to learn and one that offers incredible potential for musical expression. Becoming a very good player will require a very real commitment to daily, organized practice. Practice, patience, and persistence will reap rewards that will make the effort worth every second.
For those who fall in love with the guitar, it is a lifelong, mystical journey full of surprises and epiphanies that never end. Good Luck and enjoy the ride!
To learn to play barre chords read Learning Guitar: Barre Chords for Acoustic and Electric Guitar. To learn easy scales, start playing licks and improvising solos read Learning Guitar: Pentatonic Scales and Lead Patterns. Don’t be shy, begin now! It is not as hard as you might think!
Matthew Kokidko on January 04, 2020:
One of the best articles that I have seen covering the basics of essential and first chords along with chord progressions. Thank you!
Rebecca Swafford from Texas on October 17, 2017:
Marliza Gunter on April 26, 2011:
Hi..thanks for sharing.. :)