The first step to learning the guitar is getting a hang of the basic guitar chords. Learning these will open you up to a large number of easy guitar songs; then you can build from there. Even if you don’t move past these basic eight guitar chord shapes, there’s still a lot you can do. But once you learn these basic guitar chords, you can build on them, add things like 7ths for a little bit of flavour, learn barre chords, and more.
Here we’ll not only go through the basic guitar chord shapes, but give a little bit of an explanation, and a few tips to make sure all the notes ring out well.
What Is A Chord?
A chord is basically a collection of notes. In its most basic sense, a chord consists of elements one (the root), 3, and 5 of a scale. A minor chord uses the minor third which is half a step (one fret) lower than the major third. Once you’ve built the basic 1, 3, 5 of the chord you can add other elements to the chord to give it some flavour, but that’s a later lesson.
You’ll notice that some of the chords below don’t play things in the 1, 3, 5 order. That’s OK. That’s just had they work on the guitar.
What Are the Basic Guitar Chord Shapes?
The basic guitar chord shapes are for the chords G, C, E, A, D, E minor (Em), A minor (Am), and D minor (Dm). Once you know these shapes you can build every other chord out of them, whether you’re adding to the chord (e.g. an E 7th) or playing a barre chord (e.g. to play an F chord).
Take your time learning these chords. They’re the foundation of everything else you’re about to learn on the guitar.
What Are Cowboy Chords?
You may have heard of “cowboy chords.” Cowboy chords are just the simple, basic guitar chords that are easy to play. Cowboy chords are the open guitar chord shapes that feature in a myriad of popular songs, especially in country and western songs (hence the name cowboy chords). Cowboy chords are called cowboy chords because they lend themselves well to country music and are relatively easy, making them good chords for people who want to strum the guitar around the campfire (like a cowboy on the open prairie).
Here’s The Basic Guitar Chords
Stop talking, just show me the chords
Below we’ll go through the basic guitar chords along with some tips on how to play them. If you don’t yet know how to read chord diagrams, they’re pretty simple.
The diagram shows on what fret to put your fingers and what finger to use. The higher (thinner) strings are on the left and the lower (thicker) strings are on the right.
The fingers you’re supposed to use are numbered from 1 to 4. Finger number 1 is your index finger and finger number 4 is your pinky. We’ll let you guess what fingers number 2 and 3 are. I’ve written a longer article on how to read guitar chord diagrams if that’s not enough of an explanation.
When you play these chords, make sure each note rings out clearly. It will take practice and persistence, but it’s well worth it. Once you’re able to make all the strings ring out clearly, try changing between chords. It will be slow at first, but practice. You’re not going to do this in five minutes. If you get bored, chuck on your favourite movie and spend some time practicing your chords.
How To Play A G Chord
The G chord on the guitar is a lot of fun because it’s big and full of sound. It’s also nice to chug away on.
G Chord Tips
First and foremost, make sure your fingers are in place directly behind the fret. Practice playing each string from low to high so that all the string ring out.
- It’s common for your second finger to dappen the 5th string (the one your first finger is on). Practice making sure your last knuckle is curved so it’s only your finger tips on the string.
- Seriously, persist with making sure the 5th string rings out, this will make your life easier later.
- The “standard” way of doing thing is to use your third finger on the 6th string (the highest one). You can also try your fourth finger if that works better. This may come in handy later on.
How To Play A C Chord
C Chord Tips
As with the G chord (and all chords for that matter), make sure your finders are directly behind the fret and not muting other strings. Make sure everything rings out.
- You may have trouble with your third finger dampening the 4th string. Curve the last knuckle of your fingers to get things flush.
- Practice strumming one string at a time, and don’t play the 6th (low E) string. This will take practice for strumming.
- It’s not exactly “proper” technique, but depending on the style you’re playing, you can dampen the 6th string with your third finder (while still pressing on the 5th string) or even throw your thumb over the top of the neck. It’s hardly the preferred technique of classical players, but fine for blues, rock, and folk.
How To Play An E Chord
E Chord Tips
As mentioned, the E chord is a relatively easy one to get a hang of. Regardless, make sure all the strings ring out clear.
- Make sure you get your fingers as close to the fret as possible. This means your second and third fingers need to stack on top of each other a bit.
- When practicing changing to the E, practice getting all three fingers down in one go, especially your first finger, which is playing the third of the chord, otherwise you risk the minor chord coming through.
How To Play An A Chord
A Chord Tips
It can be difficult to cram all your fingers in a row behind the second fret, but keep it up and make sure all the strings ring out. It’s worth the practice!
- My preferred fingering of the A chord is shown in the diagram on this page, but some people prefer to order their finger 3-2-1 rather than 2-1-3 as shown. I find the 2-1-3 way gets all the fingers closer to the fret.
- Practice changing from E to A, it’s a common chord change.
- Remember you’re not playing the 6th string (the low E). As with the C, it can be difficult to avoid this string when strumming. But practice makes perfect.
How To Play A D Chord
D Chord Tips
The D chord can be a little tricky at first but it’s actually a fairly natural shape once you get the hang of it. Just make sure all the strings ring out.
- It’s unlikely your third finger will damped the 1st string, but if that’s the case, just remember to approach the string from the top so it’s just your finger tips on the strings.
- If you want to get fancy, try laying your first finger across fret 2 of string 1, 2, and 3, then use your third finger on the third fret of the 2nd string. This frees up an extra finger, which will be beneficial later.
How To Play An E Minor Chord
E Minor Chord Tips
The Em is a pretty easy chord. Just two fingers! If you can nail the E, just lift up your first finger and you have yourself an Em. So, sorry, there’s no real tips here. Nail the E first and the Em will come with ease.
How To Play An A Minor Chord
A Minor Chord Tips
You’ll notice that the Am and the E (major) chord are basically the same, just on different strings. So if you can hit an E, you can hit an Am.
- Like the A, the Am doesn’t use the 6th string. Make sure you don’t play it when playing the Am.
How To Play A D Minor Chord
D Minor Chord Tips
Although the Dm can be a little tricky at first, it’s well worth the practice! As we mentioned, our biggest tip is to think about it like an Am chord, just shift your third finger up. Work on the Am chord first then move onto the Dm.
And There You Have It
But before we go, here’s a bit of a shameless plug for a mate’s t-shirt website. He’s designed this cool t-shirt with the open guitar chords printed on it. Now you won’t forget how to play them.