Why is it important for beginners to learn how to play basic guitar chords?
JUNE 19, 2020 POSTED BY: SAMUEL JAMES
Learning guitar can be tough at first, so it is important to get the fundamentals right in order for you to progress quickly and efficiently. The best place to start is with guitar chords...
Here, we’ll try and help you on your way to becoming a great guitar player by exploring why chords are such an integral part of learning guitar. We’ll establish a bit of music theory along the way too, but we promise to keep it fun! There’s a handy glossary at the bottom of this blog with all of the technical terms we use to describe different features of music in this blog, as well as some guitar anatomy.
What is a chord?
Simply put, a “chord” is a group of notes that are played together at the same time, creating a harmonious sound. Depending on what notes are played together, you will either get a happy sound (a “major” chord) or a sadder sound (a “minor” chord). This isn’t to say that all chords simply fall into two neat categories, but this simple categorisation will help you build a foundational understanding of “harmony”, a musical tool that will become incredibly useful to you as you progress as a guitar player.
Why are chords important for guitar players?
Chords form the basis of harmony in music. They give the listener context to the other musical elements of the song. For example, if you could only hear the melody, it might sound sparse, but once chords are added, the melody really starts to make sense. You might even say that songs can take on a new meaning, depending on the performance of the chords in accompaniment of the melody.
With this in mind, most guitar-based bands typically have a “rhythm guitarist” and a “lead guitarist” (including the likes of IDLES, SikTh, Deaf Havana, Lower Than Atlantis and so on). The rhythm guitarist usually plays chords and other supporting parts, whilst the lead guitarist primarily performs melody lines and solos. This creates “texture”, where the different guitar parts blend and intertwine with the rest of the instruments, making the music sound whole. Without either of these parts, the music wouldn’t sound the way it should!
Chord-based learning also helps you build knowledge of major and minor “tonality”, rhythm and even how to write a good song (a subject we’ll look at in another blog post). However, just opting to play lead before chords', means you’ll end up struggling.
Quick side story: my sister and I started learning guitar at around the same time. We were both teenagers and both highly-strung (pardon the pun). Sibling rivalry at its peak. She was off learning the solos and lead parts to Linkin Park, Evanescence and Killswitch Engage, whilst I was jamming along to Oasis, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Feeder. We took very different approaches, but the results became apparent some months later: I was organising my first ever gig (a local rugby club, not exactly Glastonbury but we all start somewhere!), whilst her progress was slow and her interest was dwindling.
Why was this? I was building foundational knowledge that aided me to pick up more and more skills along the way, whereas my sister remained in the dark, with no context to what she was learning as it was too advanced.
If there’s one takeaway point here, it is this: LEARN CHORDS BEFORE LEAD.
How do I play guitar chords?
There are a few key differences between playing chords and single notes. Firstly, you will need to use multiple fingers on your fretting hand to “fret” (hold down) different notes at the same time. Secondly, you will need to “strum” the guitar, which means playing multiple strings in one continuous and repeatable movement. This will create a much fuller sound than just playing one note at a time, which, in turn, will massively expand the sonic capabilities of the guitar.
At first, it can be tricky to orientate your fingers into the different positions required for each chord. Your hands aren’t used to the movement yet, and as strong as you may be, you are yet to develop the unique strength in your finger muscles. With practice, you will develop one of the most important aspects of guitar playing, “muscle memory”. This development will mean that, the more times you practice and play the chord, your fingers will start to automatically remember where they need to be placed. Think of it like how your fingers remember how to enter the passcode for your phone without checking the numbers every time, you just repeat the pattern. It’s autonomous. You just… “know” how to do it.
Learning your first chords - “open” chords
If you are picking up a guitar for the first time, it's easy to feel overwhelmed… there are just so many chords! To be precise, there are seven “full” chords, lettered from A through to G. Each one has a number of variations and different ways to play it. We recommend starting with “open chords” that only use two or three fingers to play them, first. Open chords are simply chords where an open string is played, i.e. you don’t have to put all of your fingers down to play the necessary notes.
