Learning how to play chords on the guitar will become an essential part of your musical
development. Chords are collections of two or more notes conceived as a single sound unit that
compliment melodic ideas. Together, chords and melodies create music.
Chords have a fairly simple naming system that describes a root-note, basic quality, any
modifiers, and optional bass-note. Take for example the chord G7/B. It tells us to play a G
dominant seventh chord with B as the lowest note.
If you are just beginning to learn how to play chords on the guitar, you will probably study the
open chords first. These are chords played in and around the first three frets of the guitar, and
have at least one open string. Take the time to learn these chords well.
We usually learn how to play chords on the guitar as 'shapes', a particular arrangement of the
fretting fingers pictured on a chord diagram. The E major chord for example, has a particular shape
to it that uses the first three fingers:
This diagram, essentially a picture of the neck of the guitar, tells us which fingers to place
on which strings and frets. The o's tell us that the string rings open.
You can learn how to play chords on the guitar in many different ways. When learning a new
shape, however, you really want to work the fretting hand. Make the form, and practice strumming
across all the necessary strings in a slow and steady manner. Think in groups of four: four strums
per bar of four-four time in phrases of four measures long. Consider this simple chord chart:
E / / / | / / / / | / / /
/ | / / / / ||
It tells us to play the above E major chord over four bars. The chord-name and the subsequent
slashes represent each of the four beats in each of the four bars of music.
It is one thing to be able to play a single chord, but you will want to work on changing from
one chord to another. Let's add in an A minor chord.
From this diagram you can see that the A minor chord has the same basic fingering as the E major
chord, just on a different set of strings. The 'x' tells you not to strum the sixth string. We can
now adjust our chord chart to practice changing between these two chords.
E / / / | / / / / | Am / / / | / / / /
Playing chords with a straight four pattern as described above is an effective way to learn how
to play chords on the guitar. You can also use this strumming pattern as the basis for creating new
and more interesting patterns. Try playing down strums on the beat, and up strums that correspond
to the off-beat. To get started, you want to be able to strum both on all beats, then reduce the
down or up strums to create rhythmic patterns that retain the basic four feel of each measure.
The following table should get you going on playing some basic patterns and help you to learn
how to play chords on the guitar. The first two patterns are for practice, building your sense of
four-four time. The next two patterns are simple but useful patterns that you can use in real
playing situations, and perhaps even start you off on building your own.
The counting one, two, three, four, correspond to the four beats of a bar of music. The ands
correspond to the off-beats. The Ds and Us are for down and up strums respectively. For the jazz
pattern, let the chord ring through the remaining beats after the up-strum on the and of two.
Practice these patterns slow and steady. Use a metronome or even a drum machine that clicks on
the beat to keep you on track, and more importantly, have fun as you begin to learn how to play
chords on the guitar!