Some easy chords to start with are A, D, E and G. These chords require the least finger strength and are quite easy to play with some practice. They’re also chords that are very commonly used together in a lot of popular music, with just a little adjustment in the positioning of your fingers, you can also play the MINOR variation of these chords, too, but let’s start simple!
Pro Tips for playing your first chords
- Make sure you’re sitting comfortably, with your back straight and your upper body relaxed
- Have the guitar rested on your knee closest to your strumming hand
- Extend your fretting hand, putting your thumb on the back of the guitar neck
- Bring your fingers up to the fretboard, making sure you aren’t straining your wrist, elbow or shoulder. All of these joints should be at fairly acute angles (no excessive bending)
Pro Tips for fretting notes of chords
- Play each note with the tip of your finger (not with the flat part)
- Play as close to the fret as possible (but not on the fret itself)
- Apply only as much pressure is needed to create the sound of the note
- Too much pressure and you’ll tire easily and get cramp
- Too little pressure and you’ll get a “thunk” sound and no note
- Practice playing the notes only until it becomes uncomfortable. If you cause yourself an injury like repetitive strain, it’ll only slow down your progress
- You might start to form blisters on your fingers, a la Ring Starr. These will eventually form calluses, but it’s important not to play whilst you have blisters or they won’t harden up!
Bonus tip: When forming a chord, always start with the same finger, ideally your index finger. This way, you always know where to start. This method will help speed up the formation of your chords, as well transitions between different chords later on.
“Fretting” and “Muting”
It's important to note that when you hold down a note on the guitar, the verb used is “fretting” i.e. you are “fretting the note”. As mentioned above, you are not pulverising the string, squishing it into the fretboard, but merely applying enough pressure to depress the string until the note is achieved. With this in mind, the closer to the fret you hold the note (that’s the brassy coloured strip of metal in the fretboard), the easier it will be to achieve the note. Spend some time learning how to play each chord cleanly, so that every note pressed rings out.
It’s also important to note that every string you don’t need should be muted, which can be tricky to get the hang of. Here, you need to use the rest of your fretting hand to mute strings that don’t need to be heard, blocking them from making any sound. You’ll also need to pay attention to where you are strumming, so that you’re not aggressively playing the strings that don’t need to be heard, as well as making sure you’re hitting the ones that should be free to move. Tricky business, but you’ll get it!
Power chords, as their name suggests, sound “powerful” are an incredibly useful asset to your guitar playing. They are fairly simple once you get the hang of them, too. Unlike open chords, these chords have neither major or minor tonality in their basic form, making them very versatile. They have been used in all kinds of music over the decades, from bands like The Kinks all the way through to Nirvana.
How to play power chords:
- Use your index finger to fret a note on the top two strings of the guitar (E or A)
- Count two frets up from where your index finger is
- Move that note down by one string
- Use your ring finger (or pinky if you’re struggling to reach) to fret that note
- Hey presto! You have a basic power chord!
- Hold down the 5th fret on the E string (top string, with the lowest pitch)
- Count up two frets, to the 7th fret
- Move that note down one string, to the A string (second string, second lowest pitch)
- Fret that note with your ring finger or pinky finger
- Voila! An “A” power chord!
Bonus tip: if you can use your ring finger to play the second note of the chord, you can add your pinky to play the note immediately below your ring finger in the same fret. This creates an ever fuller sound, where you are picking out the “octave” of the first note.
The remainder of the chords we haven’t yet looked at follow a similar structure, including the chords B, Cm, F and Gm (the little “m” next to the chord name means “minor”).
The “F” Chord (otherwise known as “Barre” chords)
Once you’ve got these chords nailed, it’s time to look at one of the hardest chords to play: “F”. It isn’t like the other chords, because it requires you to hold down separate notes on every single string at the same time. There is a simplified version, but if you’ve come this far, you want the real deal!
This chord sits on the first fret of the guitar, where the frets are most spaced apart. This means there’s some extra distance for your fingers to reach. Generally speaking, the closer to the “nut” of the guitar, the harder it is to play, because of the added reach involved.
F is different because it falls into the category of “Barre chords”. These chords are significantly more difficult than open chords, as they require more finger strength, dexterity, and coordination to execute. If you’ve mastered open chords, you should be ready to take on the challenge!
Because we’re not all blessed with six fingers on each hand, guitarists developed a way to hold down all of the strings, without the need for extra digits. This technique is called “barring” (hence the name). This technique involves placing your index finger across the entirety of the fretboard to fret all of the notes in one position (i.e. with the F chord, the first fret). It’s good to practice this technique before building up your barre chords to get used to the feeling. Once you’ve got the “barre” bit sorted, you can start to add the additional notes that will build up the chord. The same method explained above applies here, too. Get used to creating the major and minor patterns so that you can start to use these chords in the context of a song, perhaps something by Barns Courtney or The Vaccines?
Once you’ve got barre chords down, hats off to you. You’ve mastered some of the hardest elements of guitar playing. Now you can venture forth into the infinite sea of guitar wizardry!
Intermediate and Advanced chords
Now you’ve got all of these chords under your belt, you can start to explore more complex chords. It’s at this point, we’d recommend really digging in and really understand how chords are constructed and how to construct chords with extensions. This requires a good amount of music theory and fretboard knowledge, but once you acquire this knowledge, you will be able to construct your own chords and create your own chord shapes. Get comfortable with some easier variations first, otherwise things can get pretty confusing!
- Start by learning open chords to build up your finger strength
- Move onto the minor variations of these chords
- Take the time to really memorise what you’ve learned in the context of a song (allowing you to practice chord changes and solidify the chord shape in your mind)
- Build up to playing more advanced chords, in particular, barre chords
- Repeat as above, making sure you’re getting comfortable with variations and chord changes
- Don’t give up! This may take some time, so stick with it
- Learn to play ANY song with what you’ve learnt!
BARRE CHORDS - any chord where the musician plays uses one or more fingers to press down multiple strings across a single fret of the fingerboard (like a bar pressing down the strings)
CHORD - a group of notes that are played together at the same time, creating a harmonious sound
HARMONY - different classifications of groups of notes
FRET / FRETTING - the method of applying pressure to a guitar string, bringing it into contact with the fret wire on the fretboard of the guitar, altering the pitch of the note
PICKING HAND - the hand that holds the plectrum and play the strings. Often your dominant hand, i.e. for a right handed person, the picking hand will be their right hand.
GUITAR NUT - the bone coloured piece of plastic (sometimes metal) that holds the strings in place at the top of the guitar neck
FRETTING HAND - the hand that frets the notes on the fretboard of the guitar. Often your weaker hand, i.e. for a right handed person, the picking hand will be their left hand.
TONALITY - the arrangement of chords around a given note or “key”
TEXTURE - how layers of sound within a piece of music interact with each other. Texture can simply be described as thick or thin, but also as monophonic (one layer), homophonic (more than one layer moving at the same time as other layers) or, most popularly, polyphonic (many layers interweaving on top of one another).
DYNAMICS - the volume of a sound or note, i.e. loud or soft
OCTAVE - the interval between one musical pitch and another with double its frequency. Notes separated by an octave (or multiple octaves) have the same letter name and are of the same pitch
OPEN CHORDS - chords where an open string is played, i.e. you don’t have to put all of your fingers down to play the necessary notes
MUSCLE MEMORY - the ability to reproduce a particular movement without conscious thought, acquired as a result of frequent repetition of said movement
STRUM / STRUMMING - playing across the strings in an up-then-down motion, the most common way of playing chords